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Rocky Mountain National Park: Loch Vale Winter Hike

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Activity: Hike to Loch Vale

Date Visited: 3/6/16

Trailhead: Glacier Gorge Trailhead

Mileage: 6 miles out-and-back

Loch Vale was meant to be merely a stop along the way to Sky Pond but a storm ended up making it our final destination. After our sunrise hike to Dream Lake we hightailed it to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and picked up a backcountry pass for Andrews Creek. It is a backcountry site located just past Loch Vale and would put us in a nice position to visit Sky Pond, Loch Vale, and Mills Lake.

Our hike started at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead located just up the road from the Bear Lake Trailhead. It is extremely popular; we arrived just after 8am and were able to snag one of the last parking spots. We loaded up our packs and headed off expecting not to return to the car for a full 24 hours. 

Resting on the trail just before Alberta Falls

Resting on the trail just before Alberta Falls

The trail started off easy enough: little snow cover, a gradual incline, and perfect weather. We felt like we were cruising along at a nice pace despite having completely loaded packs. In addition to all of our usual camping gear we also brought our snowshoes (which we didn't use, again our ICEtrekkers sufficed), and they were a burden. In spite of the snowshoes we reached Alberta Falls at 0.8 miles in what seemed like no time, but from here the trail was harder to navigate. In the summer there is only one trail to follow but in the winter there are multiple trails because hikers make their own way after snow covers the summer trail. We followed what we thought was the correct trail only to find ourselves climbing up a very steep and very deep section of snow we knew couldn't be right. We heard voices ahead and decided to try to catch up with them, maybe they knew where they were going! They didn't. They took the same path we took and were just as lost as us. We pulled out our map and tried to find our bearings but it wasn't helpful. We doubled back and saw some other hikers about fifty yards to our left. Alex called for them and we made our way towards them and asked if they could point us in the direction of Loch Vale and Sky Pond. They informed us they had just come from Mills Lake and we had finally found the correct path. They also informed us they were led astray the day previous on the same path we faltered down. Back on the right path we were cruising towards Sky Pond again! 

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About 15 minutes after we were redirected down the correct path we made it to a junction with a sign indicating Mills Lake was to the left, Sky Pond, Loch Vale, and Andrews Glacier were straight ahead, and Lake Haiyaha was to the right. We continued straight, feeling elated we were nearing our destination! The trail towards Loch Vale from the junction was a gradual incline up until the final tenth of a mile which seemed to be a nearly vertical face of snow. Again, the summer trail consists of switchbacks but some ambitious trail foraging hikers must have decided to skip the switchbacks and headed straight up. Everyone after them followed suit. I heard a fellow hiker exclaim "this is the fight of my life" as he was ascending. It did feel quite strenuous at the time.

The final push before Loch Vale

The final push before Loch Vale

After 3 miles of hiking we were standing on the frozen shores of Loch Vale. The day that had started out so bright and sunny was quickly turning stormy. The wind was whipping across the lake and it was beginning to snow. The mountains on the opposite shore were growing less and less visible as the storm moved in. Our campsite was located on that opposite shore and the wind was growing stronger by the minute. It was nearly impossible to look anywhere but at our feet without getting a face full of snow and a few gales nearly knocked me off my feet. Alex and I had a decision to make. Despite the fact that I really wanted to see Sky Pond and Mills Lake we didn't feel comfortable trying to wait out the storm. We tried that in Mt. Rainier and it did not go so well for us (read the story HERE). Disappointed, we turned around and headed back towards the trailhead. 

We drove back into Estes Park and found decent and affordable lodging at the Rocky Mountain Park Inn ($99). While I was upset my plans didn't pan out like I had hoped I was grateful to spend a night in a cozy king size bed. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. 

Stormy Loch Vale

Stormy Loch Vale

See more photos from my adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park HERE!