We originally planned a full day in Rocky Mountain National Park bookended by two half days. The first day and a half in the park was spent exploring the areas of Trail Ridge Road, Grand Lake, Estes Park, and Old Fall River Road. Our final half day was going to be spent exploring Moraine Park and things to do along Bear Lake Road, before heading to Colorado Springs. But massive park crowds forced us to change our plans.
When we stopped in the Moraine Park Discovery Center, excited to explore the lakes and waterfalls along Bear Lake Road, we discovered that wasn’t going to be easy. Bear Lake Road is one of the most popular destinations in all of Rocky Mountain National Park and by 9:00 am, the road is closed to all vehicles and access is limited to the free park shuttle. Ugh!
This means you have three options when exploring Bear Lake Road with your family:
- Be on Bear Lake Road by 8:30 am at the very latest to find a parking spot, or much earlier if you want to park at the Bear Lake Trailhead and Bear Lake Ranger Station. The downside is that once you finish your first hike, every parking spot along all of the Bear Lake Road will be full and you don’t be able to move your car unless it’s to leave the area, which means you’ll have to walk or ride the free shuttle to other destinations.
- Head to the Estes Park Visitor Center in the town of Estes Park to board one of the free shuttle buses for the Bear Lake corridor. The downside is that the bus ride isn’t short, there are limited buses, and you’ll waste a good chunk of time during the day waiting for the bus, waiting for others to board the bus, waiting for others to depart the bus, and waiting for the bus to get to different locations.
- Wait until 3:30 pm or later to drive down Bear Lake Road, when many visitors have left the area and the road reopens to personal vehicles. The downside is that thunderstorms often roll in during the afternoon hours, but the upside is that if it’s a sunny day, you get to drive your own car so you can visit the lakes and hike the trails you want without worrying about the shuttle. You’ll also have your own car, which for us means we’d have all of our food!
We chose to delay our exploration of Bear Lake Road until the afternoon, which meant we then had time to visit Chapel On A Rock in Allenspark, Colorado on the way to the Wild Basin Entrance Station for a hike to Copeland Falls. We also had time to hike to the Birch House Ruins in Estes Park, and stop at 3M Curve for views of Longs Peak. At just as the rangers advised us, by 3:30 pm, the road was open and we easily found parking at Bear Lake.
Things To Do On Bear Lake Road
The 10 mile long Bear Lake Road begins near the Rocky Mountain National Park Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and ends at Bear Lake. During the winter, Bear Lake Road is used to access areas popular for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and even snow tubing. In the summer, it provides access to some of the most popular destinations in the park for families.
Here are the top four things to do along Bear Lake Road for families with young children:
01. Moraine Park Discovery Center
Moraine Park Museum And Amphitheater, also called the Moraine Park Discovery Center and the Moraine Park Lodge, are located off Bear Lake Road in Moraine Park, a glaciated meadow between two moraines in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sitting just 1.5 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station, the Moraine Park Discovery Center opened in 1923 and features interactive natural history exhibits on the topics of geologic processes, glaciation, weather and climate, ecosystems, and human impact. There is also a small bookstore, a short nature trail, and beautiful views of Moraine Park.
02. Bear Lake
At 9,450 feet elevation, Bear Lake is a subalpine lake that sits beneath the sheer flanks of the 12,713 foot Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide. Located at the end of Bear Lake Road, it is the most popular lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Bear Lake Trail, also called the Bear Lake Nature Trail, is an easy, 0.5 mile loop trail that hugs the shoreline of Bear Lake. It is breathtaking and a perfect adventure for families with small children.
03. Alberta Falls
At 9,400 feet elevation, Alberta Falls is a spectacular, 25 foot waterfall on Glacier Creek that roars through a granite chute and plunges down a small gorge.
The hike to Alberta Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The trail passes through a forest of pine and aspen trees, past a magnificent rock cliff at Glacier Gorge, and follows along Glacier Creek until you reach the waterfall. Here, Glacier Creek thunders down the rocks to create a beautiful waterfall and the giant rock slabs next to Alberta Falls provide the perfect spot to sit down, relax, enjoy nature, and even have a picnic!
04. Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake has lots of parking, a large picnic area along Glacier Creek, a flat walking trail around the lake, gorgeous views, and flush restrooms (summer only).
At 8,688 feet elevation, the Sprague Lake Trail is an easy, flat, 0.5 mile loop trail around the 13 acre lake. It is accessible and features level boardwalks and beautiful wooden bridges with views of Flattop Mountain and Hallet Peak.
Know Before You Go
- The 10 mile long Bear Lake Road begins near the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station and is open and plowed year round but it does temporarily close occasionally due to bad weather.
- The Bear Lake area is very busy, especially in summer and on fall weekends, which means all parking areas often fill completely by early morning and rangers close access to the road just past the Moraine Park Discovery Center, requiring you to use the free park shuttle buses that run from the Estes Park Visitor Center (outside Rocky Mountain National Park) to various stops along Bear Lake Road.
- Download the Bear Lake Summer Trail Guide or the Bear Lake Winter Trail Guide.
- There is a ranger station and information kiosk, shuttle bus station, new accessible restrooms, and several picnic tables at the Bear Lake Trailhead, and a large parking lot, picnic area, and accessible restrooms at Sprague Lake.
- Alberta Falls is accessed on trails that leave from both the Glacier Gorge Trailhead (easiest) and the Bear Lake Trailhead (uphill both ways).
- Dogs and pets are not allowed on trails. Fishing and swimming in Bear Lake is prohibited. Fishing in Sprague Lake is allowed with a permit.
- The Moraine Park Discovery Center, also known as the Moraine Park Museum And Amphitheater and the Moraine Park Lodge, is located on Bear Lake Road in Estes Park, Colorado 80517, in Larimer County in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is open daily late Spring through mid-Fall from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm with reduced hours in late fall and spring. It is closed during the winter.
- Download one of the Rocky Mountain National Park brochures and the official park newspaper.