On our last visit to Rocky Mountain National Park we were on a mission to hike as many of the trails that start from Bear Lake as we could squeeze into our 48 hour visit to the park. Like all the national parks in the U.S., Rocky Mountain has a wonderful diversity of trails for adventurers at all levels. Here’s a guide from easiest to hardest to help you decide which hike you should do depending on the amount you want to hike. Note that you can just ride the shuttle bus to Bear Lake and take the easy half mile stroll around the lake, but I encourage you to try one of these.
All of these trails can opt to start from Bear Lake Trailhead but some are more convention forms the other nearby bus stops. Here’s a of the trails that start from Bear Lake Trailhead and a corresponding shuttle map. If you want to see a full Bear Lake trail map click here.
Short and Easy Hikes
Distance and elevation gain: 1.6 miles RT, 160 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Glacier Gorge Trailhead or Bear Lake Trailhead
While Alberta Falls is not the best waterfall in the world, as one of the shortest and easiest hikes it’s definitely a great hike for families or beginner hikers. Alberta Falls is mostly a scenic viewpoint along many of the more epic hikes in the park. Unless you can’t hike more than 3 miles, I would recommend all other hikes in this blog above this one.
Emerald Lake (including Dream Lake)
Distance and elevation gain: 3.6 miles RT, 605 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Bear Lake Trailhead
While you could just hike the 1.1 miles to Dream Lake, I highly recommend continuing on the remaining .7 miles to arrive at Emerald Lake.
It is only 180 feet from Dream Lake to Emerald and the views of Emerald Lake sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains is incredible.
There are a lot of nice spots to sit and have a picnic by Emerald Lake too.
On the way to Emerald and Dream you also get to pass by the lily pad covered Nymph Lake.
This hike does have a steep section so plan on taking your time if you are hiking with little ones.
Distance and elevation gain: 4.2 Miles RT, 745 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Bear Lake Trailhead
There are very few alpine lakes as gorgeous as this that require so little effort to get to. I was shocked at how beautiful this and Emerald Lake are. While Emerald is a better place to sit and have a picnic (and much better if you have young kids), this lake is fun because it has huge boulders along the edge of the lake that kids will love scrambling over.
Combine Dream Lake, Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha
Distance and elevation gain: 5.8 Miles or 7.6 miles, 745 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Bear Lake Trailhead start and end for shorter hike or end at Glacier Gorge Trailhead for longer
Combining all of these makes for a woeful easy day hike of 5-8 miles with three epic alpine lakes. The signs for all three are well marked and my recommendation would be to first head out to Lake Haiyaha then backtrack to Emerald Lake for your picnic. You will pass Dream Lake on your way to Emerald.
If you want a longer hike and to seee Alberta Falls, head to Emerald and Dream Lakes first, then hike to Haiyaha, then make it a loop and continue to Alberta Falls then Glacier Gorge TH.
The Loch Vale
Distance and elevation gain: 6.2 miles, 990 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Glacier Gorge Trailhead
This is a beautiful lake and a good one if you want to hike to a little less crowded lake (although in the summer especially on weekends it might be quite crowded). This is also a nice lake to sit by and eat, hang a hammock, or bring your Jet Boil to make some fresh coffee.
Bonus: Continue past The Loch to Sky Pond (see below)
Distance and elevation gain: 9.8 miles, 1650 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Glacier Gorge Trailhead to Bear Lake Trailhead
I loved the challenge of getting here and it is another gorgeous lake, but if you are just looking for a gorgeous lake without much effort, the ones above will do the trick. Now if you are like me and enjoy being on a trail for hours on end, this is a great hike to do. It’s easy to follow the trail to the back of The Loch and then continue up through the forest until you get to a waterfall.
This part can be tricky depending on how much water is coming off the falls. There is a small section you have to scramble up that is pretty easy, but if you have a fear of heights it can be mentally challenging. Once you get over the falls you will arrive at Lake of Glass.
Take in the views but don’t stop. You’ve still got 15 minutes of climbing to get to Sky Pond. A lot of people we saw stopped at Lake of Glass and didn’t continue on. It really is only 15 minutes more and so worth the hike.
Most Epic, Strenuous Hikes
The #1 hike in RMNP: Hike All the Above in One Day
The Loch Vale, Glass Lake, Sky Pond, Lake Haiyaha, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake
Distance and elevation gain: 12.5 miles, 2400 ft. gain
Start and end trailhead: Galcier Gorge Trailhead to Bear Lake Trailhead
Call us crazy but we combined Alberta Falls, The Loch, Sky Pond, Lake Haiyaha, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake all into one epic day hike. It’s really not that bad for the amount of alpine lakes you get to see! While there are some steep sections, overall this was a moderate day of hiking with incredible views of alpine lakes, forest, streams, and the towering Long’s Peak following us along the way.
Thru-Hike To Lake Helene and Lake Odessa, Bear Lake Trailhead to Fern Lake Trailhead
Distance and elevation gain: 8.5 miles, 1215 ft. gain
Start and end trailheads: Fern Lake Trailhead to Bear Lake or Fern Lake Trailhead
Another great hike and a little easier than the crazy 12.5 miler above is to thru-hike from Fern Lake to Bear Lake. This was one of my favorite hikes because it goes past three beautiful alpine lakes and a rumbling waterfall. Please do not skip the small detour to get to the shoreline of Lake Odessa. This lake is insanely gorgeous and it is only a 5 minute detour.
Next up on the trail is the beautiful Lake Helene. This short detour is a bit easy to miss. Right as you’re about to make the large, sharp switchback to the left, there will be a wide opeining on the trail to the left at these coordinates (40.3215000,-105.6850836).
Related blog: How to use your smartphone as a GPS while hiking
A short descent will bring you to the shores of Lake Helene.
The views when descending from Lake Helene to Bear Lake are just okay and if you will be doing the other hikes I mentioned above, you’ll get plenty of other great views of the mountains.
Pro tip: If you are camping at Moraine Campground or are driving your car to the trailhead, I’d recommend hiking to Lake Odessa and Helene then just turn around an backtrack to Fern Lake TH. Shuttle transportation back to Moraine Park and Fern Trailhead area takes a long time. By backtracking, it will save you time in not having to wait for so many shuttles at Bear Lake and the Park and Ride (see shuttle and camping tips below).
Quick Tips for Hiking in RMNP
#1: How Much Time Do You Need For Your Hike?
We always average 2 miles per hour for hikes plus stoppage time to sit and enjoy a snack or lunch. However, using the shuttle can take a lot longer than you might think so keep that in mind when you schedule your day. See Shuttles and Camping tips below.
It is very common for thunderstorms to roll in suddenly in the afternoon. Always check the weather forecast in the morning of your hike and try to get an early start. Make sure you aren’t hiking above the tree line if a thunderstorm does roll in. Always carry a warm jacket, a rain jacket, and an emergency blanket.
The national parks have amazing shuttle bus system to make it easy for you to get to and from the trailheads. In Rocky Mountain National Park you can either:
- Take the hiker shuttle from the Estes Park Visitor Center directly to the Park and Ride where you switch shuttles to the one to Bear Lake or…
- You can drive into Rocky Mountain N.P. and park at the free Park and Ride and from here you can get on the free shuttle to Bear Lake Trailhead.
The only flaw with this system is that a lot of people do use them (of course they do, it makes it so easy!), which means that the line to get on the shuttles can get very long especially first thing in the morning because everyone knows you have to hike early before those thunderstorms come in. There are a lot of buses though so the lines do more quite quickly.
#4: Camping + Hiking In The Park
If you are planning on doing hikes from Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge Trailhead it’s really worth it to camp at Glacier View Campground. This campground is directly across the street from the Park and Ride and if you want to be on the trail early, it’s worth walking across to get in line at 6:30 a.m. so you are on the first shuttle at 7 a.m. to the trailhead.
The shuttles do pick up and drop off directly at the campsite too so if you aren’t worried about getting on the trail so early then it’s better to just wait for the shuttle that comes to the campground, especially if you have small kids because it is a solid 15 minute walk to the Park and Ride.
However, if you’re planning on thru-hiking to Lake Helene and Lake Odessa staying at Moraine Campground is good because the way the shuttle system works. The shuttle starts at the Park and Ride at 7:00 a.m. and doesn’t pick up at Moraine Park Campground until 7:15 a.m.. From here, the shuttle then goes directly to the start of the Odessa and Helene Hike, Fern Lake Trailhead
If you’re staying at Glacier View Campground and want to do the Odessa and Helene Hike, just walk over to the Park and Ride at 6:30 a.m. and get on the C Loop shuttle that goes to Moraine and Fern Lake Trailhead.
If you are a strong hiker (and the weather cooperates), you can totally see all these lakes in 48 hours like we did. It’s 21 miles altogether but the views are so worth it!
Tell us about your experience in the comments below! I’d love to know which alpine lake was your favorite! And if you have any other questions about hiking in RMNP that we didn’t answer, fell free to ask in the comments and we’ll get back to you right away!