Just past Lake Isabelle, I catch my first glance. It’s long and white, and from this distance, it could be just a large patch of snow hanging from the top of the mountain. I keep up my pace, and encounter the season’s first new snow — first just a couple of inches, but as I ascend each switchback, there is a bit more soft slush to make my way through.
As I grow closer, I see ski tracks. Yes, three small dots are ascending the the oblong expanse of snow and ice, skis on their backs, in search of the perfect run. Finally, after picking my way through a series of boulders, I descend down to the massive expanse of white. I am standing on top of Isabelle Glacier.
Glaciers. Quick — which country, which state comes to mind? For me, during a recent trip to Iceland, I expected to see glaciers, lots and lots of large expanses of ice grinding their way from the mountains to the sea. After all, the name of the country is about ice, what else would you expect?
Or perhaps Glacier National Park, another destination rife with expectation just from its name. Or even Alaska with its northerly climate, long cold dark winters, and big mountains.
But Colorado? Upon posting recent photos of my hike at Brainard Lake Recreation Area, several friends posted incredulous comments that I had hiked to a glacier. All fourteen of Colorado’s named glaciers are located along the Front Range mountains, eight in Rocky Mountain National Park and six in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.
What defines a glacier anyway? According to the website, Glaciers of the American West, a glacier is defined as:
A glacier is a perennial mass of ice that is large enough and heavy enough to flow, like a very thick fluid. Glaciers form wherever more snow accumulates than is lost each year. As new snow accumulates, it buries and compresses the old snow. Under the weight of the overlying snow, the old snow is transformed from a fluffy mass of ice crystals into dense, hard ice.
Colorado’s glaciers are formed more as a function topography and weather patterns, than latitude and longitude. In fact, the Rocky Mountains themselves are a function of glacial sculpting during the last ice age. It’s what gives them their jagged, rugged appearance, as glaciers slowly ground down the rock faces into cirques, spires, and peaks.
The high altitudes of the Rockies at 13,000 feet and more lend itself to large amounts of snow falling just over the crest, depositing snow that turns to ice on the east and north facing bowls. Snowier than normal winters help the glaciers grow, and conversely they shrink during drier winters. While the glaciers of Glacier National Park are fast disappearing, Colorado’s glaciers are holding steady. Because of how our glaciers are formed, they are less vulnerable to climate change than those to the north.
And many of them are accessible to hikers without any special mountaineering skills. St. Mary’s glacier, Andrews Glacier, Arapaho Glacier and Isabelle Glacier all are within reach during a day’s hike.
Isabelle Glacier is one of those, and makes an exceptionally beautiful hike during the summer and fall hiking season. The hike is around nine miles round trip from the Long Lake Trailhead with about 1800 feet of total elevation gain. But the reward is well worth it. Standing on top of the glacier, I surveyed the scenery. Bordered by Navajo Glacier on one side and Shoshone Peak up above, its vistas are breathtaking. My recent hike showed wisps of up slope clouds hanging above the peaks dusted with snow as the blue sky peaked out between them.
If you’re wanting to get up close and personal with a slab of snow and ice, consider heading out to the mountains along Colorado’s front range. Many of the glaciers make for a memorable day hike and a chance to experience something few people can.