Even the road to St. Mary’s Glacier is beautiful, thick with the scent of pine. It winds upwards through the forest, giving views of the valley as the rumblings of the highway give way to the gurgling of a stream beside. The air cools, no longer so heavy with the day’s 90 degree heat.
The hike itself is incredibly popular with hikers and casual visitors alike. Only about 20 minutes from Idaho Springs, the weekend crowd fills the two trailhead parking lots on either side of the trailhead — which cost $5 a vehicle — by 10 a.m., but many people are always going in and out.
Starting at more than 10,000 feet, the trail looks like a path for water runoff, having to hike up boulders and head-sized rocks with paths diverging constantly.
Eventually the path flattens and the forest thins out to a surreal view of pines dead and alive — some having fallen, others standing tall, and the contrast is sharp. Acting as an entrance way, they reveal the vivid blue lake of snowmelt at the base of the glacier on the mountain. Many people lounge on the shore without even hiking the glacier, but the path up to the snow is still well trafficked.
Sneakers could be used up the glacier, but hiking boots would be better, otherwise you’ll probably slip into the dirt-covered snow. It’ll continue to get cooler and cooler up the glacier, as the wind might pick up and the snow sits cold below, but it can be pleasant compared to hiking up the rough rocks in bearing sun to get to this point.
Seemingly popular for the glacier hike is bringing up snowboard and skiing equipment to ride back down on. The snow is certainly not smooth, but people rode down right from the top, which sits at about 11,000 feet. The hike technically ends here, with a 1,030 foot elevation gain — the hike being about 2.4 miles round trip and averaging 1.5 hours — but going up a bit further gives a view of the James Peak Wilderness.
The path rolls over the hill, showing the plains that sit at the top and not a peak as it seems like below. Out in the distance, clouds scraping the top this day, is James Peak itself standing at 13,300 feet. Going this far will stretch the time a little, but not very much, as it’s all flat here. Heading back down the glacier can also be easier by instead taking a thin path to the left over the rocks.
Ending at a little over 11,000 feet, the hike is a there-and-back, but unlike other hikes it gives two distinct views — the glacier and its lake from above, and the plains before the James Peak Wilderness. Few people went this far, but it’s worth the little extra effort to the scattered wildflowers and mountains rimming the horizon.