Activities, Colorado, Hiking, Microadventures, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, Rocky Mountain National Park, United States

Colorado Hiked: Loch Vale and Mills Lake Winter Hike

I just had to get away. But where could I go? I’m always at Vedauwoo, and I kind of hate hiking on trails I normally mountain bike on. Hmmm… and then it popped onto my Facebook newsfeed somehow, and I realized Rocky Mountain National Park was also not having a winter just like the rest of the Front Range/Southeastern Wyoming. Research quickly done, and I set my sights on hiking to Loch Vale. Brand new trails, brand new adventure!

I’m one of those people who really struggle with morning wake ups during the workweek, and will hit the snooze button over and over until the final possible minute. But as my 6am alarm rang that Sunday morning, I quickly got out of bed without thinking twice. I dressed in my layers, filled a Nalgene, and placed a pick up order for Starbucks (my special treat to myself). By 6:30am I was on the road, hoping to beat the crowds that exist in Rocky Mountain National Park even in the winter months.

Luckily the winter months do mean the timed entry reservation system for RMNP is suspended, and I’d be able to just enter with no worries. The hike to Loch Vale starts at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which lies on the Bear Lake Corridor – an insanely busy, popular part of the park. A shuttle system runs into the summer months to help alleviate parking problems and traffic even.

It was smooth cruising down I-25 and to Estes Park up Hwy 34 and I made the entrance gate in no time. The ranger did ask what I was going to be doing and confirmed that I had traction devices, like microspikes, with me to use.

View of Longs Peak’s Diamond as I headed to the trailhead. This summer, I’m coming for you!

Pulling into Glacier Gorge Trailhead about 8:25am, it was crazy how full it already was, and I nabbed one of the last parking spots. Just about two hours door to trail! The wind was howling, so I tried to get ready as much as I could inside my car before stepping out into the hurricane to put on my microspikes and pack. At 8:35am I began my hike. It was a balmy 21 degrees.

Glacier Gorge Trailhead

I found the trail to be well packed. The lack of deep snow cover was concerning at times, honestly. The trail climbs steadily, almost 1000 feet of gain, up to Loch Vale, and I was feeling it and started unzipping everything I could to vent out some heat! Though the trail climbs, it never seems too awful, except for maybe the final switchbacks to The Loch. Descending back to the car is when I really realized how much climbing I had done.

A frozen Alberta Falls
North Longs Peak Trail junction. Trail junctions are very well marked, including with mileage
Driest part of the whole hike was this short stretch. I left my microspikes on as it was too short to hassle with removing them in the gusting winds
Right goes to Loch Vale, which was my first destination. The left goes to Mills Lake, which was my second destination.

The steepest part of the entire hike was the final switchbacks up to The Loch. I trudged along, yearning for a snack, but happy I figured out how to cinch down my hood so I didn’t have to hold it in place in the wind. Snackssssssssss…

I made it!

Popping out to The Loch, the first of three lakes that comprise the Loch Vale area, I was greeted with a horrid blast of wind that pushed me backwards. No joke, I’d easily put the wind gusts at 60-70mph! Ice crystals pelted my face and I squeezed my eyes shut, debating on if I should dig out my sunglasses. I pried my eyes back open to take in the views – oooo, so pretty! – and squeezed them shut again. I turned around, putting my back to the wind to recover. I turned back around, braced myself, and watched a couple of guys returning from ice climbing blowing across the lake. Yeesh. Hurricane at 10,190 feet!

My face got blasted with ice crystals so I turned around for this selfie. Look at the trekking pole straps! It was windy! Also, while hiking up a guy told me “I like your missile silos!” Took me a moment to realize he was talking about my trekking poles, LOL!
The Loch in all its windy glory! Taylor Peak rises in the background at 13,153 feet.

Thankful for microspikes that were at least keeping my lower body planted, I trekked out across the frozen lake. Since no touchscreen compatible gloves I own actually work on a touchscreen, I snapped as many photos as I could as the wind froze my hand before it got too painful. I stomped around a bit, looking at where I could possibly even consider having a snack in the wind.

Framing The Loch is 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain towards the south and 12,829-foot Sharkstooth towards the southwest.
See the frozen waterfall?
I found a small rock outcropping to hide behind so I could eat a quick snack and drink some water. Also, check out my new Kula Cloth!
Making the silly face I make in every selfie with this amazing view!
Microspikes! Also my new REI mountaineering gaiters, which I was happy to have to keep my feet toasty and snow out of the top of my boots
Almost heart shaped!

I quickly shoved some fig bars into my mouth and gulped some water as my hands screamed for their gloves again (and to think they were overheating and sweating on the hike up!). I had been stopped for maybe two minutes but I already felt myself getting cold, so I added my 66North hardshell jacket over the rest of my clothing to help stop the wind.

Time to head out. I wish the weather was more cooperative, but hopefully this photo of blowing snow makes it known why I didn’t stick around too long…

I quickly made my way down the switchbacks and turned right at the junction to head towards Mills Lake. I had done this hike over 8 years ago, but didn’t really remember much from that day. Because I was feeling good and peppy still, I figured it was worth extending my hike while in the area. The hike up to Mills Lake seemed to be a lot steeper than the hike up to The Loch, but maybe the lack of switchbacks were deceiving me.

Approaching Mills Lake
A couple arrived at the same time as I did, so we exchanged photographer duties. Always nice when I can get something more than a selfie!
Mills Lake
Almost all my photos from this day are crooked because of the wind blowing so hard I couldn’t hold my phone straight. You’re welcome!
Mills Lake sits below Half Mountain. From its eastern shore, looking from left to right, you’ll have outstanding views of the Keyboard of the Winds, 13,497-foot Pagoda Mountain, 13,579-foot Chiefs Head Peak and 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain.

I walked out on the frozen lake a bit, drank some more water, and then started my descent back down to my car.

2.2 miles left!
Views on the descent. There were significantly more people on the trail than there were this morning.

After just a bit over 3 hours, I made it back to my car. On the way out of the park I quickly stopped at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center for my parks passport stamp, and then grabbed a quick selfie with the entrance sign.

I bought a new hat. I NEVER wear ballcaps as I have a small head and its hard to find ones to fit. This one doesn’t fit too badly, and covered up my messy hair!

I’m super happy I opted for this hike, as it was so gorgeous! It was also a great choice to get my first true winter hike under my belt. The trails were well packed and not even that icy (I did leave my microspikes on the entire time, however). The crowds weren’t awful, about as much as I’d like to see on a hike (which means I’ll probably never come here in the summer). Going to just The Loch is a bit over five miles round trip, and adding on Mills Lake adds another two miles-ish.

If opting to do this in the winter, I cannot emphasize enough to check current trail conditions. Just a few weeks after I hiked, the area received 33 inches of snow… yes, almost 3 FEET. At that point snowshoes probably might not even help. Though there is a trail conditions section on the NPS website for RMNP, I found it was not updated often. I figured out RMNP’s Twitter account was the best source of up-to-date information on conditions in the park. Other options include Facebook groups dedicated to RMNP or trail conditions in northern Colorado. Road conditions are also important to know, as they often recommend 4WD/AWD with proper winter (snow) tires for traveling on park roads in the winter months. And it goes without saying, weather conditions like temperature and wind are important to look at so adequate clothing and gear can be chosen.

Winter hiking involves more gear than a summer gear. As I was entering the ranger inquired on if I had traction or flotation devices for the hike. (This means microspikes or snowshoes.) I dressed in multiple layers, and kept a puffy down jacket in my pack along with warmer mittens in case I needed them. I probably should’ve put my puffy on at The Loch, but my hardshell did help cut the wind. I was only stopped maybe 5 minutes tops at The Loch, but that was time for my core temperature to start dropping and for me to start feeling cold. I also had in my pack an emergency blanket and an emergency bivy.

7.68 miles, 1,320 feet of elevation gain, and 3 hours 5 minutes total

Date Hiked: December 19, 2021
Trailhead: Glacier Gorge
Total Mileage: 7.68 miles per Garmin Vivoactive 4s/Strava
Total Elevation Gain: 1320 feet
Total Time Spent: 3 hour 5 minutes
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 21-31 degrees temperature, stupidly windy
Cell Service: No service (Verizon)

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