Time is running out to see Colorado's year-round alpine glaciers before they recede into extinction — which is, in some cases, a couple decades off, according to a study from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.
In the Ice Age, glaciers carved much of Colorado's alpine landscape. Wide mountain valleys — now dotted with towns and zigzagged by hiking trails — are glacial byproducts of millennia past. But these days, only 14 tiny scraps of moving ice are left.
Many are nestled under peaks where the sun can't heat them up and melt their surfaces, their shadowy locations also making them hard to reach, said Tad Pfeffer, one of the authors of the glacier study. Now is the best time to see the remaining ones before they're surrounded by snow.
Here are five glacier hikes worth investigating while the weather holds:
Arapaho and Arikaree glaciers
The Arapaho Glacier once fed the city of Boulder's water needs: In the late 1920s, the city bought it from the federal government to secure its water supply. Although the glacier and surrounding watershed are closed to the public, the trail leads to an overlook with a view of the glacier, watershed and city below.
The Arikaree is likely to melt in fewer than 20 years, said Pfeffer. But before it goes, you can still see it from the Arapaho Glacier Trail. At the glacier overlook, the last little bit of moving ice is nestled just to the north of the Arapaho Glacier, to the right when facing the glaciers from the lookout at treeline.
The Arapaho Glacier Trailhead is located near Rainbow Lakes Campground on County Road 116. It's a 12-mile round-trip hike to the overlook of the glaciers and gains 2,700 feet in elevation. The hike is rated as moderate by the U.S. Forest Service.
St. Mary's Glacier
The St. Mary's Glacier is the shortest hike of the five. It leads to the sliding patch of ice on the glacier's rocky bed, and below the glacier is a placid pool of icemelt.
The trailhead is in the small town of Alice, off exit 238 from I-70. The parking tends to fill up mid-day in the summer. It is a roughly 1-mile out-and-back hike year round, but in the summer when the glacier recedes, there is bonus stretch of rocky trail that leads above the glacier, according to the Forest Service.
Andrews is an elusive glacier, hiding behind a rocky summit for most of the trail. After a long hike and scrambles up scree fields, the sight of the glacier is a welcome reward. The glacier has a small pond it is slowly melting into.
The trail starts at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. After entering the park, take a right (the only direction) onto Bear Lake Road. The Trailhead is almost at the end of the road. The hike is 10.6 miles out and back with a leg-burning 2,260 feet of elevation gain.
The hike to Isabelle Glacier is similar to the Arapaho Glacier Trail. The first section is through rolling hills and turns to dramatic views of the craggy Indian Peaks.
The trail is in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone and starts at the Pawnee Pass Trailhead. Take the Peak to Peak Highway to Ward and turn onto Barnard Lake Road to the terminus. It runs 13 miles out and back with 1,500 feet in elevation gain, giving it a moderate-difficult rating from the Forest Service.
Saint Vrain Glacier
The Saint Vrain is another Indian Peaks glacier. The trail splits off from Buchanan Pass Trail and winds over streams and up boulders to view the mountain lakes fed by melt from the last bit of glacier.
Take Peak to Peak highway past Ward and turn on St. Vrain Road and drive to the parking lot at the end of the road just past the campsite. The trail in total is 12.2 miles out and back with over 2,600 feet of elevation gain. The trail disappears over a few boulder fields and is rated as moderate-to-difficult by the Forest Service.