Hiking to Sky Pond
The hike to Sky Pond is one of the most famous and best rated hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The varied views, including of several alpine lakes, and the vistas you see on this trail showcase some of the best that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer. This hike is rated as moderate to difficult.
The most common way to hike to Sky Pond is an out-and-back hike from Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Both because the Glacier Gorge Trailhead was full by 6:45 am on the Saturday we went, and because we wanted to do a longer hike, we started from the Bear Lake Trailhead and made a backwards lollipop hike back down Glacier Gorge and back up to the Bear Lake parking lot.
A friend of mine and I tried to do this hike back in mid-June, but the connector trail from Dream Lake towards Lake Haiyaha and the Loch Vale was under deep snow and we did not have microspikes with us at the time. On this re-try of the trail in early September, everything was completely dry and clear.
Starting out from Bear Lake Trailhead
The National Park Service recommends arriving at Bear Lake Trailhead before 8 am, but I would say arriving before 7 am is best, if you can. Luckily, as we head into September and the winter months there are less cars than during the peak summer months. When we arrived around 6:45 am the parking lot was about 1/3 to 1/2 full. This parking lot has several restrooms.
To start this hike you turn left at the Bear Lake Trailhead and head 0.9 miles along a trail that passes by Nymph Lake and some great views of the park.
At 0.5 miles along the initial trail, you will reach a beautiful small alpine lake called Nymph Lake. When we visited there were lots of lily pads floating in the water.
The pink light cast by the sunrise was also lovely. If you can get up early to see sunrise on Rocky’s alpine lakes, I definitely recommend it!
Views on the way to Dream Lake
Along the way up to Dream Lake you get some stunning views of the valley that hides Mills Lake. When it’s not cloudy, you can see Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker from here.
Trail from Dream Lake to Mills/Loch Junction
This area is a little tricky to describe, since the trail names are simply descriptions of what connects to what.
After 0.9 miles, you hit a junction right next to Dream Lake. We did not make the detour to Dream Lake, but instead turned left onto the Dream Lake-Lake Haiyaha Trail. This trail is 0.7 miles until the junction to Lake Haiyaha.
View from the trail after you climb a hill –
We did not go to Lake Haiyaha at the junction, but continued straight on the Lake Haiyaha to Mills/Loch Junction Trail for another 1.1 miles.
Along the way, you pass this unnamed small alpine lake –
Loch Vale Trail
You know you’re close to the Mills Lake/Loch Vale junction when you start to see people hiking along another trail you can see through the trees.
At the junction you turn to the right to follow Loch Vale Trail up to Loch Lake. The trail was much as I remembered it from when we went snowshoeing there back in mid-April, but the difference was that instead of hiking up the gorge, you hike along trail that has multiple switchbacks up to the lake. The hike along the switchbacks is less challenging than up the steep gorge.
This is the lovely view of the gorge and waterfalls. All of this was covered in snow in April and we hiked up that way previously –
Loch Lake, or The Loch, looked very different when not blanketed in snow and iced over. It was beautiful in winter, but also when thawed out –
The Loch Vale Trail continues along the north side of the lake (you turn right when you hit the lake), all the way to the opposite side and beyond. From the Mills Lake/Loch Vale junction to the junction with the Sky Pond Trail, it is 1.4 miles.
Sky Pond Trail
The trail beyond Loch Lake, which is still Loch Vale Trail, and the trail after hitting the junction with Sky Pond Trail follows beside a creek.
From the junction with Sky Pond Trail to Sky Pond is another 0.7 miles, and this trail is quite steep.
After some time hiking through the woods, the forest opens up and you start seeing some impressive cliffs.
The view looking back down the gorge is impressive –
As you hike up, you see a hint of Timberline Falls, the waterfall you will hike up to that is just before the Lake of Glass –
Approach to Lake of Glass
As you get closer to the Lake of Glass, the views of the valley are even more impressive, and you can see Loch Lake from above –
By your side are tall rock cliffs –
Close to the final approach to Lake of Glass, you have to hike past a waterfall and through some of its side run-off. This rocky area approaching the waterfall has water running through it. Because you have to hike through wet areas on this portion of the trail, as well as above, next to the waterfall, I recommend doing this hike with waterproof hiking shoes.
After that hill you reach Timberline Falls. This spot is famous and most people will stop to take a picture with the falls, so you might have to wait a few minutes if you also want to take a picture here. If you do want to take a picture, I’d recommend doing it on your way up, especially if you started your hike in the morning, as there will likely be less people than later in the day.
The trail continues up next to the waterfall and is partially covered by run-off from the waterfall. This is probably the most difficult portion of the trail because it involves climbing along rocks and through water. It can be tricky to have your hiking poles out here and you may want to place them in the pole holders on your backpack.
Depending on when you arrive to this spot, there will likely be a bit of a delay because some areas require one-way traffic and you have to wait your turn. We found that the way down was more challenging than the way up, but it’s doable, as long as you take your time and take care where you place your feet and grab handholds.
Lake of Glass
Lake of Glass, or Glass Lake, was one of my favorite locations on this trail. The views were amazing –
It does get quite windy, especially after you reach Lake of Glass, so I would recommend bringing layers and wearing appropriate warm clothing. I needed to wear my puff jacket, hat, Buff, and gloves to stay warm.
We stopped behind a rock wall near the beginning of the lake to get some respite from the wind, and this friendly Yellow-bellied Marmot hung out with us. Nobody was giving him food (it is prohibited to give animals food in RMNP), but he seemed to be looking for some.
Trail to Sky Pond
From the edge of Lake of Glass, it’s only another 0.2 miles up to Sky Pond. Here you climb up a rocky trail, and past a small waterfall –
It was even windier at Sky Pond than Lake of Glass, but we sat down on the rocks to enjoy the view and eat food.
The views here are also amazing, but difficult to capture on camera. The mountains behind the lake are so close that even a wide-angle lens would not be able to capture the whole view. However, you can get a good idea of what it looks like in a panorama –
The sharp rocky cliffs to the right are iconic and make you feel like you are looking at a natural wonder.
Glacier Gorge Trail
On the way back, after heading down Sky Pond Trail (0.7 miles) and Loch Vale Trail (1.4 miles), we did a lollipop loop back from the Mills Lake/Loch Vale Junction, heading down Glacier Gorge Trail. It is 1.7 miles to reach the junction back to the Bear Lake Trailhead.
This trail is heavily trafficked because it links the parking lots with several popular destinations, but the views here never cease to amaze.
After passing the Glacier Gorge, there are still areas where you can get glimpses of Rocky Mountain views –
And when we visited in early September, some of the aspens were already starting to change color –
About halfway along the trail, and only 0.8 miles from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, you find Alberta Falls. This spot can be busy, as it’s not far from the parking lots, but it’s still a beautiful waterfall to behold.
Finishing the Hike
You come to a junction that will take you to Bear Lake Trailhead if you turn left, and Glacier Gorge Trailhead if you turn right. We turned to the left, crossed a bridge, and headed uphill for 0.4 miles back to the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Recommended as a Strenuous Hike
Although the trail was busy in most places, this hike was one of my favorites so far in Rocky Mountain National Park. I could easily see why it is so famous and popular with the varied views of forest, gorges, waterfalls, and alpine lakes.
You can either do this 10-mile lollipop Sky Pond hike with over 3,000 ft elevation gain, or the slightly shorter version of the hike to Sky Pond from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which is 8 miles long with 1,760 ft elevation gain.
If you are visiting Rocky Mountain National Park and only have time for one or a couple hikes, and are in good shape, I would highly recommend the hike to Sky Pond.