Glacier Gorge at its finest
Overview: This hike is described from Bear Lake TH. This is part of the network of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. You will pass Alberta Falls, perhaps the most photographed falls in the park.
The hike to Loch Lake could be continued onto Sky Pond. The hike to Jewel Lake could be continued onto Black Lake. However, I was hampered by snow and flurry conditions, as well as a lack of time (and lake of trail), so you could end up doing many more miles. In summer you could loop back through Emerald Lake, rather than returning the way you came as I was forced to do.
Warning: Rapidly changing weather conditions could bring sudden snow, wind, and rain. Carry a warm hat and waterproof jacket as these storms are common in the Rockies in the afternoon. Of note, in early June there was quite a bit of mud (as well as snow and slush) in the upper elevations. In fact, it was so muddy, I had a minor role in a Search and Rescue operation for a lady who had gotten stuck in the mud.
Hike: From the massive Bear Lake Trailhead, head towards the Ranger Cabin and read the posted trail conditions. Pass the cabin and take a left at the sign pointing you towards Alberta Falls. You descend approximately 200 feet and cross a stream, then you will begin ascending up the obvious trail towards Alberta Falls.
Alberta Falls is reached in less than a mile and is worth a photo or two. It was thundering with all the snowmelt but due to all the trees lying about, didn't quite have the majesty I'd been led to believe.
Continue on up the trail until you reach the intersection with the Boulder Brook trail/Mills Lake/Loch Vale junction. Take a right heading towards Loch and Mills Lake. The next part of the trail is what I thought had the best views in my hikes in the Rockies on this trip. You traverse near the treeline with a great view into the lowest part of Glacier Gorge. The wind was whipping, but the views were amazing.
In just under a mile you will reach the junction of Loch Lake trail, Mills Lake trail, and the continuation of the trail towards Emerald Lake. For this description, take the Loch Lake option first.
Continue uphill along the trail another third of a mile plowing in and over the snow, until you notice the trees begin to clear. A short climb up a snowbank and onto a rocky clearing and you are on a good lookout over the Loch. The snow and wind was pretty fierce coming across the lake so take a few pictures and look for where the trail continues on towards Sky Pond. Not finding the trail (since there was 10 feet of snow, it really consisted of looking for footprints in the snow) made me unable to continue any futher in early June, however a later summer trek might have more success.
Back at the junction, now take the Mills Lake option. Mills Lake is approximately a quarter mile up the trail. The park had just recently restored a log bridge over the creek and pictures were about warning that it wasn't bolted together yet. A little caution and you'll reach Mills Lake.
Right about this time I was approached by two women indicating that a woman was trapped in the mud at Jewel Lake and had been stuck for two hours. Knowing that the water (and hence mud) consisted mostly of snowmelt, I raced onwards to lend assistence, fearing that she may already be hypothermic. Running along at 10200 feet is not a picnic, but I cruised the 2/3 of a mile by Mills Lake and onto Jewel Lake, where, right as I get there I find that there is a small group of people with a hobbling lady in tow. Relieved she was OK, I offered assistance, but found out that she was doing good and just a little sore in the ankles.
I checked out the rest of Jewel Lake, which as it continues changes into a boardwalk and then into a rock hop over some swampy, muddy areas. It began to snow more heavily and I hit my turnaround time, so slightly past Jewel Lake was as far as I made it. Black Lake was still at least another 3/4 mile (each way.)
On the way back to the trailhead, I passed the group with the lady and again they indicated they were fine. Coming down I gave the SAR guys headed uphill (apparently someone had gotten a cell signal out) an updated description of the situation and let them know she had been extracted from the mud.
In thinking about this the next couple of days, honestly, I don't know how or where it would have been possible for the lady to have gotten stuck in the mud the way she did. It was very muddy and I can imagine that if you step in the wrong place you might lose your shoe, but to be stuck in the mud for 2 hours...I can't say it made any sense to me. Especially with all the people in her group, someone should have just been able to toss her a branch or log.
I imagine that the mud is due to the melting snow. Later in summer the trail may be in much better shape.
Water sources: Creeks and lakes abound, bring a filter.
Camping: Camping spots were marked near Loch and Mills Lake. Camping in the park requires a backcountry permit from the rangers station.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.
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