For easy access to the alpine just 40 minutes from Denver, you’ll want to head out on the St. Mary’s Glacier hike. Just a short (but a little steep) romp up a hill takes you right into the heart of the mountains.
What sets this particular hike apart from others is the permanent snowfield known as Saint Mary’s Glacier. As one of the best Colorado hikes, you can ski, sled, and enjoy the snow year-round.
As a Colorado local for over 13 years, I’ve gone on the Saint Mary’s hike countless times throughout the year. In fact, I use this place as a training ground to work on my snow safety skills. It’s my mission to give you the info you need to explore Colorado like a local, not a tourist.
About this Guide to the St Mary’s Glacier Hike
Inside this guide to the St Mary’s Glacier hike you’ll get local advice about:
- When to hike St Mary’s Glacier
- Where to find the St Mary’s Glacier trailhead
- Snow on the glacier
- Practical info for your hike
- A step-by-step guide to reach Saint Mary’s Glacier
- Hiking tips
- Info about the St Mary’s Glacier in winter
- What to pack
- Additional things to do nearby
- More Clorado hiking resources
Can You Hike the St Mary’s Glacier Right Now?
The Saint Mary’s Glacier trailhead is open year-round. Just be sure to plan your visit during nicer weather. The lake and glacier can get quite windy, so always check the weather before heading out.
During the winter months, snowstorms can make the trail difficult to navigate. There are also avalanche conditions near the glacier and lake so stay clear of the hillside behind the lake (far left of the glacier.
In summer, afternoon thunderstorms are almost a daily occurrence. They come in quick and can be quite violent despite being short-lived.
These storms bring dangerous lightening and you’re quite exposed at the lake and higher. Unfortunately, people get struck by lightning in the mountains every year. Don’t hike during a thunderstorm to avoid lightening danger.
Where is the St Mary’s Glacier Trailhead?
From Denver, take I-70 west to exit 238 or Fall River Road. Follow Fall River Road for several miles until you reach the obvious parking lot.
Drive time from Denver: around 40 minutes
Pro Tip: Keep in mind, parking along the road is not allowed and you will get a ticket.
Does Saint Mary’s Glacier Always Have Snow?
Yes. It’s actually not technically a glacier – which is more like a river of ice. Saint Mary’s Glacier is actually a permanent snowfield, meaning it has snow year-round.
When is the Best Time to Hike St Mary’s Glacier?
Any time of year is an excellent time to head out on the St Mary’s Glacier hike. What makes this hike so great is that it’s easily accessible year-round. Winter is the season to go if you’d like to sled or ski. At this time the “glacier” (not really a glacier, but a permanent snowfield) is at its most full.
During the spring, the snow begins to melt and St Mary’s Lake starts to thaw. Early spring is great for skiers and budding mountaineers who want to practice their snow skills, while later in the spring is great for those who still want a slice of wintery fun.
In the summer, the lake is thawed and much of the ground before the snowfield is green and vibrant. This is the most crowded time to visit Saint Mary’s Glacier, so plan to go early if you want any chance at solitude. July is famous for wildflower blooms.
Fall is another great time – especially later in the fall when the crowds of leaf-peeping hikers are gone and St Mary’s gets a bit quieter.
Be in the know before you go! There are two distinct parking areas at the St Mary’s Glacier Trailhead. Keep in mind that both areas require you to pay a $5 fee and you will be ticketed if you do not pay. Payment is due with cash at a self-serve kiosk by each lot.
Other important info includes:
Mileage: 1.5 miles, about 2.4 miles to the top of the glacier (technically a snowfield)
Elevation Gain: 350 feet or around 1,030 feet to the top of the snowfield.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Approximate Time: 45 minutes plus however long you take exploring the area.
Dog-Friendly: Yes, on leash.
Red Tape: $5 fee per vehicle.
How Long Does the St Mary’s Glacier Hike Take?
Plan on spending about 45 minutes hiking to and from St Mary’s Lake, which is at the base of the snowfield. If you want to go to the top of the snowfield, plan for at least another hour. More experienced hikers can make it to the top of the snowfield in about 30 to 45 minutes.
Can You Sled at St Mary’s Glacier?
Absolutely! Sledding is a popular activity at the Saint Mary’s Glacier. Typically you can sled from mid-fall through mid-spring. Since the snowfield does get steep, sledding in the summer might be a bit difficult simply because the snowy areas are a bit too steep for a sled.
Stick to the lower part of the hill for the best sledding at St Mary’s Glacier.
Is Saint Mary’s Glacier Crowded?
The Saint Mary’s Glacier hike has the reputation of being one of the best hikes near Denver, so you can bet that you’ll have lots of crowds. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the parking areas to fill up quickly, and much of the road doesn’t allow parking.
If you plan to visit on the weekend, throughout the year, plan to arrive before 7:30 am if you want to ensure you have a place to park.
Crowds can get so intense during the summer months, that people have been known to actually sell goods in the parking area.
Solitude at St Mary’s is rather rare. Many outdoor organizations and clubs come here to learn snow safety skills, skiers like to lap the snowfield throughout the year, and this is a popular place for tourists.
Local Tip: If you absolutely have to have the place to yourself, consider heading up for a sunrise hike.
How to Reach Saint Mary’s Glacier
Look for the St Mary’s Glacier Trailhead about 100 yards from the parking lot. You’ll see a sign marking the start of the trail. From there head uphill through a forested section. The trail makes its way uphill from here for quite some time.
It’s wide but rocky, so take care. If you’re hiking in winter you’ll want to bring microspikes to navigate the icy parts.
Local Tip: Stay on the trail, the area surrounding the trail is technically private property and there are no shortcuts!
Although this is an easier trail, the steep section through the trees is the toughest part of the hike. If you’re not used to the altitude, you might find this section a bit strenuous, but just take your time because the reward is well worth the effort.
Once the trail begins to level out you’re almost there. Keep going until you come to a clearing and the trees start to thin out. Eventually, you’ll reach an obvious vista with a lake off to the left and the snowfield almost directly in front of you.
The peak in the background is James Peak. The trail to the summit starts from here, but it’s a tough, butt-busting hike that requires you to climb to the top of the snowfield and then up some more.
You’ve arrived! Soak in the views at the lake. If you have microspikes or snowshoes you can try your luck at hiking up the snowfield (poles strongly recommended). Or you can walk a little way up and sled down.
To return to the car, simply head back the way you came.
Picnic at the Lake
Many people opt to take a picnic up to the lake. This is a lovely option if you’re looking to spend more time along the Saint Mary’s Glacier hike, but do keep a few things in mind.
There are no trash cans or toilet facilities at Saint Mary’s Glacier or the lake. Be prepared to take all of your trash with you. Unfortunately, littering along this trail has become commonplace, so do your part and pack it out. Bring along a trash bag to put your waste in.
Tips for the St Mary’s Glacier Hike
When it comes to hiking in Colorado, there are several important things to know. Always do your part and follow signage, ranger instructions, and pick up and pack out your trash. We all love the beauty of Colorado, but human impact is becoming a huge issue. If you’re not prepared to pick up (and carry) your dog poop or toilet paper, that’s okay, but stay home until you’re cozy carrying your waste.
If you bring along a dog, keep them leased and pick up after your pet. It’s easy to tie a poo baggie to your hiking bag. Never leave poop bags on the trail even if you plan on picking it up later, other people have to walk by your trash.
Always be sure to read the weather. Mountain weather changes drastically with very little notice. Don’t get caught in dangerous weather. Instead use a tool like weather.gov to check the weather specifically for Saint Mary’s Glacier.
Bring layers. With rapidly changing weather means it can be sunny and hot one minute, then freezing rain the next (yup, it’s happened to me more than once). Pack a puffy layer, sun hat, beanie, and rain jacket even if it’s sunny.
Wear sun protection. You’re over a mile high! The sun’s rays do double damage at higher altitudes. Be sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, or even consider wearing a lightweight sunshirt to keep burns at bay.
Hiking St Mary’s Glacier in Winter
Arguably one of the best winter hikes in Colorado for beginners, the Saint Mary’s Glacier hike is a great way to dip your feet into snowy hiking adventures.
However, there are dangers to visiting in winter. First, the trail gets extremely icy. The ice and rocks can mean a nasty fall, so if you visit in winter, wear traction such as microspikes to avoid slipping.
Local Tip: Snowshoes might be required at or above the lake since the snow can get quite deep.
Another big winter worry is avalanche hazards. Although the majority of St Mary’s Glacier is relatively safe from avalanches, there is one area that is known to slide. Just a few years ago, several hikers were buried.
Once you arrive at the lake take a look behind the lake and just to the right of the lake. That entire area is an avalanche path. Avoid getting too close by not heading around the lake, but instead, enjoy the view from the lake on the side the trail spills out.
If you’re interested in climbing up the snowfield, take a look towards the left. This side is much steeper than the snowfield and is also an avalanche path.
In the springtime, this side has a large, dangerous overhanging cornice – or large steep lump of wind-blown snow. This cornice almost always collapses and creates an avalanche, so be sure to give this area a wide berth.
What to Pack
Be prepared for mountain weather on your St Mary’s hike with these essentials:
- A light jacket (warm, puffy jacket for winter)
- non-cotton socks
- First aid kit
- Toilet kit: TP, shovel, and hand sanitizer
- sturdy hiking boots or shoes
- non-cotton shirt (baselayer for winter)
- a rain jacket
- sun hat
- lightweight gloves (heavy winter gloves too for winter)
- 1.5 to 2L of water per person
- a lightweight hiking pack
- lip balm
- hiking poles (optional, strongly recommended in winter)
- microspikes or other traction (winter)
Things to Do Near Saint Mary’s Glacier
There are plenty of fun-filled activities to do near the Saint Mary’s Glacier hike. Just down the road is Idaho Springs, a great adventure base that’s super-close to Denver. A few must-do activities include:
- Driving the Mt Evans Scenic Byway, one of the most scenic drives near Denver
- Eating at Smokin’ Yards BBQ in Idaho Springs
- Grabbing a drink at Tommyknockers or Westbound and Down in Idaho Springs
- White water rafting or rock climbing in Clear Creek Canyon.
- Catching a concert at the Red Rocks Ampitheater.
Additional Colorado Hiking Resources
Wanna explore more of Colorado? Check out these locally-crafted resources just for you.