The U.S. National Parks system offers access to wild areas not far from paved roads, and Rocky Mountain National Park is just one example. Located in the scenic mountains near Estes Park, Colorado, the popular national park provides access to pristine landscapes of the high alpine without the long hikes that are often required to reach such incredible scenery.
Mills Lake, and the 5.3-mile roundtrip hike that gets you there, requires modest elevation gain – just 780 feet. But the lake is gorgeous. And the mild hike is even lovelier.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
The trail starts from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The trailhead can be busy, and it is. After crossing a creek, where I slip and get my boots wet, my wife and I arrive shortly at Alberta Falls, a tumbling 30-foot waterfall that makes a great spot for lunch. We don’t stop for lunch, but we do stop. Alberta Falls is a great attraction. Its close proximity to the parking lot makes it a popular spot for families on holiday, so the area is busy with children, cheese sandwiches, and even a Frisbee. The Frisbee worries my wife – it’s not exactly a grassy playing field. Large boulders abound, and not a flat surface is to be found, just places to trip. We join in the picture taking, and I attempt to capture the length of the waterfall with the panorama function on my iPhone. The photo is exactly the blur of water and motion I expected, with children, trees and sky too.
Carrying on, the next mile is less populated, and we walk through tunnels of shady pines. The vanilla scent of ponderosa always brings me peace. Though it’s a moderate hike, we still want to stretch our legs, so we run. Trail running is fun, particularly descending. When running trail on downward sections, all your legs can do is keep pace with gravity and dart for safe places to land your feet. It’s meditative and completely involving. The alternative to rapt attentiveness is a smashed face.
Overall, the elevation change is in the upward direction, but it’s still slight enough to run without maxing out our aerobic capacity. It’s cool, then hot in the high-altitude sun, and then cool again as we pass through the shade. Both the hot and the cool are welcome in the thin air.
Since we got a late start, we reach the lake just after noon. A few families are picnicking on the banks of the lake, and 13,000 foot peaks are reflected by the rippled waters. The lake itself is at 9,450 feet, so there are still trees, but not too far above us, the lack of oxygen chokes out the pines. After that, it’s just stone and lingering snow. A boulder perches over the water near the bank – it’s the big draw for photographers. One has to imagine how it got there. It came from higher above, no doubt in dramatic fashion, centuries ago.
We move around to a wide rock ledge away from the crowds, climbing 40 feet above the water. The sun is thin and warm, but the stone is cool to sit on. It’s autumn in truth now. The silhouettes of fish swim lazy spirals in the water below us and I’m surprised at the size of some of them. This lake has its own ecosystem, and it’s apparently a pretty healthy one. We hear the cheeping of pika too. My wife loves pika. They’re small mammals, somewhere between a hamster and a squirrel, and a sure sign that we’re in the high alpine. We relax in the sounds and the sun, eat a couple apples, then turn back.
The hike back is as enjoyable as the trip there, but with more downward running than upward. Driving back to the entrance of the park we hit an actual traffic jam. The park are often busy, but what’s causing the slowdown today is a herd of elk. Some of them are blocking the road, and dozens of others lay out in the wide valley lowlands defined by the surrounding peaks. We take pictures like everyone else, but have little success with our cell phone cameras. Pictures always fail to capture the moment anyway.
A late lunch in Estes Park sounds good. Estes Park is the cute little town a half-hour south of Rocky Mountain National Park, and it’s still in the height of its tourist season as we arrive, even in September. The downtown strip is alive and crowded with people in bright clothes and summer hats. Estes feels like it’s a long way from Denver for being such a short drive, so it’s a popular spot for a weekend holiday.
The town must have the highest concentration of candy shops per capita in the whole world. Estes Park is famous for its salt water taffy. I’m not sure why this is, but we pass two shops with machinery stretching massive quantities of taffy in the window, each claiming to be Estes’ original taffy shop. I indulge.
We stop for sandwiches by the Fall River, which runs parallel the main street. Sitting out on the patio, we watch the people, the clouds, and a mother mallard ferrying her chicks across the water. After eating and paying our tab, we descend to the water and cool our feet at the water’s edge. Swallows swoop along the waves, snatching up mayflies from the recent hatch at lightning speed. They circle around and make another blindingly quick pass, and I feel jealous of their wild experience of flight. It must be like trail running in the wind.
I’d recommend a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park regardless of your fitness level. Great vistas are available from pull-offs aside the roadways, but the real treasure lies further into the hills. Smaller hikes like the one to Mills Lake are nice, but I hear great things about areas deeper into the backcountry, areas only available with an overnight backpacking permit. If you go, and are so inclined, I’d suggest spending several days backpacking. That’s what I plan for my next visit. Check out Estes Park too. It’s a charming bit of civilization that contrasts the rugged park.
If You Go
Author bio: Jack Bohannan is a freelance writer living in Denver, CO