Hike To Alberta Falls & Mills Lake
After a morning warm up hike (walk) around Sprague Lake, we decided to head to Alberta Falls. This was another short hike that we had planned, without the intention of going much further due to ice and snow pack from a storm the previous week. We were pretty uncertain of what the trails would look like in the park, especially those that lead deeper into the woods and with elevation gains.
We started this hike with a ride in the park shuttle, from the Park and Ride (right across from Glacier Basin Campground). We tossed some snack bars, water and necessities in our bags and left the rental car in the lot. Prior to jumping on the shuttle, we spoke with a ranger who was standing nearby and asked about the trail condition. She said they were definitely still slushy and snowy, and trekking poles would be a good idea. We headed back to the car to gather trekking poles!
We hoped on the shuttle bus, and very soon, arrived at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The ranger in that parking lot chatted with us for a bit, and let us know that we would likely be able to make it well past Alberta Falls, and he highly recommended the trail. He said Mills Lake is one of the best to see, and we wouldn't regret the decision to plow forward. Kim was pretty excited about that, but I was pretty uncertain about hiking almost 6 miles in snow and ice and mud. I'm still coming back from an rough leg and knee injury that put a total damper on our first trip to Rocky Mountain, and I wanted to be determined to go on longer hikes, but was just not sure how the leg would cooperate.
So, we started along the trail, which begins with a heavy surrounding of beautiful aspens. Those trees have the best colors and smells of most trees... make sure you pause to enjoy the scene, and smell the air. The trail boasts a steady incline, carrying you up and away into this dense forest. A couple of small foot bridges take you over creeks and streams.
Before you know it, Alberta Falls can be heard roaring in the background. It grows louder as you approach, and while not a huge or dynamic waterfall, this is an impressive waterfall with a few places to sit and catch your breath. Personally, I could sit and stare at most waterfalls for way too long... the rush of water and the sound that accompanies it... so relaxing.
We barely paused here though, as it was clearly the main attraction for most of the hikers. There was a small crowd gathered around and we opted to keep moving. A few steps away from the waterfall, and we were suddenly all by ourselves. We had left the crowd and found ourselves with a trail of our own. After the 0.8 miles to Alberta, the trail really begins to climb and the next 2 miles are full of beautiful scenery. Rocky ledges that provide you with a sweeping view of the landscape, log bridges over streams, and a thick forest of trees. Our hike didn't really follow a trail in the dirt, but rather a dirty path in the snow. A majority of the trail past Alberta Falls was snow packed.
At one point, we came to a bridge that was just a log and paused for several photos and videos. Immediately after that, I almost quit. The path rose at a good incline, completely snow packed, shady and slippery - and the river was rushing just below a straight drop on one side. With shaky hands and sliding feet, I made a decision that this was possible and it was time to go - and with Kim encouraging me from behind - we pushed right up this little spot. What a rush of good feelings - being scared, but knowing it's not really that scary, and pushing through the fear.
Beyond this point, we really only crossed paths with a couple of other people, and ended somewhat following our being followed by a couple of ladies from Ohio. They were so nice, and we had fun encouraging each other in the trickier spots. We also had fun with this hike because it was either raining, sleeting, snowing, or sunny and changing every five minutes. We ended up wearing rain jackets and hats, and putting the rain-covers on our Osprey packs - so we sort of looked like soggy turtles climbing the trail. It was fantastic to hike in snow and sleet - something we don't get to experience much in southern California.
We rounded a mountain a bit further along the trail, and suddenly the ground was dry and the sun was shining. We warmed up and dried off a bit, then quickly landed back in grey skied rain. Finally, we found water in front of us and thought we had made it... and thought it was totally not worthy of all the bragging those rangers proclaimed. Then we spotted our fellow hikers from Ohio, and realized that we were not at the "end" just yet. We were seeing some kind of log filled pool of water, with snow and ice all around it. The trail here is hard to follow because it lands on a rock face, and with all of the snow and rock, we had no idea where the trail was. We just wandered until we were near the other hikers, and suddenly, we understood the claims about this lake. It was beautiful. Snowy peaks towered in the distance. Clear water reflected the beautiful scenery. Snow covered the edges of the water.
And then it started thundering. We thought it might be a good time to head back down the mountain, or at least to get off of the big rock we were hanging out on. This trail is an out and back, so you just retrace the steps out that you took in. We were met with mostly dry skies for the remainder of the hike, and a bit more sun than our trip up had. That also meant slushy snow and lots of mud, so our boots put in heavy duty on this hike.
At the end, we hopped aboard the shuttle and it took us right back to our car (and bathrooms). This hike was a success, and meant a lot to me personally. Spending a year injured has been an incredibly discouraging thing to go through. This hike felt like my triumphant entry back into the hiking world. We traversed snow, dirt, and mud, for almost 6 miles, up and down pretty steep hills... and I did it. I didn't let fear get the best of me, I didn't let the ache in my leg end the day, and we did it. We made it to a destination, and back, and wow was it worth the adventure.
For you, it may not be so emotionally meaningful, but still, do this hike. In wet or dry, it's a do-able hike for most trail folks, and the views are very much worth the effort. Oh, and take note - the chipmunks are cute, but they are bold and greedy. Please don't feed the, and don't let them steal your snack!
- Trail Distance: 0.8 miles to Alberta Falls, 2 miles to Mills Lake = 2.8 miles / 5.6 roundtrip
- Elevation Gain: +/- 700 feet