MIlls Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Fall Hike To Mills Lake

Walking among the aspen is like venturing into a cathedral of stunning yellows and oranges. For the past week my wife and I watch the colors explode on the hillsides of Rocky Mountain National Park. We are itching to hit the trail, but which one?

Mills Lake is one of the most popular destinations in the Park for good reason—it is lovely, especially in the fall. We start early to avoid the crowds, grabbing one of the last spots at the Glacier Gorge lot at 6:45 a.m. We can see our breath so we wear fleece and put on gloves. Just moments from the trailhead we walk across a bridge and stop to watch the water tumble over the rocks among the aspen. The early morning light make the aspen appear warm, golden.

A little farther up the trail my wife spots a fawn jump across the trail. Where is the mother? Then we spy her hiding in the rocks. We give the mother a wide berth as she leaps across the trail and follows her fawn into the woods beyond. Early morning we always see deer, elk and the occasional horseshoe hare.

Soon we are walking through a tunnel of aspen, the stunning leaves like stained glass windows in nature’s church. We reach a viewpoint and look northeast at a moraine covered in a tapestry of yellows, oranges and greens, like a carpet we can sink our toes into. A little further along we walk beside Glacier Gorge, the water rushing below, the aspen hugging the hillsides among the spruce. We work up a sweat on the steady climb so we stuff our fleece in our packs.

Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colorado
Alberta Falls on the trail to Mills Lake.

Before we know it we hear the thunder of water and we are upon Alberta Falls, a picture perfect 30-foot waterfall named after Alberta Sprague, wife of local pioneer and lodge owner Abner Sprague. So what do I do? My wife grabs a snack while I scramble over the rocks and take picture after picture, framing the falls with aspen.

At the junction of the Mills Lake turnoff, we dip into a deep, thick forest that reminds us of a scene out of the “Lord of the Rings.” The temperature plunges 20 degrees so we grab our fleece from our packs. We climb and are soon on a granite slab with cairns (piles of rocks) guiding our way.

Soon Mills Lake opens before us, cradled by Longs Peak to the left and McHenry’s Peak and Spearhead to the right. This picturesque lake is named for Enos Mills, the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park.” The sun had yet to peek out from behind Half Mountain, so we settle on a rock outcropped that juts into the lake and enjoy the quiet solitude of a windless morning while sipping on coffee from our thermos. Mount McHenry reflects in the still water. It was so quiet we can hear waterfalls cascade down a mountainside in the distance. Was the water from Shelf and Solitude Lakes? The sun comes over the mountain and hits our faces at 8:55 a.m. We warm up immediately, and with the sun on the water, we see trout swimming just inches from our boots.

On our hike down the trail looks completely different. With the higher sun the aspen sparkle like jewels and filter the light into a gentle, caressing yellow. More pictures! We reach our car at 11 a.m. and reflect on a morning well spent.

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