rock formations and trees near on tundra near the summit of chief mountain colorado

Chief Mountain Hike

Chief Mountain is a 1.5-mile hike in the mountains just one hour outside of Denver, Colorado. The Chief Mountain trail travels through alpine forest, then breaks out into high-country tundra, eventually gaining panoramic views of surrounding mountains. Chief Mountain gives hikers an incredible vantage point to survey the changing colors of Fall spread out in 360 degrees below. Explore the full Chief Mountain hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and more tips and details to help you enjoy this adventure near Denver.

Trail Snapshot: Chief Mountain Hike

Parking & Trailhead Information for Chief Mountain Hike

From Denver, take Interstate 70 west to exit 252. This exit will funnel you onto CO-74/Evergreen Parkway headed West/Southwest for about 2 miles, where you'll take a right onto Squaw Pass Road. Squaw Pass road is paved and climbs the mountain in a series of switchback for 10.4 miles. The trailhead is easy to miss. It's a pull-out on the right-hand/North side of the road. It's worth taking a look at the parking area using satellite view on Google maps before going. You'll notice that the trail begins just a bit East of the parking area on the South side of the road. We've dropped the pin in the driving directions above at the location of the trailhead. As with all roads at this altitude, be sure to check conditions and closures before setting out.

squaw pass road colorado bend in road at switchback with golden aspens and green spruce trees

The Hike: Chief Mountain Trail

The Chief Mountain trail begins on the south side of Squaw Pass road. The trail starts out as a steep 1/4 mile segment that takes hikers through dense alpine forest to Old Squaw Pass Road. The trail is picked up again on the other side of the dirt road and marked by signage. The trail bends now along the base of Papoose Mountain and the dense forest gives way to scattered trees and eventually into high-country tundra. Colorado's tundra ecosystems are incredibly fragile. Here the alpine flowers and lichens grow close to the ground in order to survive in the harsh winds and cold. Stay on maintained trails as it can literally take centuries for this alpine environment to recover from the damage inflicted upon it by foot traffic.

The trail should be evident, but you'll also find that it is marked by blaze marks on some of the trees. The trail becomes more demanding and steep. With each switchback new panoramas reveal distant snow-capped landscapes. Jagged rock formations grow in size as the trail gains elevation and makes its way closer to the summit.

The views are incredible at the top (see photo below). Mount Evans can be seen to the West and Squaw Mountain to the East. This is a great vantage point for taking in the changing aspens along the Front Range of Colorado. For more Fall Hikes, see our 25+ Hikes for Viewing the Changing Aspens in Colorado.

green mountains in front of snowcapped mount evans panoramic view with clouds from an top of chief mountain colorado

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St. Vrain Mountain Hike

The St. Vrain Mountain trail is just a 3-mile hike into Indian Peaks Wilderness to stunning views of the rocky peaks of Wild Basin. Hike up and additional 1.5 miles from the RMNP boundary to the summit of St. Vrain mountain for 360-degree panoramic views of a wildflower-laden wilderness. Explore the full St. Vrain Mountain hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and more.

Trail Snapshot: St. Vrain Mountain Hike

Parking & Trailhead Information for St. Vrain Mountain

parking area at st. vrain mountain trailhead in colorado aspen trees and dirt road

From Denver, take Interstate 25 to either 36 or 66 to Lyons. In Lyons, follow 7 to Allenspark. In Allenspark, turn left onto Ski Road - FR-107. This will be marked with a street sign and a home-crafted sign made out of an old pair of skis. Follow this dirt road as is weaves through Allenspark then a series of dispersed cabins for about 2 miles until the road terminates at the trailhead. There is parking for only about 8 vehicles at the trailhead. There is additional parking along the road, but make sure that you're not blocking cabin drives or tearing up the roadside. You may have to park a ways back down the road if crowded. I hiked this on the weekend and the lot was full around 8 AM. There are not restrooms or potable water at the trailhead.

The Hike: St. Vrain Mountain Trail

cascades among spruce and aspen trees on st. vrain mountain trail in colorado

The hike begins in the shade of aspen, spruce, and lodgepole pine forest. This first segment is easy and gradual, getting steeper as the sounds of distant St. Vrain Creek grow louder and closer. Wildflowers become more prevalent and soon the trail begins to follow right alongside the course of the creek.

view to southeast with green mountains along st. vrain mountain trail in colorado

Then the switchbacks begin. I hiked this in late-May after a Winter when our snowpack was below normal. So it was snow-free until around mile 2. From about mile 2 to mile 3, intermittent snow covered about 3/4 of the trail. I didn't bring snowshoes but had it been early May, I definitely would have needed a pair. Trekking poles were essential for negotiating the trail and to keep from post-holing up to my waist. It could be done without poles, but I'd definitely recommend having them.

above treeline with tundra in distance and short evergreens and blue sky along st. vrain mountain trail in colorado

At treeline, things open up to blue skies and high-country tundra brightened by the many colors of summer wildflowers. In early-May, these were just beginning to bloom. However, come mid-June, the creek alongside the trail and these upper reaches of high-country should be replete with wildflowers.

blue purple and white wildflowers along st. vrain mountain trail in colorado

Once you crest the saddle, the views are outstanding. To the Northwest, the entire Wild Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park opens up before you. To the North, you'll find Meadow Mountain, elevation 11,632'. I met a local from Allenspark along the trail and he said the views from the summit of Meadow Mountain rival those of St. Vrain because of the perspective looking down into the Wild Basin area.

high mountain tundra with peaks of wild basin of rmnp in background along st. vrain mountain trail in colorado

At mile 3, the trail enters Rocky Mountain National Park. From this point, I could see a faint trail in the snow leading up the rounded ridgeline of St. Vrain Mountain. It's about a 1/2 mile hike from the main trail to the summit with about 700 feet of elevation gain.

man hiking up snow covered st. vrain mountain in colorado

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Below is a photo of the map found at the trailhead. I've added a dark-black dashed line to indicate the trail that goes from the junction with the Rock Creek Trail to the summit. The lighter-grey dashed line indicates the path hikers were taking across the snow to the slopes of St. Vrain Mountain. Be sure to hike on durable surfaces (snow, rock, trails) on the summit approach to protect the fragile tundra environment.

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Herman Gulch to Herman Lake Hike

The Herman Gulch Trail is one of the best summer wildflower hikes near Denver. It's also a challenging winter snowshoe and is often used for cross-country skiing. The Herman Gulch Trail is a 2.5 mile (one-way), out-and-back adventure into snowcapped mountain country and provides access to many more trails in Arapaho National Forest. Explore the full Herman Gulch hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and more tips and details to help you enjoy this adventure in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Trail Snapshot: Herman Gulch Hike, Colorado

Parking & Trailhead Information for Herman Gulch

The Herman Gulch Trailhead is located about 20 miles west of Idaho Springs via I-70. From Denver, it's about a 60-minute drive but can take around 1.5 hours in winter ski traffic. The trailhead is located right off Exit 218 by taking a right onto Watrous Way. There are restrooms available at the trailhead. As with all trailheads, but especially those right off the interstate, be sure that your valuables are out of site and locked up. The trail is located in the middle of the parking area, just to the left of the restroom.

herman gulch hike trail

The Hike: Herman Gulch to Herman Lake

From the parking lot, the initial trail segment is steep. But be encouraged, while it's not an easy hike, the trail becomes more gradual as it gains elevation into the widening valley of Herman Gulch. At the trail intersection early in the hike, the trail to Herman Gulch will bear to the left, and a trail that leads to Waterous Gulch will lead to the right. Staying on the Herman Gulch Trail, it will weave in and out of the trees into small meadows with Herman Creek and many meltwater rivulets cascading across the landscape.

Winter may not release its grip on Herman Gulch until mid-summer. For example, all the photos in this trail profile were taken during the first week of June, so prepare for the snow to get increasingly deeper as you progress further on the trail. For this reason, we recommend trekking poles and traction devices for your boots. Also, be aware that at this elevation, thunderstorms often come up quickly on Summer afternoons, bringing dangerous lightning, especially in the open areas of the higher elevations. For this reason, and in order to avoid crowds, it's wise to begin your hike early in the day.

herman gulch hike near idaho springs winter trail

The trail eventually emerges from the trees into a broad alpine landscape where a series of rock cairns leads the way to Herman Lake. This final segment is steep and demanding. The lake is located in a wide bowl beneath the lofty reaches of Pettingell Peak. The lake may be snow-covered through much of June, depending on late-season snowfall. In the early and mid-summer, a series of small meltwater cascades make their way down along the western mountainside into the lake. Be sure to stay the trail as you will be in a fragile alpine ecosystem.

Hiking Herman Gulch in the Winter

Herman Gulch is also a popular snowshoeing and cross-country skiing destination. December to March offer the best snowpack for these activities. It's a very different experience when snow has piled up in Herman Gulch and it's even more critical that those venturing into this area have packed their 10 essentials and are dressed appropriately. There are two avalanche chutes on the right-hand side of the trail about 1 mile into the hike that hikers should keep in mind (see ORIC winter map). During this season, do not go above treeline into the higher reaches as these are very much prone to avalanches. It's also important to bear in mind that snowstorms can come up very quickly, even in Spring and Fall, reducing and even eliminating visibility. So be aware and be prepared. Snowshoeing travel speeds are about 1 mile per hour, depending on the person, which is half of hiking speeds. Adjust your travel times accordingly and for early darkness of winter.

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golden aspens and green pine trees on the mountains of kenosha pass colorado hikes near denver in the fall

Kenosha Pass Hiking Trails

Kenosha Pass is probably the best place to view the changing aspens near Denver. It offers both an East and West trail option with gradual ascents to stunning views. Starting at 10,000' the initial elevation gain on the trails make for easy to moderately strenuous hikes, all depending on how far one decides to travel on these beautiful segments of the Colorado Trail. Vantage points can be accessed about 1/2 mile up both trails offering views down into the high country plains of South Park and out to the Rocky Mountains. Explore the full Kenosha Pass hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and more tips and details to help you enjoy this Colorado hike.

Trail Snapshot: Kenosha Pass Colorado

Parking & Trailhead Information for Kenosha Pass Hike

Kenosha Pass is located about 65 miles southwest of Denver along US 285. From Denver, take US 285 towards Bailey, Colorado. From Bailey, continue driving approximately 19 miles on 285 to the Kenosha Pass Trailhead. The trailhead parking area is located on both East (left when coming from Denver) and West (right side when coming from Denver) of 285. There is additional parking on the East side after crossing a cattle gate. Parking can get tight in the Autumn when the aspens are at their peak, so be considerate of others and the land as you park your vehicle. It's about a 90 minute drive from Denver. Restrooms can be found on both trailheads.

Hiking the Kenosha Pass Trail

kenosha pass map

Two Hiking Options and Where the Trails Begin

The hiking trails at Kenosha Pass easy to moderate in difficulty and can be done by hikers of all experience levels. At Kenosha Pass, the Colorado Trail, which goes from Denver to Durango, intersects with US Highway 285. This creates an East side trail option and an West side trail option. Both offer incredible views down into the South Park plains of Colorado and out to the often snow-capped peaks of the Mosquito Range.

Hiking the East Side of Kenosha Pass

Hikers can pick up the Colorado Trail after crossing the cattle gate (if parked along 285) and hiking along the dirt road that leads to the restrooms that are near the 2nd parking area (after the cattle gate). The Trailhead is located just before the 2nd parking area, and will be located on the right (south). While most visitors park, take a jaunt into the aspens, snap a few photos and leave, the more stunning views await those who venture further south along the trail. The initial trail segment enters with a gradual ascent into the aspens, then at 1/2 a mile into the hike the woods opens up to incredible views into South Park.

kenosha pass moose

South Park is a high mountains plains area that stretches out mile-upon-mile to its western and norther mountain borders, the Collegiate Peaks and the Mosquito Range of the Rocky Mountains. The climb continues at a gradual pace and hikers will emerge to a second panorama at 1.5 miles. This is a great place to turn-around, making it into a 3 mile out-ant-back hike. Of course, hikers can continue on the trail all the way back into Denver, but that requires a multi-day backpacking trip. As always, keep eyes peeled for changing weather, and pack the 10 Essentials. If you are wondering what should be in your daypack, be sure to download our free Dayhike Hiking and Packing Guide. As for wildlife, moose are often spotted on this side along the lake near the trailhead.

Hiking the West Side of Kenosha Pass

Changing Aspens at Kenosha Pass Colorado

The West Side Trail at Kenosha Pass can be picked up immediately on the West side of 285. The trail enters conifer and aspen forest, making a gentle climb toward the northwest until popping out of the trees to breathtaking views down into South Park and the Mosquito Range. After this viewpoint, the trail travels a short distance uphill, then makes its way down toward Guernsey Creek. The distance from the trailhead to Guernsey Creek is approximately 3 miles, making this a 6 mile out-and-back adventure. Because this is the Colorado Trail, it does continue west, offering multi-day backpacking options that lead all the way to Durango, Colorado.

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Trio Falls Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

Trio Falls is among the most stunning waterfalls that you will encounter in Rocky Mountain National Park, or in Colorado. But it comes at a price: A 15-mile round-trip, demanding hike. Because of this, the hike up to Trio Falls may best be part of an overnight camping trip in the park. Explore the full Trio Falls hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and more tips and details to help you enjoy this adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Snapshot: Trio Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Parking & Trailhead Information for Trio Falls

The southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park boasts one of the loveliest portions in the park known as the Wild Basin. The Wild Basin Trailhead is located just 15 minutes outside of Allenspark, Colorado along Highway 115. There is a ranger station at at the Wild Basin Trailhead with toilets and drinking water available.

In the winter (October-May), Hwy 115 may not be plowed to the trailhead, and hikers will need to park their vehicles at a winter parking lot for Wild Basin hikes. Be aware that hikes from the winter parking lot add on another 3 miles of hiking (one-way). There are other small parking areas, like the Finch Lake Trailhead, that may be accessible and allow hikers to park closer to the Wild Basin Trailhead. It's important to know that Hwy 115, though titled a "highway", is a maintained dirt road, which means that it can be used by 2WD vehicles. However, after heavy rains and other severe weather, its quality may degrade until it is repaired. 4WD may be needed when snow is on the ground.

The Hike: Trio Falls Trail in RMNP

The hike up to Trio Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park combines both distance and a fair amount of elevation gain to make this a very challenging hike. Because Trio Falls is 7 1/2 miles from the trailhead, few make the journey; but the solitude and the sights are worth it to those who make the effort. Because the round-trip hike is 15+ miles, it's advisable to make this hike a part of a multi-day camping trip in the park. If you are considering camping, there are several reservable backcountry camping spots in the Wild Basin area, and camping permits can be obtained through the RMNP Wilderness offices.

Trio Falls is located between Lion Lake #1 and Lion Lake #2 in the Wild Basin. For a detailed trail description of the almost 7-mile hike to Lion Lake #1, which takes hikers past three other waterfalls, be sure to explore the trail profile for Lion Lake #1.

lion lake 1 rocky mountain national park mount alice

Lion Lake #1 - Courtesy of Shea Oliver.

At Lion Lake #1, there is a social trail that runs along the right/east side of the lake. Because this next segment is on unmaintained trails in a remote section of the park, hikers should possess both land navigation skills, map, and equipment. This social trail leads for about 1/2 mile along the lake, beyond into rocky terrain, and eventually to the waterfall.

There are a lower and an upper set of cascades to Trio Falls. Following the trail past the lower cascades requires a scramble and negotiating an passage through thick willows and rock. Hikers should exercise extra caution in this wet and rocky terrain.

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Tips & Resources for Hiking to Trio Falls in RMNP

  • Recommended Trail Map: We recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map which indicates the location of Trio Falls, and provides topo information.
  • TIP: There are food storage lockers available at the Wild Basin, Finch Lake, and Sandbeach Lake Trailheads.
  • Itinerary: It should go without saying, but be sure to always leave an itinerary with family and/or friends, and give them a call when you are back at the trailhead or within cell range.
  • Another Waterfall: If you are lucky and there is an ample flow of water, another waterfall can be spotted pouring down from the cliffs near Trio Falls.
  • Get there early: Parking may be limited as with many hikes in RMNP area and can get full even early in the morning.
  • You're in Bear Country: Black Bears live in the Wild Basin area and are active on the months of April through November. Be aware, and dispose of your food responsibly.
  • Trail Map for Wild Basin Area: Trail Map Link
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • Photo: We would like to express our gratitude to Steven Bratman for sharing such an amazing photograph of this hike to Trio Falls in RMNP.
  • After the Hike: Rock Creek Tavern & Pizzeria

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Whitmore Falls Near Lake City Colorado

Whitmore Falls is a lesser known waterfall deep in the mountains of Colorado. But, it just a 1/10th of a mile hike from the pull-off along Engineer Pass Road. It's a great destination hike for those vacationing in the Lake City area and are looking to combine a scenic drive with a short waterfall hike. Explore the full Whitmore Falls hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and all the details you need to enjoy this adventure near Lake City, Colorado.

Trail Snapshot: Whitmore Falls Near Lake City, Colorado

Directions, Parking, & Trailhead Information

Whitmore Falls is off the beaten path, located about 1hr west of Lake City, Colorado along the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. From Lake City, take 1st Street northwest, then a left onto the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway/20/Engineer Pass Road. This dirt road which follows Henson Creek is closed December through May. It may be closed or difficult to navigate depending on weather and how recently its been graded. Typically, it is navigable for 2WD passenger cars up to Whitmore Falls, but SUVs will fair best on this stretch of road.

Beyond Whitmore Falls, the road requires higher clearance vehicles more suitable to the difficult terrain, and drivers who possess off-road driving experience. See the Colorado BLM site for more information on the Loop. Whitmore Falls is located approximately 11 miles West of Lake City, and about 2 miles after passing the Capitol City Landmark, a set of restored historic buildings. Take your time, the drive and the scenery is half the adventure.

The parking area for Whitmore Falls is a small pulloff on the right/west side of the road. The falls trail should be marked with a sign on the opposite side of the pulloff. Because of the limited cell service in this part of Colorado, we advise that drivers not rely on phone-based map services that require a cellular connection. Take care in crossing the road to the other side where you can make your way down to the waterfall.

The Hike to Whitmore Falls

waterfall in canyon with bridge in foreground fish creek falls waterfall in colorado

Tips & Resources for Hiking to Whitmore Falls

The drive to Whitmore Falls is more harrowing than the hike. It's just a short 1/10th of a mile from the roadside down to the falls. However, it is steep and the terrain is mostly gravel, much of it talus and loose scree. So, take care making your way down to the falls. Trekking poles will be a great aid in making it down the switchback trail to the overlook and to the falls. The trail can be located near the Whitmore Falls BLM sign.

Whitmore Falls is a plunge waterfall that launches over 40' from the rock cliffs surrounding Henson Creek. Depending on the flows of Henson Creek, the base of the waterfall provides close access for viewing the falls.

  • TIP: Bring trekking poles to assist the short hike down the steep, gravel path.
  • Take Your Time: Pack a picnic lunch, and enjoy the scenic drive. Hikers can stop and explore the Capitol City historic site before or after their visit to Whitmore Falls.
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • Photo: We would like to express our gratitude to Dan Parker for sharing such an amazing photograph of this hike.
  • After the Hike: Lake City Cafe

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Solitude Lake Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

Solitude Lake is an alpine lake situated in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. Solitude is aptly named, as it is hidden from the main trail system, situated high above Glacier Gorge in the shadow of Thatchtop and Arrowhead Peak. Because the hike to Solitude and its twin sister, Shelf Lake, require travel on unmaintained trails, it is best suited for more experienced hikers who are familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park and who are have honed their land navigation skills. Full details can be found in the trail profile for Shelf Lake. Explore the full Solitude Lake hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and all the tips and resources for this hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Snapshot: Solitude Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Solitude Lake is located about a quarter mile beyond Shelf Lake. Between the Shelf and Solitude are an unusual set of cascades, Shelf Lake Falls. Above the falls, you'll find a beautiful array of alpine wildflowers and breathtaking views of Longs Peak, Keyboard of the Winds, and the broad valley of Glacier Gorge. The hike up to Solitude take hikers past Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, and Shelf Creek Falls.

creek flowing bluebells at mouth of solitude lake

A final reminder: This hike is not on maintained trails, is a long hike, and demanding. Hikers should be familiar with RMNP and developed the skills needed for backcountry travel. A more detailed trail profile for locating the trail and a brief description of its course and hazards are can be found on the Shelf Lake hike profile page. If you are looking for a demanding hike on maintained trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, we would recommend exploring trail profiles for Sky Pond and Black Lake.

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Tips & Resources for Hiking to Solitude Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

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Black Lake Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Black Lake Falls cascades down the towering granite cliffs above Black Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This trail through Glacier Gorge takes hikers past multiple sub-alpine lakes and several waterfalls. It's a demanding, 10 mile, round-trip hike with significant elevation gain in the heart of RMNP.

Trail Snapshot: Black Lake Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Black Lake Falls is located on the cliffside above the western edges of Black Lake and is best viewed from the boulder strewn shores of Black Lake. In the photo above, you'll be able to distinguish the stream of the falls cascading over grey granite cliffs. For a detailed description of this journey to Black Lake Falls, explore our full trail profile on Black Lake. Below you'll find a list of some of the other destinations in the Glacier Gorge trail system.

List and Links of Destinations From Glacier Gorge Trailhead to Black Lake

1. Glacier Gorge Trailhead
2. Alberta Falls - @ .8 mile
3. Mills Lake - @ 2.8 miles
4. Jewel Lake - @ 3.2 miles
5. Ribbon Falls - @ 4.8 miles
6. Black Lake - @ 5 miles

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Tips & Resources for Hiking Black Lake Falls in Glacier Gorge RMNP :

  • Start Early: The hike to Black Lake and Black Lake Falls is challenging and hikers will want to begin early to avoid being in this exposed area when afternoon thunderstorms often tear through the area in Summer.
  • Trekking Poles in Spring and Winter: Because the trail is high in the mountains, the snow and ice can hang around into late Spring and even early Summer, then pick up again in the Fall. Because of this, we recommend Trekking Poles and/or Traction Devices for this trail when the trail conditions are such.
  • Parking: If the parking lot is full at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, there is a shuttle available to take you to the trailhead, or you can park at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park Trail Conditions: Click for RMNP Trail Conditions
  • Trail Map for Bear Lake Corridor Trails: Trail Map Link
  • Rain Gear Recommended: On every occasion I've been into Glacier Gorge, it's been gorgeous weather--and it rained. So, bring Rain gear. In the summer months, thunderstorms can form quickly in this area, especially in the afternoon--just another reason to begin your hike early.
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • After the Hike: Inkwell Brew Coffee
  • Photo: We would like to express our gratitude to Martin Braveboer for sharing such an amazing photograph of Black Lake and Black Lake Falls.

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Shelf Lake Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

You won't find the cascades of Shelf Lake Falls on the map. This tiered, shelf waterfall is hidden away in the high country above Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. Shelf Lake Falls flows out of Solitude Lake then into a creek that spills over the rock shelves of the falls, cutting strange formations out of the snow and ice that often remain into late Summer.

Trail Snapshot: Shelf Lake Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

The journey to Shelf Lake and Shelf Lake Falls follows an out-of-the-way, unmaintained trail, and is a very demanding hike. The hike is best suited for those who have experience navigating off-trail in the backcountry. Because this is a destination page, it does not include trail details. See the Shelf Lake Trail profile for a more detailed description and photos of this hike into the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Tips & Resources for Hiking to Shelf Lake Falls in Glacier Gorge RMNP

  • Start Very Early: Because this hike is so demanding, and because thunderstorms jet through Glacier Gorge on many summer days, it's wise to begin the journey early in the morning.
  • Parking: If the parking lot is full at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, there is a shuttle available to take you to the trailhead, or you can park at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
  • Bring Food: My legs were shot after hiking back to the main trail, and my energy was waning. I had packed a few snacks, but wish I had packed more. So, bring something to give you an energy boost for your hike back to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
  • Trekking Poles: Trekking poles proved really helpful, especially in navigating the descent.
  • Recommended Map for Rocky Mountain National Park: The trail maps provided by Rocky Mountain National Park are usually sufficient. However, if you plan to hike RMNP often, we recommend purchasing a National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map.
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • After the Hike: Inkwell & Brew Coffee

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Shelf Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

This demanding hike in Rocky Mountain National Park takes you off the beaten path to two high-mountain lakes, and grants views of several waterfalls along the way. This trail profile provides helpful details for making the journey to Shelf Lake, Shelf Lake Falls, and Solitude Lake. Because the hike to Shelf Lake requires travel on unmaintained trails, it is best suited for more experienced hikers who are familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park, and who are have honed their land navigation skills. Explore the full Shelf Lake hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and all the details you need to enjoy this adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Snapshot: Shelf Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

The Hike to Shelf Lake RMNP

Shelf Lake sits high above Glacier Gorge, nested in a cirque between Thatchtop and McHenrys Peak. The journey begins at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. However, the Bear Lake Trailhead--which has more parking--affords access to the Glacier Gorge Trail system, adding approximately .1 mile jaunt. The first scenic point along the trail, Alberta Falls, is found at .8 mile in. The trail leads to Mills Lake (at 2.8 miles). Here you'll gain breathtaking views of Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds. The trail skirts the east side of Mills Lake, and makes its way past Jewel Lake.

shelf lake rocky mountain national park trailhead

Soon, you'll come to a fork in the trail with a sign that reads Glacier Gorge campsite, and Black Lake 1.2 miles. The Glacier Gorge Campsite is probably the best site in the entire park and to reserve it, you will have to call the backcountry office as soon as their season opens for reservations. I've spent several months in the park over the years, and this site is unrivaled. However, the trail up to Shelf Lake requires hikers to continue on the main trail, the one that leads towards Black Lake.

Past the sign, the trails climbs a set of stairs and eventually, after approximately 1/4 mile, emerges into an area that is full of downed trees from what appears to have been an avalanche many years ago. If you keep your ears and eyes peeled, you'll see Shelf Creek Falls spilling out into a couple segments of waterfalls up along the cliffs and trees below Arrowhead (see photo below). The hike up to Shelf Lake will afford more views of these falls.

shelf lake rocky mountain national park arrowhead

The unmaintained social trail is located across glacier creek, to the right (West) and can be difficult to find. After a short buschwack across a marshy area to Glacier Creek, a natural crossing point should come into view. Hikers should find two large, flat rocks (pictured below). This has been named, Helicopter Rock. Other crossing points are not advised as the gap widens and the current of Glacier Creek can be swift and very cold.

shelf lake rocky mountain national park trail crossing

On the other side of the creek, the real work begins. The trail is marked--at times--by cairns, but it's often a route-finding puzzle. My rule of thumb is always to avoid anything steep and/or slippery. There is also a TON of deadfall along the trail, which adds further need for caution and slows progress. About half of the way up, you'll encounter another waterfall, Shelf Creek Falls, as the trail bends again toward Shelf Creek.

The last half mile is demanding, hiking around 1000 vertical feet up to Shelf Lake. Don't forget to stop, breath, and take in the views of Glacier Gorge. At this point, hikers are truly in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.

shelf lake rocky mountain national park view into glacier gorge

View into Glacier Gorge and Keyboard of the Winds before Reaching Shelf Lake

At Shelf Lake, you'll hear water streaming over the shelves of rock above the lake. In the early days of Summer, the meltwater cuts beautiful formations out of the snow and ice as it cascades from Shelf Creek Falls into Shelf Lake. View the video below to see it.

You've hiked this far, so it would be a shame to miss Solitude Lake which is a short hike further above Shelf Lake. The wildflowers between the two lakes are outstanding!

A final reminder: This hike is not on maintained trails, is a long hike, and demanding. Hikers should be familiar with RMNP and developed the skills needed for backcountry travel. If you are looking for a demanding hike on maintained trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, we would recommend exploring trail profiles for Sky Pond and Black Lake.

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Tips & Resources for Hiking to Shelf Lake in Glacier Gorge RMNP

  • Start Very Early: Because this hike is so demanding, and because thunderstorms jet through Glacier Gorge on many summer days, it's wise to begin the journey early in the morning.
  • Parking: If the parking lot is full at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, there is a shuttle available to take you to the trailhead, or you can park at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
  • Bring Food: My legs were shot after hiking back to the main trail, and my energy was waning. I had packed a few snacks, but wish I had packed more. So, bring something to give you an energy boost for your hike back to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
  • Trekking Poles: Trekking poles proved really helpful, especially in navigating the descent.
  • Recommended Map for Rocky Mountain National Park: The trail maps provided by Rocky Mountain National Park are usually sufficient. However, if you plan to hike RMNP often, we recommend purchasing a National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map.
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • After the Hike: Inkwell & Brew Coffee

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