Vien R. Guenther
Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trail Hike - Rocky Mountain National Park
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Living in Colorado, it’s easy for us to go to Rocky Mountain National Park. Located between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, this park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. It can get crowded in summer so we usually come here either in Spring when the weather is cooler and the beautiful wildflowers are in bloom, or in the Fall when the elk rut is in season and autumn fall colors are at their best.
If you don’t have a choice but to go in summer, the park is big, there are plenty of hiking trails, camping sites and places that you can visit without walking far. Some of the lakes and waterfalls are just short walking distances.
Just driving around the national park you will see some of the best mountain landscapes nature has to offer (photo below). You might get lucky to spot wild animals as well, such as mule deer, elk, big horn sheep, to name a few. Wildflowers are not shabby either. Plenty of photo opportunities for everyone - that's why we love coming here every year, oftentimes twice.
But of course going higher is a different scenario if you want views unseen from the road. It requires hiking. Take note though, not all hiking trails offer the views you might be looking for. One of the positive aspects of the internet is that you can find anything on line. Depending on your hiking skill level, you will have many choices.
BEAR LAKE TO FERN LAKE TRAILHEADS
One of the moderately strenuous hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park is the one-way trail from Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road to Fern Lake Trailhead at Moraine Park. You can begin your hike at either trailhead, but starting at Bear Lake is much easier since at Moraine park you will start at a much lower elevation. Either way, trail is very scenic.
Since it is a one-way trail (well, it can be two-way if you want to hike back to your starting point, but why would you want to do that), you can either park one car at each trailhead (Bear Lake Trailhead or Fern Lake Trailhead at Moraine Park) or park one car at one end and then take the free shuttle bus at the other end back to your car. That's what we do.
If Bear Lake parking lot is full (often by 8:00 a.m.) then you have to park at the Bear Lake Road park-and-ride, take the bus to Bear Lake, then make the hike, and finally take the shuttle bus back to Bear Lake. The shuttle bus at Moraine Park will take you back to the Park-and-Ride where you change to another shuttle which will take you back to your car. It is not complicated to do this but you have to be sure that you are aware of the shuttle schedule. Finish your hike too late and you will have a very long walk back.
The Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trail Hike is a little over ten miles, including walking the half mile or so along Fern Lake Road to the shuttle parking area at Moraine Park. This hike is a little intimidating especially to those not used to hiking at high elevation. But it will be worth your effort since this trail is scenic. There are incredible views, beautiful lakes, waterfalls and streams along the way.
Before reaching the summit you will pass by two lakes, the Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene - we always take a detour to Lake Helene, it's just a short walk from the trail. Then at the high point of the hike, there’s a spectacular view of Notchtop Mountain (elevation 12,129 feet), one of the many sought-after mountains by climbers in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The trail continues on to the other side of the ridge, but before rounding to the other side down to Odessa and Fern Lakes, take a short detour from the trail up to the lower ridge of Joe Mills Mountain, a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains awaits. Be sure to always carry a warm jacket with
you for it can get windy and chilly up high.
Also from the ridge look down and you will see Odessa Lake, as well as the incredible views. It is the best views on this trail I think, not including the lakes you will see on your way down.
From the high point the trail is all downhill. It leads you to Odessa Lake which has an incredible view of what they call “The Little Matterhorn”, a smaller version of the famous mountain found in the Alps. Above the far end of Odessa Lake you will also see Notchtop Mountain.
To reach Odessa Lake you have to back track a little from Fern Lake trail. You will cross a log bridge then just a short walk to the lake. The view will open up suddenly right in front of you.
The view across the lake toward Flat Top Mountain, Notchtop Mountain, and the Little Matterhorn is one awesome landscape you don't want to miss. We never get tired of looking at it every time we hike here. It is a truly hidden gem in the park, one of many. This is a good spot to have lunch, or have a snack to boost your energy for the last leg of your hike.
To truly enjoy the area is to camp here which is what climbers do when climbing Little Matterhorn and the Notchtop Mountain. There are two camp sites nearby, one is located north of Odessa Lake, and another one down by Fern Lake.
To reach Fern Lake from Odessa Lake is about a one-mile hike. Fern Creek feeds these two lakes. The view from Fern Lake is a little less dramatic than that from Odessa Lake, but it is still beautiful. You will still see the mountain peaks from here, but not as grand a view. But wait! This is not the end of the trail, there's still more to see ahead and a few more miles to hike.
Near Fern Lake, you'll pass the Fern Lake Patrol Cabin, a historic cabin built in 1925, and used as a ranger station until 1949. After Fern Lake, about 1.2 miles, look out for the 60-foot Fern Waterfalls. For the last leg of the hike, the same Fern Lake Trail will take you down all the way to the trailhead, just about 3.5 miles.
But in order to take the shuttle bus back to where you left your car (Bear Lake or Bear Lake road park-and-ride), you have to walk another half mile or so to the shuttle parking lot at Moraine Park. By then you wish you had a car waiting for you at the trailhead... Wheh!... You did it!
Now, back at your car, you can pat yourself on the back for this accomplishment. You now deserve some ice cream, or beer, in the charming town of Estes Park. This town is one of our favorites to explore after hiking, plenty of gift shops and restaurants, craft beers and local wines.
All trails in the park are well marked, pointing out the different hiking routes you may want to take. It’s wise to have a map with you even if you know the trails - you can easily get lost. Hermann has a GPS with him all the time, in addition to a map.
Whether the hike is easy or strenuous, you have to remember to dress in layers. Weather can change anytime in the mountains, especially up high, so we bring along rain jackets as well as fleece jackets. Afternoon thunderstorms are common.
Bring plenty of water - Colorado has a dry climate and you can easily get dehydrated. Also bring some snacks or lunch to keep you energized.
Good, sturdy footwear, if not hiking boots, is a wise choice. We’ve seen hikers wearing flip flops, believe it or not. There are plenty of ankle breakers on the trail, so wearing hiking boots is good protection.
A lot of people do "shortcutting"; it contributes to soil erosion, so be mindful. Don't feed the wildlife, especially the chipmunks; they might be cute but they can get aggressive as well. They will steal your nuts or other snacks if you forget to close your backpack. It happened to Hermann one time.