To explore an area of lake-filled basins below the Continental Divide, follow Bear Lake Road into the center of Rocky Mountain National Park. Several trails leave from Bear Lake Trailhead, including a three-lake trek to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. For something shorter, the 2/3 of a mile long stroll around Bear Lake has lots of appeal. Bear Lake Nature Trail passes numerous viewpoints as it wraps around Bear Lake, offering views across the water toward ridges of aspen and conifers backed by 12,000-foot mountains. This hike is both lovely and easy, and it can also be educational if you make use of the trail guide.
Set out from Bear Lake Trailhead, which is about 10 miles from the park’s eastern entrance near Estes Park. The trailhead has a large parking area and a shuttle service that reduces congestion when the park is busy. The hike begins with two right turns. Walk up the trail between the shuttle stop and the ranger station to the first junction. Emerald Lake Trail parts to the left. Stay to the right to approach Bear Lake. You will quickly reach a second junction where the loop begins. From here Bear Lake Nature Trail makes a 0.6-mile loop around the subalpine lake, which is 9,475 feet above sea level.
Pick up a trail guide next to the panel with a map of the lake. If you want to follow the guide in order, turn right to hike around the lake in a counter-clockwise direction. Soon you will see the first of thirty signs with numbered bear paws coinciding with entries in the guide. The extensive guide has information about Bear Lake’s geology, human history, plants, and animals.
Walk out to the first of several viewpoints along the shore of Bear Lake that look across the round lake toward Hallett Peak, which has steep cliffs rising to 12,713 feet. Native Americans called this prominent mountain, Thunder Peak. The trail guide explains how this landscape was formed:
Ice measuring 50 feet thick moved across Bear Lake basin between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. Originating in the uppermost valley heads, glacial ice eroded high basins, called cirques, and quarried the sheer granite cliffs of Hallett Peak. Rock debris from these glaciers formed the ground moraines, or ridges, that surround Bear Lake.
For the most part, Bear Lake is festooned by conifers like Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and lodgepole pines. Some trees will stand out from the others, particularly from mid-September to early October when their leaves turn yellow, orange, and gold. These are quaking aspen, probably the most famous trees in Rocky Mountain National Park, which draw big crowds when their leaves change color.
Proceed along the lake past viewpoints with benches. After a tenth of a mile, you will reach a marked split. Avoid the trail ascending to the right toward Flattop Mountain and Bierstadt Lake and stay to the left along Bear Lake Nature Trail. The up-to-this-point wheelchair-friendly trail, now goes through some small undulations.
Slip through a grove of aspen near the lakeshore to find yourself on the north side of the lake below a steeper ridge. From this shore, you’ll get a new perspective of other impressive peaks. Across the lake to the south, look up a deep trough in the terrain called Glacier Gorge, framed by ridges that rise above the trees into alpine tundra. Half Mountain stands above the far side of the gorge. Behind that is Longs Peak, the highest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259 feet tall.
Proceed along the lake, looking across the water toward the viewpoints at the start of the loop. Go through aspen and a marshy area to reach the east side of the lake. The trail turns uphill alongside a steep rock wall to rise into a forest of firs and spruce. Look through the trees toward the lake and a patch of aspens that is ablaze with color in the fall.
The trail goes downhill and levels out, passing a rock that juts into the lake (good photo op) and a bench (last spot to relax by the lake), before returning to the junction at the start of the loop. Leave the lake by turning right and make the next left to return to the trailhead parking area and shuttle stop.
Bear Lake Trailhead is a popular destination. The parking area fills up on summer weekends and during the busy period from mid-September to mid-October during the elk rut when the aspen leaves change color. The Bear Lake Shuttle runs daily from Memorial Day Weekend through mid-October from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visitors can take the shuttle from Glacier Basin Park & Ride up to the Bear Lake Trailhead. Other stops at Bierstadt Lake Trailhead and Glacier Gorge Trailhead allow for additional exploring and shuttle hikes. The buses run in approximately 15-minute intervals.
Dogs and bikes are not allowed on Bear Lake Nature Trail. A national park entrance fee must be paid to reach the trailhead. No permit is required for this hike, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From Estes Park, drive southwest on Route 36 to the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station for Rocky Mountain National Park. Proceed another quarter mile and turn left onto Bear Lake Road. Drive 9 miles up this road to the parking area at road’s end for Bear Lake Trailhead. To take the shuttle, drive 5 miles up Bear Lake Road and turn right into Glacier Basin Park & Ride.
Trailhead address: Bear Lake Trailhead, Bear Lake Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517
Trailhead coordinates: 40.31195, -105.6457 (40° 18′ 43.02″N 105° 38′ 44.52″W)
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