Touring U-Valleys & Rocky Mountain NP’s Glacial Features

Along with massive geologic uplift, glaciers were instrumental in forming Rocky’s dramatic landscape many thousands of years ago. This tour highlights some of the prominent glacial features of the park.

A layer of fog sits in the valley in Rocky Mountain National Park's Moraine Park.
A beautiful early morning fog settles over Moraine Park. Photo © Erin English.

Day 1: Glacial Moraines & Glacial Erratics

Unload your camping gear at the Glacier Basin Campground, an area of the park that was long ago shaped by a massive valley glacier. Head to Moraine Park to view a few textbook examples of glacial moraines, both lateral and terminal.

Stop in to the Moraine Park Discovery Center to view the center’s glacier exhibits, then head upstairs to the large picture window for a view of Moraine Park’s vast meadow. Continue north to see Horseshoe Park, which is framed by more moraines.

Late in the afternoon, if the weather is favorable, take a hike to Cub Lake to see some good examples of glacial erratics—large boulders that glaciers deposited in random places.

View of Sundance Mountain with an ampitheatre shaped depresseion known as a cirque.
Sundance Mountain, a cirque that was shaped by a glacier. Photo © Erin English.

Day 2: Tyndall Glacier & A Cirque Valley

First thing in the morning, ride the park shuttle from the Park & Ride to Bear Lake and take a good look at Hallett Peak in the background. Just to the viewer’s right of Hallett Peak is Tyndall Glacier, one of six remaining glaciers in the park. Once at the lake, purchase the Bear Lake Nature Trail and learn more about glacial activity in this short and easy walking tour. In the afternoon, drive up Old Fall River Road to peer at some more examples of glacial erratics.

Stop at the Café in the Clouds, next to the Alpine Visitor Center, and grab a bite to eat. On your way back down to the east side, get out of the car at Rainbow Curve and gaze northwest from the viewing area at Sundance Mountain, a cirque that was shaped by a glacier.

Day 3: Hiking Longs Peak

This morning, you’ll drive south on Highway 7 to the Longs Peak Entrance and park at the Longs Peak Trailhead. Your destination today is Chasm Lake, which sits in a fabulous amphitheater (a glacier-formed cirque) below the east face of Longs Peak. After this strenuous 8.4-mile round-trip hike, relax at your campsite with s’mores and hot cocoa while watching the stars above.

Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Mills Lake. Photo © Sasha Buzko/iStock.

Day 4: U-Valleys and Mills Lake

Set an early alarm to put on a sturdy pair of kicks and board the park shuttle to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The Glacier Gorge is a fantastic example of a U-shaped valley: a V-shaped river valley that was widened and molded into a U shape by glaciers. It’s also one of the most popular destinations in the park (the parking lot fills by 6am in the summer). Hike through to Alberta Falls then continue on to Mills Lake.

Return to your campsite and pack up by noon in order to drive over Trail Ridge Road. Squeeze in a stop at the Forest Canyon Overlook; a 13-mile-long glacier once held court in this valley and shaped it into a U. Continue the scenic drive west to the glacier-formed Kawuneeche Valley, stopping at Farview Curve for a fantastic perspective of the green meadows below. Set up camp at Timber Lake Campground for your last night in the park.

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