Trailhead: Glacier Gorge Trailhead
Distance: 5.0 miles (easy)
Mills Lake holds a special place in my heart; it was the first hike we did in Colorado. A few weeks after moving here, and after hours of research about hikes in RMNP, this was what I settled on. I could not have picked something better, and it set the bar pretty high as far as future hikes go. Last winter I snowshoed it (slightly on accident) with Jon and a few other people. Again, in the snow, I felt the same sense of wonder and awe when I made it to the top. So this year when Sam came out to visit and wanted to snowshoe, I knew exactly where I wanted to take him.
We started out at 6:00 in the morning. We couldn't use Logan's car, and there was no way my 10 year old corolla was going to make it up those icy roads, so we rented a car with ZipCar (we used this for our trip to VA for Christmas and when we went to Texas for the National Championship). Not just any car, though, we got a BMW...an especially dirty BMW, but still. It was perfect! We made it to Estes Park, grabbed some granola bars at the gas station, rented some boots and poles for Sam, and then hit up Kind Coffee for breakfast. (Pro Tip: ALWAYS STOP AT KIND).
On our way to the parking lot, we passed a herd of 15+ coyotes! They were beautiful, which seems like a strange word to use to describe a coyote, especially if you're used to the ones in VA like we were. But they really were - their coats were shiny and fluffy and golden and they seemed really happy. It was incredible. We made it to the trailhead at 9:15 or so, and ended up being super thankful for the all-wheel drive in the BMW. The winds kept pushing the car around, and everything was just a solid sheet of ice.
I'll be honest, I was nervous about hiking with Sam. He is BEYOND athletic (this guy runs marathons, for crying out loud) and I am ....not. Thankfully the altitude leveled the playing field and I didn't feel like I was slowing him down too much. He definitely pushed me to hike faster (and take those hills head on instead of looking at them in dismay), and for that I am thankful.
We made it to Alberta Falls and had to pause so that we could cool off. It was in the mid-30s all day, and the wind chill had it in the 20s if we were in an open area that the wind could reach us, but snowshoeing is hard work at we were hot. At the trailhead we decided we needed snowpants, but after hiking for a mile we were beginning to regret that decision. My sweat was freezing on my face.
I had so much fun on this hike because it was TOTALLY different than the one that Logan and I did last weekend. The park had about 10" of new snow during the week, so the trails that we took last weekend had been erased and new one had been broken. I kept thinking we would come up on a split and I would know which direction to go, but there weren't many options for choosing-your-own-adventure.
We came to a point where the valley and the trees no longer protected us from the wind gusts. Sam got knocked over a few times, and I could hardly keep my eyes open (I stupidly didn't even bring sunglasses...).
When we made it to the trail split, we met up with some skiers and I double checked that the trail to Mills was indeed there. From the split it's like 0.3 miles to the lake, and easily some of the most beautiful areas there. We had a few more uphill pushes, but with the end in sight (and knowing I wasn't going to have to hike that GIANT hill to Loch Vale), it was easy.
Rounding the corner to Mills Lake is one of my favorite views of all time. I made sure Sam went first so that his view and experience wouldn't be influenced by what I looked at and was excited about. I love this spot in RMNP so much, I wanted Sam to feel the way I felt about it.
The lake was perfect, if not a little windy. The trail went directly onto the lake instead of around it, and everything was incredibly flat, not wavy like other lakes I've seen frozen.
We grabbed a seat in the very middle of the lake on a rock. It was beautiful, but probably not the best choice, wind-wise. We were pounded with blowing snow, I had an open pocket on my backpack fill with snow in the 15 seconds it took me to get granola bars out. We couldn't stop laughing, it was perfect.
We wandered a bit farther out on the lake, and the wind (THANKFULLY) stopped long enough for us to enjoy our surroundings without squinting or bracing ourselves. Sam's hands were freezing so we had to wait for them to warm up enough that he could hold his poles and head down.
We went a slightly different way down, which was great - at first. It ended up taking us significantly LEFT of the parking lot. This was fine, until the runner we were following turned around, saying things were too steep for him to go down any further. He (un-assuringly) told us we'd definitely be able to make it down in our snowshoes, and not wanting to turn around and hike uphill for another mile, we just went for it. It ended up taking us to a hill where everyone in front of us had obviously sat down and slid. It was probably 100-200 feet long, and halfway down I got so nervous that we weren't going the right way...there was no way I was making it back up that hill. Sam reassured me that we would be fine, and so we kept going. Sure enough, it leveled out, opened up, and dumped us right at the beginning of the trail. WE MADE IT - and got to go sledding in the process.
Having Sam in town for the weekend was wonderful. I am so proud of the man he has become and all the things he has accomplished (no really, look at this hospital he helped re-do in his co-op. It's beautiful and it's birthing babies and saving lives). I was so glad to share my favorite spot in my favorite place with him.