The countdown to ski seasons is on. We are officially under 100 days but there is still plenty of time to get your summer turns in. Whether you’re on the quest to ski 12 months of the year or just looking to make a few turns, the snowfield at St. Mary’s Glacier is still open for business.
The drive to St. Mary’s is pretty straight forward, heading west from Denver take exit 238 from I-70 and follow Fall River Road to the trailhead. It will take you a little over an hour depending on where you are coming from. After exiting I-70 it is just over nine miles from the exit to the parking lot. Parking at the trailhead does cost $5 in either cash or check. There are only a handful of spots at the trailhead parking lot, but further down the road there is an auxiliary lot with plenty of parking. Although, arriving early on the weekends is a must as both lots will fill up quickly.
The trail up to the snowfield is a relatively wide, rocky forest road. Placing your skis or snowboard a bit higher on your pack will keep them from bumping rocks on your way up and down. The trail itself is poorly marked, but follow it intuitively to the northwest and it will lead straight to the bottom of St. Mary’s Lake. Be aware the trail is lined by private property and those areas are clearly marked.
There are several great vantage points along the lake looking toward the snowfield. This is a perfect spot to stop and grab some beautiful pictures of the lake before heading up the snow. Cross the bridge on the East side of the lake to continue up to the snowfield. Navigating the snowfield is probably the trickiest part of the hike. Utilizing climbing skins, snowshoes or a pair of Yak-Tracks will make walking up the frozen snow considerably easier. As you head up, stay on the right side to avoid people coming down and have the ability to step off the snow if needed. The first section has a relatively steep wall along the side, but once you make it to the halfway point the sides become more level and open up if you want to get off of the snow.
At the top of the snowfield you will be able to see James Peak to the West and it is worth it to hike a little further to the plateau and check out the area surrounding St. Mary’s. The snow currently is a bit rough, as to be expected this time of year. Depending on the time of day you start hiking, giving the snow a little time to warm up can be advantageous. The top half of the snowfield is pretty smooth but once you pass the halfway point turning towards the lake the snowfield more closely resembles icy moguls.
Overall the hike falls to the easier side of the spectrum and skiing down the snowfield is somewhere between a green and blue run at the resort. The biggest thing to watch out for is the snow conditions. The later in the day you attempt to ski down the less reliable the snow will be. On the opposite hand, skiing the snow at first light will result in skiing a sheet of ice. Aim to hit the trailhead just before sunrise and you should be skiing down on some fairly consistent snow. Remember, even though it is August and the sun is shining, bring pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a helmet to ski down in. The snow is filled with summer debris and rocks, so catching and edge might leave you with some scrapes. Have fun out there and always respect the trail so everyone has a chance to get their summer turns in.
All photography by Joshua Headley