Sunday, January 24, 2016

Hike crosses classic Colo. montane forest

Mills Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mill Lake Trail map, courtesy of Rocky Mountain NPS.

Trail passes waterfall on way to mountain lake

Day hikers can explore a montane forest on the Mills Lake Trail at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

Such forests cover much of this national park, which sits at high elevations. The trail runs 2.65 miles one-way (5.3 miles round trip) through a woods to a mountain lake at the base of Glacier Gorge.

To reach the trail, from Estes Park, head west on U.S. Hwy. 36. Turn onto Bear Lake Road, and drive eight miles to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. A free park shuttle also runs there to the trailhead, and if starting later in the day, it’s a good option to take as during peak tourist season the parking lot fills quick.

The trailhead elevation is 9240 feet. Be aware that there’s less oxygen that high up, and it thins even more as the trail gains 727 feet. Watch for signs of altitude sickness among yourself and your party.

Your hike begins by crossing Chaos Creek. At 0.25 miles from trailhead, the route joins Glacier Creek Trail. When the trails splits, go left to Mills Lake.

A montane forest consists of meandering rivers and creaks that run through open meadows surrounded by steep slopes. This makes for picturesque scenery, especially in summer when wildflowers blanket the meadows.

At 0.8 miles, the trail reaches its first highlight, Alberta Falls. The 30-foot waterfall on Glacier Creek sits at 9423 feet. From there, the trail climbs a hillside above Glacier Creek.

Ponderosa pines
As walking through the meadows, you’ll notice that different slopes tend to be dominated by specific kinds of trees. In fact, you can use these trees as a sort of compass.

South-facing slopes tend to be dry and so boast open stands of large ponderosa pines. Hiking through ponderosa pines always is a delight in summer, as bark, when warmed by the sun, is quite fragrant. In addition, you can tell the age of a ponderosa pine not just by its thickness but also by its bark color; younger pines tend to be gray-brown while older ones are a cinnamon-red.

North-facing slopes tend to be wet, as they receive less direct exposure from the sun. A mix of Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and Engelmann spruce rather than a lone tree species will dominate.

At 1.6 miles, the route arrives at the North Longs Peak Trail junction, about 9768 feet elevation. Go right. The trail then heads through a narrow gorge between East Glacier Knob and 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain.

The trail reaches Mills Junction at 2.1 miles. Go left, cross Icy Brook, and officially enter Glacier Gorge.

The streams the trail follows also offer their own unique set of trees. The wet soil allows for groves of quaking aspen, willows, mountain alder, and water birch to flourish. The aspen is particularly beautiful in autumn when its leaves turn golden-yellow.

Mills Lake
At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches the footbridge for Glacier Creek. Look for a footpath on the right; you can follow it for about 40 yards to the base of tiny Glacier Falls.

The montane forest sports an impressive number of mammals and birds. Of the former, various squirrels, chipmunks, cottontails, deer and bobcats call this area home. Among the many songbirds here are the mountain chickadee, western and mountain bluebirds, western tanager, Stellar's jay, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and the yellow-rump warbler.

The trail comes upon Mills Lake at 2.65 miles from the trailhead. The subalpine lake, with Half Mountain rising over it, sits at 9955 feet about sea level. It is named for Enos Mills, the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, as he spent several years working to preserve region.

Be sure to bring a picnic basket to enjoy on a rocky area at lake's edge, for the view is fantastic here. To the lake’s west is The Arrowhead, which tops out at 12,387 feet, Powell Peak (13,208 feet) and McHenrys Peak (13,327 feet). On the east is while Pagoda Mountain (13,497 feet), the line of pinnacles known as the Keyboard of the Winds. Chiefs Head Peak (13,579 feet) and The Spearhead (12,575 feet) rise in the upper valley.

After taking in the sights, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Learn more about the park's day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park.