With a grand park, comes a grand hike. Weaving through one of the country's most popular national parks, the 4.5-mile (9-mile round trip) hike to Sky Pond offers Colorado locals and visitors a classic Rocky Mountain hiking experience featuring ever-unfolding vistas, Gatorade-blue glacial lakes, heart-pumping inclines, and refreshing mountain air.
All of these features combine to make this 5-8 hour adventure (depending on the season and on fitness levels) one of the most rewarding hiking experiences in Rocky Mountain National Park. And even better, if you are short on time, or don't want to hoof it all the way to Sky Pond, there are a number of distinct points along the way that are great destinations and places to turn-around as well.
The hike to Sky Pond begins from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which is located on Bear Lake Road. Our advice is to arrive early so that you can snatch a coveted parking spot at this lot because it does tend to fill up quickly. If the lot is full, there are other nearby lots where you can park and start your hike from or snag a shuttle from.
The roughly 9-mile round trip hike starts with a fairly easy first section that has well-maintained paths and foot-bridges, and that winds you through zig-zagging switchbacks beneath towering pines and alongside a rushing creek. In late spring and early summer, this creek is positively gushing with the last of winter's snowmelt, making it as easy on the eyes as it is deafening on the eardrums.
About .8-miles and 9,423-feet into the hike, you'll encounter Alberta Falls, which is a summertime beauty that is worthy of a picture and yes of course, your first snack break. We encourage you to keep going, but this is also a great place to turn-around if you're wearing denim and cotton tee-shirts.
After you've soaked in the sites of Alberta Falls, keep on trucking up the trail, through various switchbacks, and along a rocky ridge-side trail until you reach the Loch , which is about 3-miles into the hike and sits at 10,192'. This alpine lake is a lovely little spot nestled below RMNP's Taylor Peak, and if you're not interested in going any farther, it's also a great place to hang out for the afternoon or cast a line.
After enjoying a quick break at the Loch, continue to follow the trail around the right-side of the shoreline for the final half of the hike to Sky Pond. The beginning portion of the hike doesn't get much sunlight, so it often has snowpack late into the summer season. After a short, but technical walk through some towering Rocky Mountain pines, the hike will open up, unveiling great views of the Loch and the valley behind you and of the final snowy slog to come.
The last half-mile of the section from the Loch to the upper alpine lakes of Glass Lake and Sky Pond is pretty steep and technical, especially if there is still snow. We recommend taking your time during this part of the hike, and even using snowshoes if necessary.
Along the way, in the warmer seasons, you'll pass Timberline Falls, a powerful glacial runoff waterfall that drops from the base of Glass Lake at 10,642'. As you hike north and right of the falls, you'll encounter a craggy section of the trail, where it is technical and often wet until you crest the top to be greeted with views of a stunning alpine lake sitting at 10,808' and 4.2 miles into your hike.
Lots of people stop at this lake, known as Glass Lake, and think they've made it to Sky Pond. But Sky Pond is actually half a mile farther, hidden from view due to its higher elevation. Continue on your way along the right side of Glass Lake to reach the final destination.
Once you make it to Sky Pond, the views of the pristine alpine lake, the towering Taylor Peak, and of course the steeply-sliced Glacier Gorge make the 4.5 mile hike totally worth it. After you've enjoyed taking in the scenery of your surroundings, return the way you came, retrace your steps, and finish your hike at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
- From downtown Estes Park take 66 to the Beaver Meadows Park Entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. (Local Tip: if you get there before 6:30am you don’t have to pay the $20 entrance fee.) Continue just .02 mile to the Bear Lake Road and take a sharp left into the valley. Continue on the Bear Lake Road as it passes the beautiful, vast Moraine Park area and continue roughly 7 miles to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking lot, which will be on the left side of the road.
- When planning to hike this route, it's important to start your hike early in the morning for two reasons: first, the trailhead parking lots fill up quickly, and secondly, in the summer months, thunderstorms will form unexpectedly in the early afternoon. And don't forget that dogs aren’t normally allowed beyond the parking lots in National Parks.
- Also, crowds tend to thin out the farther in you hike. So, if you're discouraged by all the foot traffic during the first mile of the trail to Alberta Falls, just be patient and keep on keeping on towards Sky Pond, and you'll likely only have to share the scenic splendor with just a handful of other people at most.
- Planning to do this hike? Share your adventures with us by tagging #RootsRated.
- Want to stay a little longer? Make reservations well in advance (3 months or more) for car camping in the park. Backcountry camping permits are easier to get but it’s worth planning at least a month in advance if possible. For more information, visit the NPS website.
- And always, when you're out and about in nature, please Leave No Trace, Pack it in and Pack it out, and respect all things wild.