One of Colorado’s more attractive scenes is St. Mary’s Glacier, located in Clear Creek County, less than an hour’s drive west of Denver. It’s close enough for a day trip, yet far enough away to lose yourself in the quiet mountain serenity.
Technically, St. Mary’s Glacier isn’t a glacier because the mass of ice and snow doesn’t flow down the mountain. The glacier gets its name from the year-round snowpack that lines a narrow chute through a stretch of mountain tops. The runoff flows about 50 feet downhill through a meadow full of vegetation and forms a beautiful lake below.
To get there from Denver, drive west on Interstate 70 to exit 238, then head north (right) on Fall River Road for about 9 miles until you reach the St. Mary’s Glacier trailhead. Fall River Road is a lovely drive along Fall River on the west side.
Residences tucked away behind thick trees and barely visible from the road are accessed all along the way via small bridges over the narrow river. There are also three or four switchbacks on Fall River Road, some of them very tight.
The trailhead is marked by a sign that’s hard to see from the road, so be careful not to drive past it. It will be on the left-hand side, between a row of trees on the north and a chain link fence on the south.
A small shoulder here contains enough room for only two or three cars. Down the road about 500 feet is a small area where you can park for a small fee.
The first part of the trail is fairly steep and will get the average person’s heart and respiratory rates going. Rocks of all sizes provide ample footing and opportunities for twisted ankles if you are not paying attention.
Along the way, there are many forks in the road. Take a left at the first fork to get on the right path. After that, all the trails you encounter will lead to the glacier. As you go, stick to the trail: The land on both sides is private property.
Wildflowers and vegetation line the trail, including various types of wild mushrooms that hide under fallen bark or leaves. Turn to look behind you for spectacular views at various points throughout the hike.
After hiking for just under a mile, you will see your destination. Rising from the south side of the lake, the glacier peeks through the trees. As you get closer, the bright, green lake juxtaposed against the backdrop of the glacier and the browns and greens commonly found in the Rockies come into view.
While the small size of the lake and its natural beauty can be enticing for a swim, be warned: The water is often too cold, especially away from the edges, where water temperatures can remain in the 30s and 40s even in the heat of summer.
The most striking part of this scene is the vegetation. Yellow, white and purple wildflowers abound, all fed by the runoff from the glacier. The somewhat swampy meadows just below are home to various small birds that you can spot with some careful watching.
The trail doesn’t stop at the lake. If you want to keep going, hike along the east side of the lake toward the glacier. You might see a snowboarder or skier who has journeyed up with their gear for a short ride down the glacier. You can hike on the backside of the glacier, but be prepared. The footing is slippery in many places due to runoff, creating wet rocks, and higher up, loose gravel on a steep angle.
The runoff sometimes goes below ground, resurfacing at a different point a few feet down the mountain. It’s almost as if you’re standing in the middle of a small stream without getting your feet wet.
As with all mountain adventures, be prepared for rapid weather changes. The lake sits at 10,500 feet and the top of the glacier is above 11,000 feet. Bring plenty of water even if the day is cool. This area isn’t shaded, so if you plan to hike on the side of the glacier, wear a hat and sunscreen or long sleeves to protect your skin from the direct sunlight.
The lake and surrounding areas make great picnic spots if you want to bring food with you. Otherwise, a short hike down will get you back to Idaho Springs in time for lunch.
If You Go
St. Mary’s Glacier
7599 Fall River Road
Idaho Springs, Colorado 80452