Trail Snapshot: Shelf Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Hike Distance: 8.5 miles Round Trip
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Duration: Approx 5-7 hrs Round Trip
- Trail Type: Out and Back
- Starting Elevation at Glacier Gorge Trailhead: 9240′
- Elevation Gain: Approx +2300′
- Seasons: Mid-Summer-September
- Dogs: Dogs Prohibited in RMNP
- Hike Trail Map: National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map
- Denver Drive Time: 2 hr
- Driving Directions to Glacier Gorge Trailhead: Click for Google Map
- Town Nearest Hike: Estes Park, Colorado
- Beauty: Waterfalls, wildlife: elk, deer, marmots; meadows, lakes, streams, wildflowers
- Activities: Hiking, photography, fishing
- Fee: Park Pass Required
The Hike to Shelf Lake RMNP
Shelf Lake sits high above Glacier Gorge, nested in a cirque between Thatchtop and McHenrys Peak. The journey begins at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. However, the Bear Lake Trailhead–which has more parking–affords access to the Glacier Gorge Trail system, adding approximately .1 mile jaunt. The first scenic point along the trail, Alberta Falls, is found at .8 mile in. The trail leads to Mills Lake (at 2.8 miles). Here you’ll gain breathtaking views of Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds. The trail skirts the east side of Mills Lake, and makes its way past Jewel Lake.
Soon, you’ll come to a fork in the trail with a sign that reads Glacier Gorge campsite, and Black Lake 1.2 miles. The Glacier Gorge Campsite is probably the best site in the entire park and to reserve it, you will have to call the backcountry office as soon as their season opens for reservations. I’ve spent several months in the park over the years, and this site is unrivaled. However, the trail up to Shelf Lake requires hikers to continue on the main trail, the one that leads towards Black Lake.
Past the sign, the trails climbs a set of stairs and eventually, after approximately 1/4 mile, emerges into an area that is full of downed trees from what appears to have been an avalanche many years ago. If you keep your ears and eyes peeled, you’ll see Shelf Creek Falls spilling out into a couple segments of waterfalls up along the cliffs and trees below Arrowhead (see photo below). The hike up to Shelf Lake will afford more views of these falls.
The unmaintained social trail is located across glacier creek, to the right (West) and can be difficult to find. After a short buschwack across a marshy area to Glacier Creek, a natural crossing point should come into view. Hikers should find two large, flat rocks (pictured below). This has been named, Helicopter Rock. Other crossing points are not advised as the gap widens and the current of Glacier Creek can be swift and very cold.
The last half mile is demanding, hiking around 1000 vertical feet up to Shelf Lake. Don’t forget to stop, breath, and take in the views of Glacier Gorge. At this point, hikers are truly in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.
At Shelf Lake, you’ll hear water streaming over the shelves of rock above the lake. In the early days of Summer, the meltwater cuts beautiful formations out of the snow and ice as it cascades from Shelf Creek Falls into Shelf Lake. View the video below to see it.
You’ve hiked this far, so it would be a shame to miss Solitude Lake which is a short hike further above Shelf Lake. The wildflowers between the two lakes are outstanding!
A final reminder: This hike is not on maintained trails, is a long hike, and demanding. Hikers should be familiar with RMNP and developed the skills needed for backcountry travel. If you are looking for a demanding hike on maintained trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, we would recommend exploring trail profiles for Sky Pond and Black Lake.
Tips & Resources for Hiking to Shelf Lake in Glacier Gorge RMNP
- Start Very Early: Because this hike is so demanding, and because thunderstorms jet through Glacier Gorge on many summer days, it’s wise to begin the journey early in the morning.
- Parking: If the parking lot is full at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, there is a shuttle available to take you to the trailhead, or you can park at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
- Bring Food: My legs were shot after hiking back to the main trail, and my energy was waning. I had packed a few snacks, but wish I had packed more. So, bring something to give you an energy boost for your hike back to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
- Trekking Poles: Trekking poles proved really helpful, especially in navigating the descent.
- Recommended Map for Rocky Mountain National Park: The trail maps provided by Rocky Mountain National Park are usually sufficient. However, if you plan to hike RMNP often, we recommend purchasing a National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map.
- Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
- Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
- After the Hike: Inkwell & Brew Coffee
Map & Driving Directions
Click for Driving Directions