Hiking Sky Pond – An adventurous yet accessible adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a wonderful outdoor playground. The options for hikers are diverse in both their scenery and their difficulty. Many novice hikers gravitate towards the renowned trio of lakes found at the Bear Lake trailhead – Nymph, Dream, and Emerald. At the other end of the spectrum is Longs Peak, a strenuous yet thrilling adventure best saved for those who have significant experience with high altitude hiking. One of my favorite hikes in the park is the hike to Sky Pond. In the right conditions, this hike can strike the perfect balance between the accessibility of the lakes hike and the thrill of Longs Peak. This makes this trail a great stepping stone for anyone who has grown comfortable with the basics of hiking and is now looking to get into more challenging distances and terrain.
Location: Glacier Gorge trail head, Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance: 8 Miles round trip (out and back)
Elevation: Starting elevation is about 9,000 feet, total elevation gain is about 1,800 feet
Difficulty: Mostly Class 2 hiking with a brief period of class 3 during the ascent from Mill’s Lake to The Loch. No technical hiking required in good conditions.
Gear: The ten essentials are always recommend. Hiking poles can be a big help for stability. Traction such as Yaktrax can be very beneficial for the ascent between Mill’s Lake and The Loch, especially if there is any snow or ice. Waterproof hiking boots are recommended year round in RMNP, but especially for this hike as it travels near many different bodies of water.
What to know before you go:
- This hike is located inside of Rocky Mountain National Park and will require either an annual membership or a day pass to access the trailhead. Annual memberships pay for themselves after only a couple of days. They are highly recommended as a great way to support the park.
- The Glacier Gorge trail head offers very limited parking. It will fill up early during the summer. You can also park at Bear Lake and hike down to this trail head, or make use of the park shuttle.
- Rocky Mountain National Park does not allow dogs on any trails.
- This hike becomes very challenging in winter months or after any significant snow fall. Do not attempt this hike under these conditions unless you are experienced with (and equipped for) winter hiking and ice climbing.
- This hike is therefore easiest to complete from June through September, but always check the forecast to get an idea of current conditions.
- Summer months bring regular afternoon thunderstorms to the park. This hike contains a significant portion above the tree line where it is very dangerous to be caught during a storm. Plan to complete this hike as early in the day as possible. You should be descending back to the trail head by noon.
This trail will start with a peaceful walk through the forest. You will soon hear waterfalls in the distance, and after about a mile you will come to Alberta Falls. This is a very scenic spot that makes for a perfect first break. Many families and other visitors will stop around here, meaning that the trail becomes more secluded as you push on. You will also notice a marked increase in the incline from this point forward until you reach the junction with the North Longs Peak Trail. This is nothing too hard, pace yourself and make use of those hiking poles if you brought them. Keep to the westward trail (hiker’s right) to continue towards The Loch. The trail will take you through a breathtaking valley in this section. Enjoy the views! Continue on until you reach The Loch. The Northeast end of the lake offers more great views and is a perfect place for a second stop. The toughest part of the hike is coming up, don’t be afraid to catch your breath. You will skirt around The Loch to the north over flat and often wet terrain. You brought those waterproof shoes right?
Finally we arrive at the most challenging (and exciting!) part of the hike. You will be ascending a steep and rocky section just to the right of Timberline Falls. This area can be very challenging with ice and snow, and will almost always be wet. Use traction and your poles to slowly climb along the side of the falls. Take your time and test every foothold before you commit to a full step. Using your hands makes progress easier at several points. Personally, I use extendable hiking poles for this hike and keep them fully retracted at this part. This allows me to easily alternate between using the pole or my hand (with the pole secured to my wrist) as needed.
If you take your time and make careful progress you will find yourself at the top of Timberline Falls in no time. Congratulations, the hard part is over! Enjoy your new views of the Lake of Glass, which has been obstructed by the falls until this point. Navigating around The Lake of Glass is an unforgettable experience. As you near Sky Pond and the end of the hike, a massive and very distinctive mountain formation known as “The Sharkstooth” will open up before you to the right. You will understand the name as soon as you see it. I really enjoyed how this formation remains hidden until the very end of the hike. It makes a great reward for your efforts. If conditions still appear favorable, you can rest a long while beneath the spires of The Sharkstooth at the shores of Sky Pond. There is an overhang of rock on the Northeast corner of the lake that makes for great sun bathing - just make sure you have been applying your sunscreen!
You will follow the same route back to the trailhead when you are ready to head down. Once again, be very careful and deliberate as you descend back to the base of Timberline Falls. Many people feel that the descent if more challenging than the climb up. Be sure that you have saved some energy. Take care to enjoy views of the valley that you came from at the top of the falls before your descend. Once you are back to The Loch you will find that the rest of the hike is straightforward and goes quickly. Hopefully you will feel that you have just completed an epic adventure, and I suggest that you celebrate accordingly.
All visitors to RMNP should abide by the principles of Leave No Trace. It is important that we leave this wonderous resource in pristine condition for future generations to enjoy as we have.
Never hike without the ten essentials. This is a longer and more challenging hike, making these tools especially important.
Always practice sound judgment and hiking safety practices. Learn more here:
You can learn more about Rocky Mountain Nation Park here:
Written by: Chris Sienza