|Mountains reflect of the clam surface of Bear Lake. Courtesy of Ben Gray.|
|Topo map, Bear Lake Loop.|
Short loop circles subalpine lake at Rocky Mtn. NP
Day hikers can circle a beautiful subalpine lake in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park on the Bear Lake Loop.
The 0.6-miles round trip trail is particular gorgeous in autumn when aspens around the lake turn gold. An extremely popular trail, it will be crowded during peak tourism season; you can avoid crowds by starting early in morning, usually before 9 a.m.
To reach the trailhead, from Estes Park, Colo., take U.S. Hwy. 36 west. Turn left/south onto Bear Lake Road. Drive 9 miles to the parking lot for the Bear Head Trailhead.
From the lot, a short access trail leads to the loop. You’re at about 9475 feet elevation, so take the walk slow as there truly is a little less oxygen at this altitude.
Hike the hard-packed surface trail counterclockwise. That follows the 30 marked spots on the trail; an interpretive guide offered by the Rocky Mountain Conservancy explains the history, geology, flora and fauna that can be seen at each numbered posts.
Near the loop’s start, along the lake’s eastern shore, is a picture-perfect view of Hallett Peak. Its summit sits at 12,713 feet, a full half-mile above the lake. In the morning on clam, clear days, the mountain’s reflection can be seen on the lake.
The trail passes through a forest of spruce, fir, lodgepole pine and aspen. The latter only is here because it took root in the aftermath of a great wildfire that take place more than 110 years ago. The “Big Fire” – also sometimes known as the “Bear Lake Fire” because of where it started – burned for eight weeks, reaching temperatures high enough to crack granite boulders. The aspen quickly moved in on the cleared, ash-covered landscape.
In contrast, most of the lodgepole pines around the lake are dead. This has nothing to do with forest fires but a mountain pine beetle infestation that began in the late 1990s following a drought. By 2012, the beetle had killed almost all of the mature lodgepole pines in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.
Still, the views and trail are stunning. As proof, you only need to reach the lake’s north side for the view of Half Mountain, just in front of Longs Peak. The latter rises to 14,259 feet, almost a mile above the lake. Its reflection also can be seen in the lake during clear, calm mornings.
If the views weren’t fantastic enough, the simple also will delight hikers on the trail. Watch for the mountain chickadee, which sometimes hangs upside down from branches to pull seeds from pine cones as whistling its sweet song of fee-bee, fee-bee.
Upon completing the loop around the lake, take the access trail back to the parking lot.
Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.