The U.S. National Parks system offers access to wild areas not far from paved roads, and Rocky Mountain National Park is just one example. Located in the scenic mountains near Estes Park, Colorado, the popular national park provides access to pristine landscapes of the high alpine without the long hikes that are often required to reach such incredible scenery.
Mills Lake, and the 5.3-mile roundtrip hike that gets you there, requires modest elevation gain – just 780 feet. But the lake is gorgeous. And the mild hike is even lovelier.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
The trail starts from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The trailhead can be busy, and it is. After crossing a creek, where I slip and get my boots wet, my wife and I arrive shortly at Alberta Falls, a tumbling 30-foot waterfall that makes a great spot for lunch. We don’t stop for lunch, but we do stop. Alberta Falls is a great attraction. Its close proximity to the parking lot makes it a popular spot for families on holiday, so the area is busy with children, cheese sandwiches, and even a Frisbee. The Frisbee worries my wife – it’s not exactly a grassy playing field. Large boulders abound, and not a flat surface is to be found, just places to trip. We join in the picture taking, and I attempt to capture the length of the waterfall with the panorama function on my iPhone. The photo is exactly the blur of water and motion I expected, with children, trees and sky too.
Carrying on, the next mile is less populated, and we walk through tunnels of shady pines. The vanilla scent of ponderosa always brings me peace. Though it’s a moderate hike, we still want to stretch our legs, so we run. Trail running is fun, particularly descending. When running trail on downward sections, all your legs can do is keep pace with gravity and dart for safe places to land your feet. It’s meditative and completely involving. The alternative to rapt attentiveness is a smashed face.
Overall, the elevation change is in the upward direction, but it’s still slight enough to run without maxing out our aerobic capacity. It’s cool, then hot in the high-altitude sun, and then cool again as we pass through the shade. Both the hot and the cool are welcome in the thin air.
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