Colorado Glaciers and Snowfields of the Front Range
While Colorado isn’t as blessed as the Pacific Northwest to have magnificent year-round glaciers, Colorado still has it’s own set of permanent snowfields and mini glaciers across the state. In all, Colorado has 14 named glaciers and approximately 135 snowfields. What makes Colorado’s glaciers so fascinating is that it gives us an idea into how areas, like the craggy valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park were formed, much akin to areas like Patagonia in South America. In fact, while hiking through Rocky Mountain National Park, we are still able to see the marks of ancient glaciers, and the deposits that they left when they were receded. Today, Colorado’s glaciers and snowfields are both a fascinating look at Colorado’s geologic formation and also a veritable year-round playground for hikers, skiers, and snowshoers. Here’s a lesser-known side of our geology, the glaciers and snowfields of Colorado.
Hiking St. Mary’s Glacier in Roosevelt National Forest
While St. Mary’s carries the glacier moniker, it is not a glacier by true definition and rather a semi-permanent snowfield set under James Peak in Arapahoe National Forest. With an easy hike to the base of the snow, and a magnificent alpine lake at the center of the basin, this is a much loved after work hike for many locals, at the heart of the I-70 Corridor near Idaho Springs. Year round, St. Mary’s, while being the gateway to James Peak and some of the other mountains of the James Peak Wilderness, is also popular with hikers, snowshoers, and skiers and riders, who like to explore the snowfield year round. It’s not uncommon to see people skiing the glacier in the middle of July!
Andrews Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park
An alpine glacier at the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, Andrews Glacier is one of the last remaining glaciers of the park, making up a portion of Andrews Pass and Andrews Tarn. The hike to the glacier is a 10-mile round trip hike through strenuous terrain, at the center of Glacier Gorge. While in the area, hikers will also get to pass by The Loch, one of the most popular photo spots in Rocky Mountain National Park and the crashing Alberta Falls; finding themselves at the center of an alpine cirque. The tarn under the glacier is popular for secluded trout fishing, and hikers will get magnificent views of Hallett and Flattop Peaks from the shore, as well as being surrounded by magnificent alpine rock towers.
Skyscraper Glacier in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area
Set on the North Side of Rollins Pass, Sky Scraper Glacier, much like St. Mary’s is a perennial snowfield, which drops steeply from the top of the pass at a steep 45-degree angle above Betty and Bob Lakes below. The architecture of Skyscraper Glacier is magnificent, as it appears to magically leap out of the green alpine meadow below and cover the entire cliff-face in a sheet of ice. Like St. Mary’s the glacier is popular with hikers and skiers year-round but because of it’s steepness, it’s also popular with aspiring mountaineers, who are fond of the 45-degree steepness to practice and hone essential skills in ice climbing and glacier travel. Climbing up the glacier requires an understanding of crampon and ice axe use, as well as navigating a short but near-vertical cornice near the top. From the top of Rollins Pass, the hike to the glacier is easy, and it adds a spectacular contrast to the surrounding landscape.
Tyndall Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park
Named for the scientist who identified carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, Tyndall Glacier, which is retreating under the same conditions that it’s namesake mentioned, is set on the north side of Hallett Peak, with a combination of ice and rock, in a cirque under Glacier Gorge. Tyndall Glacier serves Tyndall Creek, which is the main waterway for Emerald, Dream, Nymph, and Bear Lakes. The north-facing glacier has a slope ranging from 30 to 50 degrees, and is popular with hikers, snowshoers, and skiers throughout the year. The various gullies and couloirs that line the glacier are popular for training mountaineers and ice climbers, as the steepness and year-round snow prove to provide excellent conditions for practice.
Sprague Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park
Set on the end of Sprague Lake, Sprague Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sprague Glacier is one of the smaller snowfields and glaciers of the park, but the true attraction is the hike to Sprague Lake, one of the most beloved lakes in the region. Lake many of the glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sprague Glacier is quickly receding, but from the lake you’re able to look up at Hallett, Flattop, Otis, Notchtop, Thatchtop, and Taylor Peaks. Taylor Peak even has it’s own mini glacier. This is a worthwhile hike for those who are looking to find all the remaining glaciers of Rocky Mountain National Park and it’s own superb hike in of itself.
While Colorado’s glaciers and snowfields are not well known to much of the outside world, they are loved by locals who take advantage of the year-round snow to hike, snowshoe, ski, and train for mountaineering. Want to discover some of the splendors of Colorado’s lesser-known geologic wonders? Join us for a tour of the Southernmost Glaciers of North America.
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