2015.07.03 Bear Lake Hike and Estes Park

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The moment we decided on Alberta Falls for our family hike yesterday, Miles asked to go on a hike that was a little more challenging.  We spent some time yesterday looking at the reviews for various hikes, and settled on one that was identified as the best hike in RMNP by National Geographic.  This is how Stephanie and I get talked into a 10 mile hike in the mountains.  Let’s do it.

We did the Park and Ride at the park again today.  Even though we arrived about a half hour earlier than the day before, the lines were much longer to get on the shuttle to the trailhead.

The insane line for the shuttle bus

The insane line for the shuttle bus

Our trail hike today was the “Bear Lake to Fern Lake” trail.  It was 9.2 miles and defined as a “strenuous” hike.  (Although prior to the hike, we had seen it defined as “moderate”.)  The total elevation gain on the hike was 1,230 feet and the highest point on the trail was 10,697 feet.  We are not in position to dispute any of these facts.

The shuttle dropped us off at the Bear Lake trailhead.  I spoke to a ranger about our hike.  She handed me a map and advised me that the trail would have snow on it in several places.  Sounds great!

Just a few hundred feet up the trail is Bear Lake.  The park is littered with lakes of various sizes, and this looked to be one of the biggest we’d seen.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake

Once we left Bear Lake, the trail immediately starts going up at a fairly dramatic pace.  We passed several boulder fields on the hike, and the first one was shortly after we got started.  (I am a big fan of boulder fields.)

Boulder Field

Boulder Field

Early on in the hike, a Park Ranger named Meyer came up behind us on the trail.  Turns out he was taking the same hike we were.  It was his job to hike the trail and keep an eye out for hikers.  He had worked for the park service for several years, both as a summer employee and as a full time employee.  He gave us many suggestions for parks to visit that he had worked at before.  It was a nice break talking to him.  We were sad to see him go!

Ranger Meyer

Ranger Meyer

Pine Trees as far as the eye can see

Pine Trees as far as the eye can see

As we continued our ascent, we found our first snow covering the trail.  This was not just a little bit of snow – it was a LOT of snow.  We stopped to take pictures, and ironically we had cell service at that very spot, so we sent pictures to the rest of the family.

Selfie on the snow

Selfie on the snow

This group of young women crossed the snow while we were there

This group of young women crossed the snow while we were there

A massive boulder field that we crossed

A massive boulder field that we crossed

Several spots along the hike, there were smaller bodies of water.  Let’s call them ponds.  We found one pond that had the clearest water you have ever seen.  (Actually all the lakes have crystal clear water.)  It looked like a good spot for a break, so we sat down for a few minutes and had a snack.

Rest stop for hikers

Rest stop for hikers

The trail was nearly always made up of jagged rocks.  This was kind of a pain because it required you to be looking down instead of looking up at the scenery, else you were liable to trip.  So every now and then it was good to slow down and look around.

Miles and Stephanie on the trail.  Tall pines and mountains.

Miles and Stephanie on the trail. Tall pines and mountains.

Around 3 miles into the hike, there is an option to take a short side hike to Lake Helene.  The park ranger told us it was worth our time, so we did it.  The entire walk from the trail to the lake was covered in snow, but it was not hard to find the lake.

Snow on the hike to Lake Helene

Snow on the hike to Lake Helene

Lake Helene with Notchtop Mountain

Lake Helene with Notchtop Mountain

As we left Lake Helene, we passed a family of 5 who was sitting on a rock, taking a break.  It was a mom and dad, and three young children.  Mom was busy promoting the consumption of protein bars as we walked by.

Around the bend from Lake Helene, the trail followed Odessa Gorge.  Spectacular is the most fitting word to describe it.  It was a beautiful hike (and we were going downhill, which didn’t hurt).  The gorge had Odessa Lake as well as a number of waterfalls coming down the mountainside.  The largest one was Grace Falls, which fell over 100 feet.

Odessa Gorge and Odessa Lake

Odessa Gorge and Odessa Lake

Along our hike down the gorge on Joe Mills Mountain, the trail was completely covered by snow in one spot.  This was an encouragement to go nice and easy.

Snow on the trail on Joe Mills Mountain

Snow on the trail on Joe Mills Mountain

We made our way down the trail until we arrived at Fern Lake.  There were a number of fisherman working the banks of the lake.  We asked one of them what they were fishing for and they advised us it was cutthroat trout.  The fish were easy to see in the clear water, and they were gorgeous.

Fisherman at Fern Lake

Fisherman at Fern Lake

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat Trout

Steve, Stephanie and Miles at Fern Lake

Steve, Stephanie and Miles at Fern Lake

After we left Fern Lake, the trail began a more aggressive decent.  The trail drops 650 feet within one mile during one point on the trail.  This would explain why Stephanie said the downhill hurt more than the uphill.   It was not a leisurely descent.

The trail sometimes ran right alongside a creek or river, and other times you were far removed from water.  When we were not near the water, it was eerily quiet.  At the high altitude, we would not even hear birds.  We would walk and walk, and then we would realize that there is river nearby because we could hear the roar of the water. The sound sneaks up on you.

Another highlight on the descent was the 60 foot Fern Falls.  It was a popular spot for hikers to sit down and take a break.  It was a shaded area and the sound of the fall was hypnotic.

Fern Falls

Fern Falls

Another highlight on the trail map on our descent was an area known as The Pool.  This didn’t make much sense to us because there is no pool of water.  Rather, it is where the Fern Creek meets the Big Thompson River.  It was a very turbulent area with a lot of water and roaring rapids.

The Pool

The Pool

At last we reached the Fern Lake Trailhead, but the joke was on us.  Since we were taking the Park & Ride shuttle, we had to walk another 0.7 miles down a dirt road.  This was not funny.  Finally, after 5.5 hours and over 10 miles of hiking, we were done.  We really did feel like we accomplished something, and were so glad we took this hike.

Walking down dirt road to the shuttle stop

Walking down dirt road to the shuttle stop

While we were not the only people on this hike, it was by no means crowded.  We might have seen 50 hikers between Bear Lake and Fern Lake.  It was nice, because you would see people from time to time, but you really felt like you had the trail to yourself for the most part.  Between Fern Lake and the Fern Lake trailhead, we saw a lot more people.  There is little elevation change (comparatively speaking) on this part of the trail.

Miles and I wore backpacks on the hike.  The sole purpose for Miles’ backpack was the gallon jug of water he carried the entire way.  At least we know he stayed hydrated.

From the time we arrived at the trailhead, it took about one hour for us to get back to our vehicle.  Our shuttle was packed full, and I had to stand directly behind the driver for most of the drive back.  It was there that I noticed our shuttle bus driver was wearing a Rolex watch.  Maybe I would like to be a shuttle bus driver when I retire.

From the Fern Lake trailhead, for several miles down the road, there were large fences along the creek that went through the meadow.  I asked the bus driver about this, and he said it was because of an overpopulation of elk.  The elk were damaging the beaver habitat, so this was an attempt to protect this land from the elk, in the hopes the beavers could make a comeback.

While we were hiking, the rest of the family spent some time at the RMNP Visitor Center and in Estes Park.  They split up into several groups.  Scott, Erin, Mallory and Marissa found a pizza joint for lunch.  Erin was disappointed they did not have gluten free crust.  More or less, how can a granola state like this not offer gluten free options everywhere?  Step it up, Estes Park.

Pizza for Lunch

Pizza for Lunch

Vehicle traffic in town was terrible during the holiday weekend.  They noticed that there was a policeman standing at one of the intersections.  Everytime the light would change, he would walk out to the cars that were blocking the intersection and slip a $5 ticket under their windshield.  They overheard the officer telling someone that he had pre-written all the tickets the night before.  So all he had to do was walk over and deposit the ticket.  One driver asked him if he would hand him the ticket, but the officer silently put the ticket under the windshield wiper and walked away.

Erin made us chicken fajitas for dinner tonight.  Miles, Stephanie and I had to get out of the hot tub so we didn’t miss out.

After dinner, Scott and Erin went for a drive on the Peak to Peak Highway, which is a very scenic drive south of Estes Park.  They drove about an hour out and an hour back.

Smores on the patio

Smores on the patio

While they were gone, the rest of us enjoyed smores on the patio.  This vacation has slipped into high gear.

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