Hike 13,000 Feet to St. Mary’s Glacier in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

By: Tom Malone - Spring 2016

Denver, Colorado - We drove an hour west of Denver. Our car chugged up the mountain pass from 5,280 feet above sea level to nearly 9,000. Just outside of Idaho Springs, we parked our car in a nearly empty lot full of jagged rocks. I checked the car’s temperature gauge: 45 degrees at 7:00 a.m., a 30-degree drop since we left the city.

Personally, I grabbed my small Columbia Sportswear hiking pack, filled it with my usual hiking gear, plus my Sato fly fishing rod from Tenkara USA.

We scanned the tree line in search of the trailhead. A green-and-white sign eventually caught our attention. Covered in stickers, the sign read “Glacier Hike”, with an arrow pointing into the woods.

After climbing a boulder-ridden trail for less than a mile, we emerged from the forest and saw one of the most picturesque views I’ve ever seen. A pristine mountain lake nestled itself into the side of the Rocky Mountain cliffs. And, suspended in time above the lake, we saw the infamous St. Mary’s Glacier.

After stopping to absorb the early morning crispness that the lake scenery provided, we began to climb the trail toward the glacier. Once we reached the ice, the trail stopped and we realized that we needed to create our own trail if we wanted to summit the glacier and connect to the Continental Divide Trail above at 13,000 feet.

I dug my Columbia Sportswear hiking boots into the icy surface, feeling confident that the Omni-Tech waterproof boot would keep my socks dry, and surefooted that the Omni-Grip tread would allow me to cross the ice safely.

After crossing the expanse of glacier, we came to the rocky edge of the ice and decided to blaze a trail alongside the glacier. We passed above the timberline and the wind began to kick up, but we carried on. Once we reached the top of the glacier, we realized that we still had over 1,000 feet to climb until we connected to the Continental Divide Trail.

At the top of the glacier, we encountered a man who had hiked up ahead of us. He strapped on his skis and we wished him luck as he cruised down the ice to get his winter sports fix in the heat of the summer. Only in Colorado.

The landscape drastically shifted from distinctly Colorado to reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Boulders and expanses of grass filled our view.

We saw a tall collection of rocks at the top of the mountain, so we sat their and digested the 360-degree view of the Rocky Mountains. The panoramic view reminded us of an epic medieval battle scene from a movie.

We saw backpackers on a mission through that section of the Continental Divide Trail. We watched a Jeep rumble over boulders and across the vast expanse of backcountry mountain trails. As the sun continued to rise above the mountains, we decided to descend.

After we slide down the glacier and descended on unstable, rocky terrain, we eventually made it back to the crystal-clear lake. I pulled my Tenkara USA rod from my pack, extended it, and tied my line onto the rod. The setup process took under one minute.

I stood on a rock on the shoreline and flicked my fly into the lake. I could see all the way to bottom of the multi-colored, natural glacier melt; unfortunately, I didn’t see any fish. But, I continued to cast for a while simply to enjoy the process of Tenkara fishing.

After no catch, I condensed the 12-foot rod into the 2-foot, lightweight, durable casing, and returned it to its place inside my hiking pack.

We descended the trail to the parking lot, which, by that time, was packed with adventurers. We navigated over the jagged rocks and cruised for 20 minutes until we reached Idaho Springs, where we sat at Smokin’ Yards BBQ and celebrated our adventure’s conclusion with some quality brisket.