Thousands of people visit Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) every year. So much so that getting into the park in the summer has become a bit of an accomplishment. While summer is the easiest time to hike in the park, especially if there is good weather, winter offers its own lens on RMNP. There are a little less people exploring the mountains in the winter. And frankly, the snow can create a real wonderland that is breathtakingly beautiful.

But for the hikers out there, it’s ideal to know what trails can work well for the cold (and often snowy) season in the mountains. Well, Mills Lake Trail is one good winter hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It isn’t easy, being about 5 miles long (round trip) and it has some consistent elevation gain throughout the inwards leg of the hike. But compared to the truly challenging trails in RMNP, it settles in the range of easy to moderate. And the track works well in the snow, particularly when other folks have already followed the route.

That, and the pay-off for the trail is a really lovely lake tucked among the shoulders of some of the most exceptional mountains in the world (the Rocky Mountains).

If I’ve sold you at this point, read on to learn more about exploring this trail in the winter. And if you aren’t a hiker, scroll down to see some pictures of this inspiring little corner of Mother Earth. Finally, if you’d like to learn more about other Rocky Mountain lake hikes, be sure to also check out my guide to Gem Lake and Lily Lake hikes.

Why Mills Lake Trail is a Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

Mills Lake Trail is among the moderate hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, and its length, difficulty, and location all make it a great open for winter treks. Here are some things that you might consider when deciding if this trail is a good fit for your needs.

  • Mills Lake Trail is an out and back trail, which means that it makes for an easy turn around at any point. Weather can change rapidly in the Rocky Mountains, and you will need to keep an eye out for whether or not to head back.
  • This trail is long and steep enough to make for a bit of a challenge, and these characteristics of the trek will make it worth the drive and winter gear-up. It’s a solid day hike, particularly if you are going a bit slower because of the snow.
  • Mills Lake Trail is a good winter hike in Rocky Mountain National Park because it is lower down in the mountains and it mostly travels through valleys. This means that the air is a bit thicker and warmer than the higher reaches of the park. The road is also open for more of the winter, and a bit easier to navigate.
  • This area is absolutely exceptional. The forests here are verdant carpets of evergreens and aspens. And the mountains that surround this area are stoney monoliths. When shrouded in snow, they rank among the giants of Switzerland and New Zealand for their impressive size and rugged, awe-inspiring beauty.

Need to Know Information

Official Website

Official Trail Name: Glacier Gorge Trail to Mills Lake

Trail Length: 5.4 miles (Out and back)

Elevation Gain: 840 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Entrance fee: RMNP costs $30 for a 1-day vehicle entrance, and $35 for one vehicle for 7 days (2024); the park also requires a timed entry permit throughout the summer starting in May. Check the park’s website for up-to-date details.

Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes

4WD Needed to Access Trailhead: No

How to Get There

When we did this trail, we parked at Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead. This is the trailhead that is the second to last parking area on Bear Lake Road. Bear Lake Road travels south from 36/Morraine Ave, which is the main road of the park. Beaver Meadows is the closest Rocky Mountain National Park entrance to Bear Lake Road.

Trail Report

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

The route that you will be taking to the lake is via the Glacier Gorge Trail. This trail leaves, unsurprisingly, from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. There is not a huge parking area here, and it was nearly full when we got there around 9 or 10a in the winter. So, if you want to do this trail, I suggest going early OR coming comfortable with changing your plans should you need to.

At the trailhead, there is a small bathroom and a little covered area where you can sit to pull on outer gear if you need to. These amenities help make this route a good winter hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Section One: Switchbacks and Upwards

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

The first section of the trail weaves its way through the lush forests that flourish in the lower valleys of the RMNP. In the winter, when there is snow, this area was full of plump, fluffy hills that looked perfectly white and soft. The trail also curls along the edge of a creek bed. With the right conditions, there is water that flows through here. In the winter, with snow hugging the banks, the only hint of this creek could be the tinkling sound of it flowing through the ice. Towering above this wonderland of water, are lush evergreens.

In short, this is a beautiful area. Take your time as the trail forces you to climb higher into the mountains. Between switchbacks and huffing upwards, you will likely be needing a break here and there. Especially because this is likely a higher elevation area than you are used to. Even the moderate hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park can be a challenge.

Section Two: Glacier Knobs Corridor

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

There is a distinct change in the character of the trail when you come up and hike along the lower reaches of a mountain called Glacier Knob. While you are on this part of the trail, you will be walking along a wild, narrow valley that is walled in by the powerful mountains of RMNP. Towering stone is everywhere and you have the sense that the higher you go, the more desolate the landscape is becoming. In the distance, even larger mountains loom. It’s an adventurous and somewhat intimidating area.

The trail flattens out a little bit here. So, it’s the perfect time to catch your breath and take in the wild landscape around you. The scenery on this trail is one of the many things that make it a good winter hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Section Three: Onwards to the Lake

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

After passing out of the shadow of Glacier Knob, you will be taking on one final climb through the forest before coming on the lake. This area feels a little more wild than the lower reaches of the trek, but the trees will surround you again. This fills in after the stony hallway of the Glacier Knob valley, and the forest brings with it a safer, more protected feel.

The trail climbs up and down little hills in this area. And the twists and turns will have you wondering just where this lake is. (And when you will get to stop hiking upwards).

Then, finally, everything will open up into a glacier rounded valley, rimmed by sharp peaks of grey stone and snowy caps. In the winter, when we visited, the lake was frozen over. It made this final, spectacular view a picture-perfect scene of snow, ice, and mountains. It is among the best of the Rocky Mountain lake hikes.

This exceptional view is your turn around point.

Some Tips for Winter Outfitting

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

I am not expert in winter outfitting, and in fact, as of 2022, I had no idea what I was doing. When I would go to the trail and layer up, I would end up being really cold despite my multiple jackets. And I was really frustrated. I would see people out in the snow and they looked completely comfortable and I couldn’t figure it out! Needless to say, this made it hard for me to enjoy any good winter hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Then I watched a MyLifeOutdoors video about how to outfit correctly, and I gave it a try. It worked! So, what are some of tips that he explained and how did I make them work for me? What I describe below is not exactly what he said, but it has been working for me.

Layering

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

First, he mentioned that you want to balance your layers with how much you think you might warm up on the trail. Otherwise, you will end up getting really hot while hiking and when you peel off that first layer, you will be sweaty and then get cold. So, when I hop out of my car now, I try to start out a little more cold than I would like. Not uncomfortable, but just a little nippy – knowing that things will warm up when I get going.

Second, for the top part of your body, you start with a wool base layer. Then from there you can go with a fleece, a puffy jacket, and top it all off with a waterproof/windproof shell. Of course, wearing all three at once would be reserved for the coldest of hikes that you might do. But for safety purposes, I often pack all these layers.

Good Winter Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

(c) ABR 2023

For my legs, I have a pair of silk longjohns that I sometimes pull out. Then some nice wool socks for your feet, and your hiking pants. I also have a pair of waterproof pants that can go over my regular pants. You will want to wear waterproof boots, and carry either micro-spikes or yaktraxs as well.

Finally, for accessories, definitely have a warm hat and a buff or scarf. I’ve been wearing a buff because that’s what friends of mine wear, and I think it is better for the athletic activity. However, I think a larger scarf would work better for me when I want to cover my face. I struggle to wear the buff comfortably over my nose and mouth. I also bring my trekking poles to all winter hikes as I am not very stable on my feet in the snow and ice.

Safety on the Trail

THE TIPS HERE ARE NOT COMPREHENSIVE – PLEASE DO YOUR RESEARCH AND KEEP YOURSELF SAFE. Your safety is your responsibility and this guide is not a guarantee of your safety.

In addition to my typical tips, there are some extra considerations. Winter hiking has all the typical dangers, plus the added risk of adverse and cold weather. Thus, you will want to be extra careful and thoughtful when planning your winter hikes. Consider layering as I suggest above, with anything additional that you’d like. Stay warm and prepare for changes in the weather. Check the weather before you leave, but still plan for weather even if the forecast doesn’t call for it. You want to stay dry and warm!

Some people might think that water is a little less of an issue when it is cold, but it’s just as important as ever. Winter air is very dry. So, staying hydrated is essential. Additionally, your body will burn extra calories trying to stay warm. So, pack those snacks for your moderate hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park (and beyond!).

More Hikes in Colorado

Are you looking for more hikes in Colorado? I’ve got a growing list of trail guides in my Guide to Colorado. So, check it out for some more inspiration! My most recent post includes a few short hikes in the Fort Collins area, with PLENTY of food options for your post hike munchies.

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