Bear Lake along with the Bear Lake Road Corridor are two of the crown jewels of Rocky Mountain National Park you must visit when you are in this part of Colorado next time.
Last updated: February 24, 2023
Visit Bear Lake, a Must-See Destination in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
“I want to visit Bear Lake now”, Roshan and I were on the same page for once. After spending several hours hiking to secluded Cub Lake, it was time to explore the most popular landmarks of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Truth be told, we didn’t know anything about this area. Yet since the name of the lake matched the name of one of the most scenic drives in Colorado, the Bear Lake Road, it let us assume that the place was worth visiting.
Meeting Bear Lake
The most sought-after attraction along the Bear Lake Corridor Road, Bear Lake is popular with photographers, hikers, and travelers of all walks of life. Spanning approximately 10 acres, the subalpine lake, however, is not the largest landmark in the area. Yet it still heroically braves hight altitude like most natural attractions in the region. At nearly 9,475 feet above sea level, Bear Lake is one of the highest lakes to visit in Rocky Mountain National Park.
But none of these numbers entice the park’s guests in the first place. Astonishing views of Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) and Longs Peak (14,259 feet), however, do. The famous giants, reflecting off the lake, often steal the show and showcase the area in the best light possible.
A dense forest consisting of spruces, firs, aspens, and lodgepole pines also doesn’t want to stay behind. Closely surrounding a well-trodden trail separating them from the lake, the trees adorn the area with different shades and tones according to a season.
An abundance of benches facing Bear Lake add a human touch to the idyllic environment. Claiming one of these spots and gazing at the mountains reflecting off Bear Lake highlight your visit.
At some point, you may even forget where you are. The place, easy to walk around, reminds of a large city park. I won’t be surprised if you start dreaming of a cup of coffee from your local cafe that you grab after every trip to a park in your neighborhood. Yet keep looking around. Soon you’ll spot some birds and small animals, which quirky looks bring you back to reality, back to Bear Lake with its impeccable views.
Bears don’t Visit Bear Lake
Don’t expect to encounter bears while visiting Bear Lake. Grizzlies and black bears indeed dwelled in the area in the early 1900s when the park was established. However, popular for their meat and as a big game trophy, the brown bears were eventually hunted to extinction. Their black relatives still roam in Rocky Mountain National Park and occasionally visit the Bear Lake area. Their numbers are low, though, just a few dozens.
READ MORE: How to Protect Yourself from Bears in the Wild: Tips and Myths
VISIT BEAR LAKE: HIKE THE LOOP
- Distance: 0.6-mile (3,250 feet) loop
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation gain: 20 feet
- Time to complete the Bear Lake hike: 15-30 minutes
Hike the Loop
Despite its relaxing and “well-developed” environment, Bear Lake is still a part of pristine wilderness. The best way to visit and take in the remarkable surroundings is by hiking the entire Bear Lake Loop.
The Bear Lake Trailhead starts behind Bear Lake ranger station, along a concrete path. The site sits 450 feet from here. Follow a sign with an arrow to the right and feast your eyes on dazzling Bear Lake in less than two minutes. In reality, though, you spot the glistening surface of the lake way before you stumble upon the first overlook.
Continue on along the 0.6-mile trail with interpretive signage dotting the entire area. It’s recommended to hike in a counterclockwise direction, the same way the route breakers are located. Spread along the entire Bear Lake Loop, these signposts tender a detailed overview of the area and its inhabitants.
TIP: For more facts and stories, follow numbered “bear claws” with descriptions in a booklet that can be purchased at a gift shop near the ranger station.
Whether you stick to the interpretive signage along the Bear Lake Trail or get some supporting materials before the hike, don’t forget to look up and around. The vistas change constantly. While one overlook unveils a denser forest at the far shore, the opposite observation point spoils the visitors with the towering mountains which peaks reflect off the lake like in a mirrored. Walk farther, and a sea of yellow and red foliage (if you visit Bear Lake in fall) festoons the nearby forest “wall”.
For such a short hike, Bear Lake far exceeds your expectations. The practically flat trail accommodates all hikers, including those with wheelchairs and strollers. So there’s really no obstacles too great to prevent you from walking around and enjoying the Bear Lake’s surroundings.
Visit Bear Lake: Location and Direction
The crown jewel of Rocky Mountain National Park sits along the Bear Lake Corridor Road, approximately 13 miles (9 miles if walking) from Estes Park. The paved route snakes through the park, presenting astonishing views before swirling into the Bear Lake parking lot.
Here find a spot, which may be difficult during the busy season or latter in the day, and walk toward a shuttle stop. Follow the path as it runs along a wooden pathway with the ranger station on its left. Keep to the right here and walk for 1-2 minutes. Bear Lake is located to your left.
Bear Lake Road: Map and Driving Directions
When to Visit Bear Lake
Spring is the best time to visit Bear Lake if witnessing the awakening of nature takes your breath away. The place slowly gets rid of its snowy chains. Young, fresh leaves cover the trees once again. More birds and animals return, filling the area with their sounds and smells. Free from snow, Bear Lake also sees more humans, hiking along the loop and soaking up the freshness of the place.
Summer is the busiest time to visit Bear Lake. The travelers all over the world flock to Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy its scenic hikes and lakes. For those who visit the Bear Lake area at this time, solitude and tranquility are things to dream of. Arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon might make the difference. Yet you can hardly ever count on having the place all to yourself.
Fall is my favorite time to visit the Bear Lake region. The crowds recede. There are more chances to find an open parking spot even if you visit Bear Lake and other natural wonders in the area in the late afternoon. But the biggest reason to hike around Bear Lake at this time is bountiful fall colors. The area puts on a dazzling show, throwing vibrant speckles into a perpetual verdant palette created by evergreen trees.
Winter is the slowest time to visit Bear Lake. The well-trodden path gets togged up in festive, white attire, making walking around the lake tedious. On the other hand, the winter wonderland opens a wide range of opportunities for outdoor activities. Thus, be sure to stash a pair of skis or snowshoes in your car before venturing into the Bear Lake wilderness during the winter months.
Things to Do at Bear Lake
Hiking. A leisurely walk around the lake is hard to call the hike. Nevertheless, it still is. The only difference is that for experienced hikers it feels like a stroll. The beginners, though, may even shed some sweat, especially if they visit Bear Lake during the summer months.
Venturing into the Woods. Despite all the controversial opinions about hiking around the lake, the Bear Lake area is yet to surprise you. A starting point of a number of popular and secluded trails, it can test your athleticism and stamina just as some other strenuous hikes elsewhere in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Wildlife Watching. While the bears are a rare appearance at Bear Lake today, other smaller animals don’t hesitate to visit it. You can find pikas jumping from one tree to another, squirrels, and occasional deer and elk roaming along the shore. Multiple species of birds, such as Steller’s jays, nutcrackers, and chickadees, adorn your walk with their glides and songs.
Photographing Landscapes. The sky is the limit for landscape and wildlife photographers hiking around Bear Lake. Envision a story you want to tell with your images and photograph away. Plan to visit the Bear Lake area before or at sunrise or sunset for a pop of color above the mountains and fewer people to edit out later on.
No Fishing. Fishing is strictly prohibited at Bear Lake.
No Swimming. Same applies to swimming. The subalpine lake is indeed not the best place to take a dip. Moreover, such irresponsible behavior often comes with great financial expenses.
Places to Visit and Services to Use in the Bear Lake Area
Bear Lake Ranger Station
Do you have any questions about the lake or any nearby hikes? Ask a ranger. The ranger station is open daily and is a great source of information about this particular area and other areas in the park.
Not really a shop, but rather a nook sitting right next to the ranger station, this place is another great point of reference for getting to know the park.
Shuttle Bus Stop
Parking in Rocky Mountain National Park gets difficult when the weather becomes warm and the hordes of visitors arrive. In summer, even such a large parking lot as the Bear Lake parking area gets packed before 10 a.m. In this case, look for lesser-known areas with the parking lots and shuttle services, park here, and take the bus to get to Bear Lake. It can’t be more convenient than that.
You can find them at the parking lot, to the right of the Bear Lake ranger station.
Nature Walks, Lakes, and Alberta Falls
Bear Lake is gateway to such favorite hikes as Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes. Continue hiking along the same path without turning to the right at a trail junction, and you end up enjoying rocky shores of Lake Haiyaha.
Alberta Falls is also just a mile away from Bear Lake, although you can visit it while hiking from the Glacier Gorge trailhead.
The same situation is with Bierstadt Lake. Its trailhead sits near the eastern shore of Bear Lake. Simultaneously, you can drive down the Bear Lake Corridor Road to the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead and start your hike here. The latter is an absolute winner. Apart from being shorter, it unfolds unbelievable vistas of the Mill Creek Basin below before veering into the woods.
Tips for Better Experiences during Your Bear Lake Hike
- Arrive Early. Parking is an ongoing issue in such popular areas of Rocky Mountain National Park as Bear Lake. By arriving early in the morning, you can almost always claim a spot for yourself and explore the area without a care in the world.
- Park and Ride. If you happen to visit Bear Lake latter in the afternoon when the parking lot is full, find an empty spot in the nearby areas and use the shuttle to get back to the lake.
- Ask Ranger. The park’s staff is here to answer any of your questions about the Bear Lake area and the entire park.
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