St. Mary’s Glacier, also known as St. Mary’s/Alice, is an extremely popular summer destination, due to its close proximity to Denver. Besides that, this place is quite unique since this is where you will likely see hikers carrying skis, snowboards, and ski boots in summertime - if you don't know why, wait till you reach the "glacier". With the lake less than a mile from the trailhead and the snowfield nearby, this is a fun outdoor place for family. But most visitors probably don't know that beyond the glacier is an even more spectacular view. You have to hike over the steep snowfield, but you will be rewarded by your effort. For seasoned hikers, St. Mary's Glacier Trail is an access point to James Peak and the James Peak Wilderness beyond.
ST. MARY'S GLACIER
This area was once a hub of activities for miners wanting to strike it rich in the 1800's. It was said that an estimated 8,000 prospectors scoured the Fall River Area in 1860. It ended in about the mid-1900s and today the area is busy with visitors wanting to experience the outdoors, especially the glacier. Despite its name, the "glacier" is not actually a true glacier, but a semi-permanent snow field, a compacted snow field that does not melt entirely even in summer.
TO GET HERE
From Denver to the trailhead is about an hour drive via I-70 heading west. Past the town of Idaho Springs take exit 238 and follow 275/Fall River Road. The trailhead is located north west of Idaho Springs. There are two parking area provided by the Fall River Road with $5 parking fee (cash only and don't even think of parking along the road - you will get towed). Portable rest rooms are also available at both parking areas.
- HIKING TRAIL -
ST. MARY'S GLACIER LAKE TO ROCK HOUSE/LOCH LOMND OVERLOOK – 6.5 miles
First, the trail here is rocky and loose right at the beginning, so wearing the right shoes helps a lot. The trail's direction is also a little confusing due to side roads that lead to private properties. One of these side roads leads down to a waterfall. It's not as spectacular as the other waterfalls you've probably seen somewhere else but it is a quiet spot. To get back to the main trail, you have to back track but it's a nice detour, if you are not too eager to see the glacier.
Most visitors just hike to St. Mary’s Lake. The lake and the view of the glacier is enough for most, especially for families with kids along.
Some will walk a little farther to the foot of the glacier and partway up. Then they will be rewarded with a stunning view of the lake and the mountain beyond. You don't actually have to go up high to see this view. Photo below.
But hiking up beyond the glacier will provide a spectacular 360 view of the surrounding mountains. Take note though, bring along spikes if you want to do this. The ascent over the glacier is steep and there are icy spots along the way. It helps to have traction to prevent you from sliding down the slope. Beyond the snowfield a wide Alpine tundra opens up. Look down and you will find colorful tiny wildflowers growing low on the ground.
As you go farther, the stunning view of Mount Bancroft and James Peak appears in front of you and the crowds are behind you. You are surrounded by a view of the mountains and you get a peak at the high mountains beyond. It will inspire you to go farther to see what lies ahead.
At a junction is Kingston Peak Trail from which you can go to the right heading north to James Peak, and to the left heading south that leads to the Rock House, or Loch Lomond Overlook. Whichever path you choose you have to consider the time and your hiking capabilities. On this hike we took the easier path, to Loch Lomond Overlook. There is a steep incline to the top but what lays beyond is an amazing view.
The Rock House is actually a massive pile of rocks. Many of them were probably brought in from somewhere else to bring them luck. You will find messages on some of these rocks and some are memorials to their loved ones. The rusty mail box in the middle seems strange but whoever brought it in did not carry it on his/her back. You can reach this spot without hiking, if you have a 4WD. The Kingston Peak Trail, as it is called, is a popular jeep trail in the summer and early fall.
From the Rock House is a stunning view of the mountains and Loch Lomond below. This is also a nice spot to hang out for a while, to recharge, have lunch and enjoy the surroundings. We were surprised to have the place to ourselves the whole time we were there on this hike.
On the way down, hiking back over the glacier is a lot trickier. Hiking poles will help you prevent sliding down the slope. Even with hiking poles, we used our heels to dig into the snow as we descended to prevent slipping. You don't want to take chances, slipping on your butt is not a good way to reach the bottom fast. It's along way down, but even if you fall you won't slide too far.
OTHER HIKING TRAILS TO EXPLORE IN ARAPAHO NATIONAL FOREST: