3 Colorado Glacier Hikes to Add to Your Bucket List
By: Amber Inthavong
If you're a hiking enthusiast, the process is all too familiar. Taking the time to browse through a list of suitable trails, eagerly researching details on how far it will be and how long it will take. But the final unwavering question you will always ask is, what is there to see on this trail? Because that's the deciding factor right? Whether the hike leads to a lake, a waterfall runs alongside a river or reaches the top of a peak, either way, you are always looking for a trail’s unique characteristics when deciding.
Think of Colorado glacier, and you may not have known it existed, because what usually comes to mind are those in Antarctica. But Colorado glaciers are here, and they hold beauty inside and out. They provide us with a source of water, insurance during a drought and they offer an utterly rewarding, picturesque, payoff at the end of your hiking destination.
Glaciers are a mass of dense ice, formed when snow accumulates and compresses over many years. They move slowly under its own weight, which explains the cirques and lakes that exist in its presence. The research will show a prediction of our glaciers vanishing within the next 20 to 25 years, and whatever your stance is on climate change, how it factored into our disappearing glaciers, one thing is for sure; We are fortunate right now to live in a time to be able to enjoy them while we can. Right now, we are able to experience their glory and capture the memory, of trekking through spectacular hikes to see our state’s glaciers. So the present is a better time than any, Colorado glaciers are a must do! Here are 3-day hikes to add to your bucket list, in order by skill level.
St Mary’s Glacier
Skill Level: Easy
Distance: 1.9 Miles (one way)
Elevation Gain: 807 feet
Location: Idaho Springs
You may have heard the buzz about St Mary’s Glacier in Idaho Springs as being the most doable hike. In just under 2 miles, feast your eyes on a frigid lake resting at the base of the mountainside. Spot the waterfall trickles of snowmelt, feeding that vibrant pool and the bare bark trees along the shore, you won’t be disappointed with the photos you’ll capture here. Expect some sharp inclines during this hike and large rocks to maneuver over on your way up, but the final destination is well worth it. With it being only a quick drive from Denver, this one is great for dogs and a quick day hike.
Lake Isabelle and Isabelle Glacier
Skill Level: Moderate
Distance: 3 Miles (one way to Lake) / 8.4 Miles (one way to Glacier)
Elevation Gain: 462 feet / 1,430 feet
Lake Isabelle can be reached at 3 miles, begin at the Niwot Cutoff trailhead and you will approach Long Lake first, within the first ⅓ of a mile. Once you reach Long Lake there will be a fork, showing Jean Lunning Trail going left of Long Lake, but here is where you’ll want to veer right of the fork. Shortly after crossing a bridge over water, you'll see a sign that points towards Isabelle Glacier Trail. This trail has a slight slope, but the wooded path provides shade along the whole way and stays mostly flat. At Lake Isabelle, pristine water rests just below grey peaks, find large, plentiful boulders to capture some great landscape photos. Just as all glaciers act as providers, Isabelle glacier is a source of South Saint Vrain Creek. If you're determined to reach the glacier, you can continue going forward on the trail, essentially passing Lake Isabelle and extending the hike to 8.4 miles long.
Skill Level: Difficult
Distance: 4 Miles (one way)
Elevation Gain: 3,553 feet
Arapaho glacier will be listed as “hikeable”, but don’t mistake that as meaning it’s easy. “Hikeable” simply indicates there is a trail that leads to the peak, as opposed to some of our other glaciers which require true climbing. One thing that makes this glacier special is the watershed that’s responsible for a percentage of Boulders water supply, making it an important resource.
There is a route to this glacier by taking Rainbow Lakes Trail, which amounts to 6 miles one way. But for the shorter 4-mile route, begin instead from the Fourth of July Trailhead, connecting to Arapaho Pass, connecting to Arapaho Glacier Trail, and you’ll be rewarded. Luckily, each connecting trail is clearly marked at every fork you come across, so don’t let all the transitions on this route deter you. Now this hike is serious, I recommend it to the advanced hiker as it crosses cascades of water, valleys with areas of wet marsh (that’ll force you to hop rocks) and finally, it’ll push you above the tree line in challenging switchbacks, where the marmots live in the highest point of the mountain! Consider setting aside the whole day for Arapaho glacier, as the 8 miles total, might require it.
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Truth be told, St Mary’s and Arapaho glacier aren’t technically glaciers anymore, they are perennial snowfields that collect snow year-round. Nonetheless, we love glaciers and snowfields alike, as they provide a critical resource for the people and a unique experience that differs from your typical hike. Be sure to attempt these hikes at the right time of year, June through September, ideally when the trails are safest, and the temperature is right. Glacier hikes will gift you with pools of turquoise water, scattered snow-covered peaks, even on the hottest summer days, and an unforgettable payoff on the end of your journey. Hikers, add this to your ever-expanding bucket list of new places to witness, new challenges, and breathtaking landscapes, you won’t regret it.
Written by: Amber Inthavong