Mills Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, is reached by a 2.8-mile hike from Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Towering mountains, including Longs Peak, Pagoda Peak, and Thatchtop, surround Mills Lake in lower Glacier Gorge, a glacier-excavated valley. The lake is named for Enos Mills, father of Rocky Mountain. The round-trip, 5.6-mile hike, gaining over 700 feet, follows Glacier Gorge Trail and passes lovely Alberta Falls and Glacier Falls before reaching the placid lake. Several fine picnic spots are found along the lake’s bedrock shoreline. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including elk, deer, and moose. The trail continues south for 2.7 miles, passing tiny Jewel Lake and a couple waterfalls, to Black Lake, a dramatic lake below McHenrys Peak.
- The 2.8-mile hike to Mills Lake begins at Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road. Hike south on Glacier Gorge Trail for 0.3 miles to Glacier Gorge Junction, go left and continue 0.5 miles to Alberta Falls. Most people turn around here. Hike 0.9 miles south and uphill to the junction with East Longs Peak Trail, go right and hike another 0.5 miles up a lovely valley toward Loch Vale. At the next junction bear left on Glacier Gorge Trail and hike through forest for 0.6 miles to the north outlet of Mills Lake. Enjoy the scenic view up the gorge, eat a picnic lunch, and relax in the sun, and then return the same way for a 5.6-mile hike. If you’re ambitious, continue south three miles to Black Lake, then climb up to the upper cirque below Spearhead.
- Glacier Gorge Trailhead, like Bear Creek Trailhead up the road, is very busy in summer and on autumn weekends. Arrive early to snag a parking spot. The best option is to catch a free park shuttle to the trailhead. Park at a large Park & Ride lot across from Glacier Basin Campground and board a shuttle at the terminal. Shuttle buses run frequently in summer so you won’t wait long. Shuttle schedules, maps, and details are available at the park website, visitor centers, shuttle stops, and park newspaper. On the return trip, take a shuttle up to Bear Lake Trailhead so you’ll have seat back because the shuttles often fill up at Bear Lake and there’s no room if you’re waiting at Glacier Gorge.
- Mills Lake is considered one of the best lakes for fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fishermen catch rainbow, brook, and greenback cutthroat trout. Only artificial lures and flies are allowed. Mills Lake, like other high-altitude lakes in the park, doesn’t melt out and warm up until mid-summer so the fish are lethargic in early summer.
- Mills Lake at 9,940 feet is at a high elevation and is susceptible to fast weather changes in summer, especially since you can’t see bad weather moving in from the west. Be prepared for heavy afternoon thunderstorms accompanied by lightning. High winds, snow, and cold temperatures can occur in summer. Pack a raincoat, extra clothes, snacks, and water. No cell service at the lake. Also remember that you can get altitude sickness, with a headache, nausea, and shortness of breath. Descend to a lower elevation to recover.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
–Stewart M. Green