Beginner’s Trail Guide: St. Mary’s Glacier

St. Mary’s Glacier is a bit of a hidden gem, and it’s definitely a hike you should do once. Obviously, it’s not hard to find spectacular views on hikes in Colorado, but how many chances do you get to hike on a glacier?!

To be completely honest, this was a doozy of a hike for me as a beginner because of the elevation. St Mary’s glacier starts at 10,000 feet (Denver is at 5,280), so it won’t be a walk in the park for you, but it’s also only 1.5 miles. Plus, I’m a big believer in shamelessly taking as many breaks as you need for water/getting oxygen as you need. The point of hiking is to enjoy your beautiful surroundings, so why put pressure on yourself to get done AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. It’s not a race.

The second-biggest obstacle was the wind. We went in mid-September, while it was still quite hot in Denver, and were bundled. Obviously, it will be higher up so it will be colder, but that wind whipping around certainly didn’t help. As always, check the weather, dress in plenty of layers, and carry a backpack. (Here’s my complete packing list for hiking).

Finding St. Mary’s does require some driving on non-paved roads, which can get a little rough. We didn’t need to use four-wheel drive, but just know ahead of time that you’ll have to take the end a little slow.

Take the St. Mary’s exit of off I-70, after passing through Idaho Springs (which, by the way, is the mother of all post-hiking lunch options. Hit up Tommy Knocker’s Brewery, BeauJo’s Pizza, or Smokin Yard BBQ. All are insanely good). It’s about an hour drive, depending on traffic, and Idaho Springs is your last stop for gas, food, and any other necessities.

Hiking St. Mary’s costs $5 per vehicle and you have to leave either cash or a check at the parking lot. Amazingly, if you do not have exact change and you leave your mailing address on the provided piece of paper, whoever manages the trail will actually mail you a check in the amount you are owed. There are trash cans and portapotties at the trailhead, and after that, you’re on your own.

There are a litany of reasons why you should always stay on a trail and never wander off, but most importantly at St. Mary’s you should stay on the trail because you’re otherwise trespassing on people’s private property. It’s always important to be respectful of where you are hiking, but especially important here since again, these people make their home at St. Mary’s.

The trail itself is fairly rocky, but pretty wide which is nice. Just make sure you’re wearing good, supportive shoes. If you want to buy some hiking boots, here’s my beginner’s guide.

dirt hiking trail lined with pine trees and rocks on a sunny day
The trail actually goes off the left, but there are a few sections where it it as rocky as what is straight ahead. Also, watch out for ice.

I may be dramatizing this hike in my beginner’s mind, but it seems like a very long 1.5-mile trip. Probably because I was gasping for air most of the time. Once you reach the lake, rejoice! Also, this is where the wind REALLY picks up. But you are looking at the glacier! I didn’t really know what to expect, but by the end of summer, it will look decidedly less glacier-ey and more like a patch of ice.

a man stands in front of st marys glacier near idaho springs colorado

You can keep walking up the glacier, but let this be my warning that if it’s extremely windy and you are a small lady (like myself), you may not want to go all the way up. It physically pains me to say this, because feminism, but I was almost getting blown over the day we went, so I only went about halfway. You still get an incredible view, and if there are crazy skiers there, you can watch them go down the glacier, which is actually pretty cool.

An REI employee later informed me that it’s actually a snowfield, but I prefer to say I climbed a glacier. Regardless of what the proper name is, the views are worth the trek:

 

St. Mary's Glacier Hike Colorado Idaho Springs Beginner Hiking
The view from halfway up ain’t shabby.

 

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