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Ultimate Guide to Sky Pond – Rocky Mountain’s Jaw-Dropping Hike

Sarah and Tim kiss on a rock in front of the jagged peaks of Sky Pond
The jagged peaks of Sky Pond remind us of Patagonia!

The hike to Sky Pond is the most challenging hike we’ve done to date in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park! This unique alpine lake sits beneath spiny peaks resembling the jagged spires of the Dolomites or Patagonia. And while those places are gorgeous, we’re a bit biased toward this mountain lake in our backyard. It’s just a 2-hour drive to the trailhead from Denver.

If alpine lakes, dramatic mountain views, and a good physical challenge are your kind of thing, keep reading! This guide to Sky Pond covers everything you need to know, from where to park, what to pack, and what to expect on the trail. Enjoy!

Sky Pond Hike trail info, distance, elevation gain, difficult rating

Sky Pond Basic Trail Information

Jagged Peaks at Sky Pond Rocky Mountain National Park
That moment when the light hits the peaks just right

Where do you park for the Sky Pond Hike?

The best place to park for the hike to Sky Pond is the Glacier Gorge trailhead. To get a spot here, plan to arrive in Rocky Mountain National Park by 8 a.m. The Glacier Gorge lot is smaller than the Bear Lake lot a half-mile up the mountain, so it fills up fast. If you end up parking at Bear Lake, you will add an extra mile to your hike roundtrip.

Is Sky Pond in the Bear Lake Corridor?

Looking back at views of Lake of Glass from Sky Pond
Looking back at views of Lake of Glass from Sky Pond

Yes! The trail to Sky Pond, whether you park at Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge, is located on the Bear Lake Corridor. This means you MUST have an “Option 1” timed-entry permit during the summer months from recreation.gov to enter the Bear Road portion of Rocky Mountain National Park between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. Permits are required beginning at the end of May until the end of October, with specific dates each year announced by the National Park Service.

We recommend booking your reservation as far in advance as you can since numbers are limited and spots do book up. If the date you wanted is already taken, you can simply arrive at the park before 5 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Alternatively, you may be able to obtain one of the late-release permits, which are reservable starting at 5 p.m. Mountain Time the night prior to the day you would like to visit.

How to Make a Timed Entry Reservation

When booking your reservation, be sure to choose Option 1: Park Access + Bear Lake Road Corridor, otherwise, you will not be able to reach the trailhead for Emerald Lake.

Please note, no matter what part of Rocky Mountain National park you wish to visit, if you plan to arrive between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m., you need a reservation. If you aren’t planning to do any of the hikes or see any of the sites along Bear Lake Road, you can get a reservation for Option 2: Park Access, Does Not Include Bear Lake Road Corridor. Option 2 permits are usually more available than Option 1 because Bear Lake Road is one of the most popular sections of the park.

In order to hike the trail to Sky Pond, you must have an Option 1 permit if you wish to enter the park between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Rocky Mountain National Park Timed Entry Information
NPS Graphic/A. Andreas

Rocky Mountain National Park Hiker Shuttle

There is ONE other option if you aren’t able to get a timed entry permit for Bear Lake Road. Rocky Mountain National Park also offers a hikers shuttle that transports visitors from the Estes Park Visitors Center to the Park and Ride location. From there, you can transfer onto any of the other shuttles and routes throughout the park, including the hiking trail for Emerald Lake.

The hiker shuttle also requires a permit which you should get online in advance at recreation.gov. It is much easier to get than the Bear Lake Road timed entry permit since most people prefer the independence of self-driving through the park.

Rocky Mountain National Park Hiker shuttle map
RMNP Shuttle Route Map – Showing the Hiker Shuttle Route, Bear Lake Road Route, and Moraine Park Route / NPS

How long is the hike to Sky Pond?

If you are hiking from the Glacier Gorge trailhead, the hike to Sky Pond is 9.4 miles round trip. It took us about 6 hours to complete this hike in lightly snowy conditions with stops for rest and taking photos! The 1758 feet of elevation gain can also make this hike take longer than others of similar distance but with less elevation gain.

How difficult is the Sky Pond hike?

We think the hike to Sky Pond is pretty difficult, and this is coming at it with significant hiking experience. Tim and I have hiked the Inca Trail, the W Trek in Patagonia, Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand, Ausangate in Peru, Acatenango in Guatemala, and a whole lot more. And yeah, Sky Pond is a tough day hike!

The trail is uphill all the way to Sky Pond, and you start ascending pretty much right at the Glacier Gorge trailhead. It’s also quite rocky at parts and requires some scrambling. The climb up Timberline Falls is intimidating but doable. Parts of the trail also lack shade, so make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection!

Even before reaching Sky Pond, the well-maintained trail will take you to two other lakes, and two waterfalls – one of which you will climb. Yes, climb. We weren’t kidding when we said this is the most challenging hike we’ve done in RMNP!

A note on Altitude Sickness

The hike to Sky Pond is difficult on its own, but many hikers visiting the Rocky Mountains from lower elevations will experience altitude sickness too. This will make the hike more difficult for most people than a similar hike closer to sea level. For reference, Sky Pond sits at 10,880 feet above sea level!

There’s no great way to predict how your body will respond to being at higher elevations! In general, though, most people can expect to feel more easily out of breath during physical activity while at higher elevations like in the Rocky Mountains. Don’t be surprised if you also have a headache and extreme fatigue for the first few days at altitude while your body acclimatizes.

If you experience symptoms of altitude sickness, take your hike to Sky Pond very slowly or postpone it a day or two. Drink a lot of water and eat nourishing foods, even if you lose your appetite, to keep your energy up!

Is the Sky Pond hike suitable for kids?

I would not bring most young kids on this hike unless they have above-average hiking experience and can be trusted not to wander off a cliff. This hike is challenging and parts could be dangerous, like the waterfall climb at Timberline Falls in particular. We have not seen any kids hike this trail when we were there, so it seems kids hiking Sky Pond are the exception, not the norm. But, Tim and I don’t have kids – just our Mara Cat! – so use your best judgment and talk to a park ranger if you’re unsure!

Can you bring your pet to Sky Pond?

There are very limited places you can bring your pet outside of your vehicle in Rocky Mountain National Park. So, no, you can’t bring your pet on the hike to Sky Pond, or any trail in the national park. Now that we only live 2 hours from the park, we can leave Mara Cat at home when we go in for day hikes, but on our previous visits to Colorado, we stayed in pet-friendly accommodations in Estes Park so she could stay there during the day.

When is the best time of year to hike to Sky Pond?

The most reliably favorable time to hike to Sky Pond is during the summer when you have less chance of getting caught in snow or sloppy/icy trail conditions. That said, the weather in the Rocky Mountains can vary wildly, and even summer days can be blizzardy and winter days sunny. Always look up the weather forecast in advance of your hike. We do not recommend hiking to Sky Pond on particularly windy, snowy, or rainy days.

What is there to see on the hike to Sky Pond?

There are many landmarks and beautiful viewpoints on the Sky Pond trail. Frankly, this hike is gorgeous and home to some of our favorite views in the entire national park. The effort to hike to Sky Pond is high, but the rewards are even greater!

Alberta Falls

Tim and Sarah at Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park
We tried to stand super still for this photo since we had a longer exposure on the waterfall to get the silky smooth effect on the water. It’s not easy!

The first landmark you will come to on the hike is Alberta Falls. This is a great place to take a short break and experiment with waterfall photography. Or if you’re like Tim, fall asleep on a rock in the sun next to the falls!

A note on photographing Alberta Falls

We spent way more time than necessary here trying to get a decent photo of us with a silky waterfall background. Because you need a slightly longer shutter to get that smooth water effect, we had to stand super still and hope no one walked into the frame for the few seconds the photo was taken. Take it from us, if you want to get good photos here, plan to arrive early in the morning to scope out a good spot and try to wrap up your shoot before the crowds arrive.

Most people who set off on this particular trail stop here! Alberta Falls is the destination for many hikers, including kids, so this part of the trail will be crowded. You can think of all the landmarks on the hike to Sky Pond like thresholds to the next portion of the hike, with fewer and fewer people continuing on after each spot. All of these locations are destinations in their own right so you’ll see hikers of all ages and skill levels on the first segment of the hike to Alberta Falls.

Loch Vale

The view at Loch Vale is one of the most beautiful in all of Rocky Mountain National Park in our opinion. We visited on a partly foggy day and the clouds set such a lovely mood over the lake. It felt like the kind of place you’d see a Loch Ness Monster swimming around in. Okay, maybe I just thought of that because of the name, but there really is a calm, somewhat mysterious vibe to Loch Vale.

The trail continues around the righthand side of the lake, partly on the ground, partly on the boardwalk. We think the best view is the one you get right when you arrive at the lake (and even a bit to the left), though, so take your photos before continuing along the path to your right!

Timberline Falls

Timberline Falls is like the last Bowser villain at the end of the video game. You’ve made it this far along the hike to Sky Pond and now you have to scale a waterfall. It’s the last challenging part of the hike and the final barrier between you and your ultimate destination! And, it also happens to be the MOST challenging part of the hike too.

On busy days there will be people climbing in both directions at the same time, which can be stressful if you are nervous about feeling rushed by others. You need to strategize where to put your hands and feet climbing up Timberline Falls, and if it’s the slightest bit icy we recommend using microspikes for more traction, in addition to grippy hiking boots! Don’t worry, it’s not a technical climb, but you should have the right footwear to reduce the risk of slipping and falling.

Lake of Glass

After you hike (carefully!) up Timberline Falls, you’ll be rewarded with views over Lake of Glass, a beautiful blue lake in a bowl walled with mountains.

It can be notably windier at this part of the trail since it’s a bit more exposed. When we hiked here in October, it was cold and very windy at Lake of Glass. Tim and I sat behind a rock to shield ourselves enough to be able to eat a snack before carrying on to Sky Pond.

Looking ahead on the trail we could already see that in the direction of Sky Pond itself, there were dense clouds and even some snow. The weather was still mild enough to safely continue, but we knew even with the windy conditions at Lake of Glass, the sun and lack of precipitation would make it a much more comfortable place to snack than Sky Pond itself!

Please remember to always pack up after yourself and leave no trash or litter behind when eating on hiking trails or anywhere in the outdoors!

Sky Pond

Shortly beyond Lake of Glass at 10,880 feet above sea level is Sky Pond, a stunning alpine lake surrounded by steep and jagged mountain peaks. Sky Pond was formed by the advances and retreats of the Taylor Glacier, which feeds the lake. It resembles Argentina Patagonia’s Laguna de Los Tres or Chile’s Torres del Paine, all places with dramatic, tower-like peaks overlooking a lake.

Sky Pond is very photogenic, and you can walk around a large portion of the lake to check out different angles and views.

If you do hike on a clear winter day, you may even find the lake completely frozen over.

What gear do I need to hike to Sky Pond?

  1. Day Pack: Because Sky Pond is a challenging hike, it’s so important to have a good day pack to carry everything you need. I’ve had the Osprey Skimmer 20 for Women for years and it’s held up on every adventure! And here’s the Osprey Talon 22 Pack for Men!
  2. Water Reservoir: If your day pack doesn’t have a water reservoir in it already, you can buy one separately to slip into your bag. These are so important for staying hydrated and comfortably carrying several liters of water with you for longer hikes! Here are our favorite 2-liter reservoir and 3-liter reservoir!
  3. Sun Protection: This is so important in Colorado where the altitude makes you more susceptible to sunburn! Sun Bum is our favorite sunscreen brand.
  4. Hiking Boots: I hiked to Sky Pond in my Columbia hiking boots. You can’t beat the price for the quality, too. Tim wore his Foxelli boots and swears they are the best hiking boots he’s ever owned.
  5. Socks: I started wearing these double-layer Wrightsock brand socks when marathon training years ago and have never gotten a blister with them! The hike to Sky Pond covers rocky terrain, so it’s nice to have blister protection! In winter, I might mix it up with merino wool socks, too.
  6. Sunglasses: I love these wooden frame sunglasses, so they are my go-to.
  7. Hiking pants: These hiking leggings are my favorite in winter. In summer, I usually hike in biker shorts or leggings.
  8. Moisture-wicking layers: SmartWool is our favorite layering brand. I wear this pullover all the time and their wool t-shirts are great base layers. There are also SmartWool t-shirts for men!
  9. Jacket: Because of the high elevation of this hike, even in summer it can be really chilly at Sky Pond! I always pack my Columbia jacket when hiking in the mountains.
  10. First Aid Kit: An ultralight first aid kit is a must-have for every hike, but especially challenging ones like this where it’s even more important to be prepared in case of injury.
  11. Camera: I always hike with my Sony a7iii. It’s a great full-frame camera for capturing all of our hiking memories!
  12. Snacks: Clif Energy Bars are our favorite hiking snack, for a good mix of carbs, fats, and protein to power us through our hikes!
  13. Trekking poles: Many people like hiking with trekking poles to offset the burden on the knees, especially going downhill. We don’t use ours often, but these Black Diamond Trail Back hiking poles are really popular!

Is there camping at Sky Pond?

The closest campsite to Sky Pond is Andrews Creek Backcountry campsite. It’s 0.2 miles beyond the junction of the Loch Vale Trail and Andrews Creek Trail. You can obtain a backcountry camping permit in advance here.

Where to Stay in Estes Park

We recommend basing yourself in Estes Park when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are some well-rated hotel options in Estes Park, which is just a few miles from the Beaver Meadows entrance station to RMNP.

Luxury

Midrange

Budget

Click here to search for additional hotels in Estes Park or search below!

 

Final Thoughts on the Sky Pond Hike

Sky Pond is an amazing and challenging hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. The views are incredible and rank up there with some of the best alpine lake views we’ve seen anywhere in the world.

If you love lake hikes, don’t miss the relatively short and easy hike to Emerald Lake, which will take you to 4 lakes total. Our detailed guide has everything you need to know about the Emerald Lake hike. Up for another challenge? Chasm Lake is one of our favorite hikes in the park.

If you have time, don’t miss driving the scenic Trail Ridge Road for some of the best views in Rocky Mountain National Park!

Lastly, if you’re unsure what to pack, we’ve got you covered. Check out our blog post on what to pack for Rocky Mountain National Park and subscribe below to get a printable PDF delivered straight to your inbox!

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