Want to escape the heat, but don’t have time for a long drive? Then it’s time to check out St. Mary’s Lake.
For decades, Coloradans visited St. Mary’s Lake to see, hike and ski the “glacier.” While most experts say St. Mary’s is not technically a glacier, they do agree it’s a permanent snowfield, making a great place to cool off and enjoy the snow in the summer.
The trailhead is about 15 minutes from I-70 and Idaho Springs (directions below). The large, dirt parking lot is a bit primitive. There’s a port-a-potty, handwritten signs that tell you where to go and a permit box. It costs $5 per vehicle to park here (2013). Don’t park illegally, you don’t want to be ticketed or towed.
To get to the lake and glacier, hike on the road, up the hill. You’ll follow a fence about an eighth of a mile, passing several old cabins. The turnoff/trail is marked with a sign that’s been there for years. It says, “Glacier Hike. 3/4 mile to base of Glacier. Use extreme caution on the glacier, injuries and fatalities occur each year.”
After reading the warning and taking pictures, begin hiking up the trail. The trail here is very rocky and may seem steep to visitors and people who do not hike often.
A sign in the parking lot tells hikers to go left at first two intersections, that was right. However, we were confused about what to do at the third intersection.We knew the lake was generally up and to the right of the trail, so we went up/left at the third intersection. We ended up hiking a short distance, then taking a “social” or faint trail to the right and hiking down to the lake. I recommend taking 2 lefts (like the signs says), then a right. That trail is a more direct route to the lake.
Your first view of the lake will likely include a large snowfield on the nearby hillside. Walk around the lake, find a picnic spot and enjoy the views. Or head toward the glacier. Which snowfield is the glacier? As you look at the lake, it’s the snowfield to the right.
From top to bottom, depending on what time of year you visit, the snowfield is about a half-mile long and you can hike it. Like the sign says, “injuries and fatalities occur each year.” Some people hike the rocks on the side of the glacier. Some wear snowshoes or microspikes to hike on the glacier. Just know, the glacier is very steep, with a grade of more than 25% at times.
At the top, there’s a trail across the tundra. You can hike to Loch Lomond, James Peak or just walk around enjoying the views up here.
When you’re done exploring, return the way you came, being very careful on the snow and ice.
Details: The hike to St Mary’s Lake is about 1.3 miles roundtrip with 300 feet of elevation gain. The hike to the top of the glacier, depending on the season, is about 3 miles roundtrip with about 900 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From Denver, take I-70 past Idaho Springs to exit 238 St Mary’s Alice. Take the frontage road a short distance and turn right on CR 275. From here, it’s 9 miles to the parking lot on your left.
If you want more hikes, look lower in this article for more suggestions or check out more than 200 other great hikes in Colorado here.
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