Bear Lake Road takes Rocky Mountain National Park visitors into one of the most popular, highly visited areas of the park. It starts near the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station and travels 10 miles to stunning Bear Lake and the Bear Lake Ranger Station.
Because the Bear Lake area is so popular, it is heavily impacted and by 9:00 am, rangers close the road to incoming vehicles.
Free park shuttle buses run from the Estes Park Visitor Center (outside Rocky Mountain National Park) to various stops along Bear Lake Road throughout the day.
Now normally I would encourage you to arrive early (by 8:00 am) so you can park, but frankly, even if you do get a parking spot, once you’re done with the first hike of the day, there won’t be anywhere to move your vehicle to! Instead, consider visiting the Bear Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park after 3:30 pm when many people have already left for the day and personal vehicles are once again able to drive down Bear Lake Road.
That’s exactly what we did and it was so worth it!
When we were unable to drive Bear Lake Road in the morning, we drove to the Wild Basin area of the park to hike to Copeland Falls, visited Chapel On A Rock in Allenspark, and hiked to the Birch House ruins in Estes Park. Around 3:30 pm, we headed toward Bear Lake and had no problem finding a parking spot at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
About 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 is one of the few places in the United States where you can drive on a paved road all the way to a gorgeous, clear alpine lake. It was formed during the ice age by a glacier and freezes solid in the winter. Because Bear Lake Road is plowed throughout the winter so:
- Cross country skiers can access to the snowy lake and trails
- Tubers can hike across the lake and up the mountain for a ride downhill and across the lake
The Bear Lake Trailhead is a stop for the free park shuttle buses that has a ranger station that even sells some snacks, restrooms, and access to the Bear Lake Nature Trail and several other hiking trails of varying difficulties. This is also how you access the spectacular Nymph Lake, Emerald Lake, and Dream Lake.
The Bear Lake Nature Trail
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.
The trail starts just past the Bear Lake Ranger Station with an amazing view of Bear Lake and the 12,713 foot Hallett Peak in the background. Here you’ll find families and groups of tourists vying for the perfect photo and we were more than happy to join the crowds to snap one of our own.
As the trail follows the curving shoreline around the lake, you’ll see Tyndall Glacier, one of five active glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park, high on the Hallet-Flattop Ridge and travel through a forest of spruce, fir, lodgepole pine and aspen trees. Then on the north side of Bear Lake, you’ll have an amazing view of the diamond face of 14,259 foot Longs Peak.
If you’re lucky, while you meander around the lake, stopping to take photos and relax on the periodic wooden benches, you’ll get to see chipmunks and Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels scampering across the trail, over the rocks, and up the tree trunks. Natalie and Carter had a lot of fun spotting these little, friendly creatures!
When we made it back to the ranger station, we grabbed our Hydro Flasks and adventure packs and hit the trail again, this time bound for Alberta Falls. The ranger told us that the hike to the waterfall is basically the same whether you start at Bear Lake or the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which was a total lie.
But that is a story for another blog post!
Know Before You Go
- Bear Lake and the Bear Lake Trailhead in Bear Lake Summer Trail Guide or the Bear Lake Winter Trail Guide.
- Stop by one of the five Rocky Mountain National Park visitor centers to pick up an interpretative trail guide published by the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. It provides natural, geological, and historical information for many marked spots along the Bear Lake Trail.
- 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.
- There is a ranger station and information kiosk, shuttle bus station, new accessible restrooms, and several picnic tables at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
- In the early 1900s, the rustic Bear Lake Lodge was built near Bear Lake’s south shore. Additional cabins were built in subsequent years, allowing up to 75 guests to stay at the lodge during its height of popularity. In 1921, a youth camp called the Bear Lake Trail School was started near the lodge. It provided boys with outdoor instruction on camping, forestry, botany, birds, geology, orienteering, and horsemanship.
- Dogs and pets are not allowed. Fishing and swimming in Bear Lake is also prohibited.