Mills Lake, Jewel Lake

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Hiking details:

  • Mileage: 5 miles round trip from Glacier Gorge trail head to Mills Lake, 6 miles roundtrip to Jewel Lake.
  • Altitude: Mills Lake: 9,940 feet, Jewel Lake: 9,950 feet
  • Elevation gain: 700 feet
  • To get there: Take the Bear Lake Road in RMNP to the Glacier Gorge trail head.

Feeling light after hiking with a full pack on all day, we are energetic on our afternoon side trip from the Boulder Brook group site to Mills Lake and Jewel Lake. We are heading west, staring dark, heavy clouds in the face as we walk toward them. Where the trail from the Boulder Brook group site meets the Glacier Gorge trail, we run into crowds of hikers. Some families are turning back, deterred by the building storm, and when we reach Mills Lake, we find the trail to be pretty quiet.

We feel a few raindrops, but the sun is fighting them as we hike along the lakeshore.

“If it weren’t cloudy, I would swim,” I tell Alex, as we continue to pass ideal entry points into the lake.

By the time we reach Jewel Lake, the sun has won and the sky is clearing up. Now, Alex says, we can swim without getting too cold. We contemplate getting in to Jewel Lake, but decide that there were much better spots along the shore of Mills. As we are running back toward Mills (running, in case the sun has intentions of disappearing), I am flustered that we made solid decisions about where to swim.

The best thing about swimming when you’re on a hike is that it’s spontaneous, I tell Alex. The point is not to survey all the spots and make a logical decision about which one is most suitable. The point is to jump in in a moment of anxiousness and to come out exuberant, and covered in goose bumps.

However, I must say that we picked a pretty great spot when the moment came and we still came out exuberant and covered in goose bumps. From the trail, we walked up a small hill and down the other side to a flat rock reaching into the water. Being the first to get in Mills, I waded in slowly on the rock’s surface. The water in this lake, at 9,940 feet, is so cold it feels sharp on my skin. I dip in only to my chin, not wanting to have my hair wet all night while we camp. Still, that’s far enough to cool me off in seconds. I am not sure I can even call my time in Mills Lake swimming. Alex dove in, getting his head wet. I, on the other hand, took several short dips and sunned myself on the rocks in between.

It is only when we are recovered and the sun has smoothed the goose bumps from our skin that we begin to think about what to explore next around the lakes. On the north end of Mills, there is a small rocky hill and Alex wants to climb it, thinking that we’ll get good views from the top. We head toward it, back the way we came, and are ascending it within minutes. We scramble over the rocks and linger at the top until we feel the pressure of the evening setting in: let’s get back, make dinner and get settled in before the dark and the still-looming storm come.

From the hill, we can see Mills Lake and Jewel Lake below us to the south. We can imagine where Black Lake, Shelf Lake, and Solitude Lake are beyond them and see the Keyboard of the Winds rising above it all. To the west, there is 12,668 foot Thatchtop Mountain, separating us from the Loch Vale. To the north, we can see the Mummy range and the edge of Estes Park, seeming oddly close after we’ve exerted so much effort to get out of town for the weekend.

Source for hiking details: Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park, A Falcon Guide by Kent and Donna Dannen.

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