All around Rocky Mountain National Park there are a variety of beautiful lake trails to hike along. One of the most convenient and easiest options is the Bear Lake hike.
This family friendly trail gives you the chance to walk around Bear Lake while taking in the scenic natural surroundings. It is the perfect option for those that either just want to hike a short trail or for those that want to add it to a multi lake hike around the area.
Read on to learn more about the Bear Lake hike and how to take part of it for yourself.
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1) Hike Background & Trail Stats
To start, below are the trail stats for the Bear Lake hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
- Trailhead: Bear Lake Parking Lot
- Length: 0.7 miles
- Elevation Gain: ~50 feet
- Duration: 20 minutes
- Trail Type: Loop
- Bear Lake Elevation: 9,475 feet
Overall, the Bear Lake nature trail is an easy and beautiful hike to take part of during your time in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are someone who doesn’t want to take part of full on hikes, but still wants to see some great natural landscape, I can’t think of a better option.
Additional Lakes Note: I will mention a few options at the end of this article, but note that you can add Bear Lake to a longer hike around the area.
2) Bear Lake Parking
For those with a car, there should not be much issue getting yourself to the large parking lot at the end of Bear Lake Road. If coming from Estes Park, expect the drive to be about 30 minutes.
It is about a 10 minute drive to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance at Beavers Meadow. From there it is a 20 minute windy drive along the Bear Lake Corridor until you reach the main parking lot at the end of it.
The lake is just a 1-5 minute walk from the parking lot depending on where you park.
If the parking lot happens to be full, you will then need to park down the road at the Park & Ride to grab a shuttle to the Bear Lake lot. During peak season, the Bear Lake lot fills up very early. I would recommend getting to the parking lot before 6:00AM (or even earlier on weekends).
Permit Note: it is important to mention that there is a permit required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park from May until October. Read more about the rules & regulations in the next section.
Colorado Car Rental: Looking for a rental car in Colorado? Check out Rentalcars.com for a variety of options that can work well on your trip.
3) Hiking Map
Below you can find a map that lays out all the important aspects for the day. These include:
- Estes Park
- Bear Lake Parking Lot
- Park & Ride Lot
- RMNP Entrance Station
- Bear Lake Hike Route
- Driving Directions
4) RMNP Permits & Reservations
Over the last few years, Rocky Mountain National Park has introduced a permit system during the peak months. Due to this, you will need to get a timed entry permit ahead of time in order to head to Bear Lake. The one exception here is if you arrive prior to 5:00 AM. See below for the latest:
If you are planning to hike the trail, you will be entering the confines of RMNP. Therefore, a permit will be needed during most of the hiking season. Below is a high-level overview of RMNP permits. Feel free to read through more details on the RMNP website.
Between May 26 and October 22, a timed entry reservation is needed to enter RMNP during certain hours.
There are two types of timed entry reservations available:
- Park Access (includes access to the entire park beside Bear Lake Road): 9:00AM – 2:00PM
- Park Access+ (includes access to the entire park with Bear Lake Road): 5:00AM – 6:00PM
The Bear Lake hike is on Bear Lake Road, so a Park Access+ timed entry is required. However, if you arrive prior to 5:00AM or after 6:00PM, then no timed entry reservation is needed.
Be sure to reserve your spots as soon as reservations open up! This usually happens on the 1st of the month, prior to the following month (for example: July reservations open up on June 1).
Also, note that a general Park Pass is required for entry into RMNP no matter what. These can be bought online or at the entrance.
5) Bear Lake Hike
Now that you have some background for the day, let’s get into the trail itself. All said and done, this is going to be an easy and quick trail to talk about. I am hoping you get a good sense of what to expect though and enjoy some photos along the way.
Once you are all parked, make your way to the far end of the lot. There you will come across a trail that will take you on up to the lake.
Now, keep an eye out for the hiking signs here. There are a lot of lakes and trails around the area. This should be pretty easy to follow here, as you just need to stick to the right hand side and follow the path a few hundred feet until you reach the Bear Lake lakeside.
I would recommend heading counter clockwise as that seems to be the normal flow of traffic and the views looking outward are going to be better.
Right off the bat you will be welcomed to the lake surrounded by trees in all directions. Up top is Hallett Peak, for those that are up for a much longer & harder adventure.
On the nearside of the lake, you will first come across a few short pathways that take you to some bench areas. Feel free to check these out as they give you some great views looking outward.
From there, continue to walk around the lake on the relatively flat dirt pathway. There will be a turnoff point up to some other lakes, but you can simply ignore them for the time being.
As you head around the lake, views of Hallett Peak will consistently be up above. At some points the trail is completely surrounded by trees, while at other points the views of the lake really open up.
Once you reach the upper section of the lake, there will be some beautiful views of some mountains out in the opposite direction including Longs Peak. You can find a bench or rock to sit down on and take in the views.
The trail then begins to wrap around the upper section and along the final leg of the trail. The views are not are vast during this last portion but it is still a relaxing walk altogether.
Soon, you will be right back where you started. From here you can either end your day or continue on to some other hiking trails around the area.
6) Additional Lakes
While you can simply just take part of the Bear Lake trail, it is pretty common to add the loop to a longer hike around the area.
I spent a few days on the Bear Lake Corridor hiking several trails. Some of my favorite trails included:
Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lake
One of the more famous trails in the area is the one that heads past Bear Lake to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake. This one adds another 3+ miles to the day with about 700 feet of elevation gain.
For those that want a bit of a longer trail, you can take the Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lake trail and also add Lake Haiyaha. This will be a 5 mile trail with closer to 1,100 feet of elevation gain. Out of the four lakes, I would have to say that Lake Haiyaha had the most beautiful colors.
Hallett Peak & Flattop Mountain
If you are looking for a mountain peak type of hike then Hallett Peak is the way to go. This will also include passing by Flattop Mountain along the way. Expect the round trip hike to be 10 miles with 3,300 feet of elevation gain.
While I saw Bear Lake during some other hikes, it was after the hike up Hallett Peak that I actually made the loop around the lake.
For a more technical lake hike, I would highly recommend Sky Pond. This hike comes in at around 9 miles and 1,800 feet of elevation gain. In addition to Sky Pond, you will also get to pass by Alberta Falls, The Loch, and Lake of Glass.
From my experience I would have to say that Mills Lake is the most underrated hike in the area. Mills Lake is a very large lake with surrounding mountains. Along the way you will also get to pass by Alberta Falls. The hike is about 5.5 miles with 900 feet of elevation gain.
Some other options out there include Odessa and Fern Lake, Andrews Glacier, and Black Lake. In reality there are limitless number of combinations where you can mix and match the trails you are most interested in.
The great thing though is that Bear Lake can really be added to any hike in the area no matter what. Since it is right near the trailhead, you can easily make a visit to it before or after all the hikes in the area.
7) Where to Stay in Estes Park
During a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, most people situate themselves on the eastern side of the park in the town of Estes Park. It gives visitors easy access to most of Trail Ridge Road and is going to be the best overall option.
Below are a few top accommodation options to consider for your visit – note that these can sell out quickly during the prime summer season, so be sure to book well in advance.
- Best Overall Option: Murphy’s Resort
- Best High End Option: Estes Park Resort
- Best Value Option: Blue Door Inn
8) Colorado Hiking Tips
To finish up, check out some general Colorado hiking tips as you go about taking on the trails.
Be aware of the elevation: hiking at altitude is no joke and you need to ease your way into the trails. Before taking on hikes from the start, give yourself a day or so to acclimatize.
Stay hydrated: to help with the altitude and the hiking itself, stay consistently hydrated. Take plenty of water and consider a Katadyn Filter Water Bottle for the trail.
Bring bug spray: the bugs can be out in full force on many trails. Put on some bug spray to keep yourself protected while hiking.
Apply sunscreen: the sun can be very strong in the mountains. Applying sunscreen (and wearing a hat / sunglasses), will be very important when it comes to protecting yourself.
Keep an eye on the forecast: the weather can turn suddenly out on the trails. Be sure to check the weather forecasts beforehand to avoid rain & thunderstorms. Afternoon storms can be more prominent in the summer months (so start early!).
Download offline maps: to keep yourself on track, download offline maps for the trail. This can be done by using navigation apps such as AllTrails, Maps.me, and Gaia. You should also download offline Google Maps, as cell service does not always work closer to the trailheads.
Check trail conditions: before committing to a trail, I would recommend looking at the latest trip reports on AllTrails (or 14ers.com for 14er hikes). This is more so important as the summer season starts & ends, as you can get a better idea of trail conditions & snow coverage.
I hope you enjoy your time at Bear Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park. If you have any questions or comments, be sure to add them in below.
Feel free to check out the other Colorado hiking guides up on the site. Have fun out there and safe travels!