Welcome to hike #2 in my Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes series!
Rocky Mountain operates a free shuttle system from May to October that allows you to leave your car in Estes Park or at the Park-n-Ride inside the park boundary and take the bus to the trailheads, eliminating the stress of arriving at 6:00am so you can find a parking space. I highly recommend taking advantage of this. We’ve never even considered parking at the trailheads in the summer. It’s such a crowded mess.
A secondary benefit of these shuttles is that they allowed us to complete a one-way hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead to the Fern Lake Trailhead. This 10 mile (16 km) hike begins by following the eastern shore of Bear Lake before branching off and climbing up toward Lake Helene and Odessa Lake.
Above Bear Lake, the trail meanders through the trees en route to its high point at Lake Helene. The offshoot trail to Lake Helene is ill-defined and not marked, but if the main trail takes a sharp right and begins to descend, you’ve missed the turnoff. If you do manage to find the narrow offshoot, a couple minutes of rock hopping leads out to Lake Helene.
Weather is always a potential issue in Rocky, and this particular day was no exception; rain rolled in right as we reached Lake Helene and proceeded to drench us for the next couple hours. We were prepared with rain pants and jackets and waterproof backpack covers, but it still put a (literal) damper on our hike.
After Lake Helene, the remainder of our hike was downhill. For this reason, I recommend hiking from Bear Lake to Fern Lake as we did, and not the other way around. Not far past Lake Helene, Odessa Lake comes into view. We were able to find a large overhung rock here that provided a sheltered space for us to eat lunch while enjoying what there was of a view.
(Spoiler alert: not much)
The trail continues down to the shore of Odessa Lake, with a turnoff leading to the lake shore; given the large quantities of mud – thanks to the rain – we opted to skip the turn off and continued along to Fern Lake. It was still raining heavily at this point, so we didn’t really have the opportunity to enjoy Fern Lake either.
Sadly, much of the forest surrounding Fern Lake burned in the 2020 East Troublesome Fire that tore through the park. Though this trail has since reopened, the scenery is likely very different now. I’m bummed that I didn’t get to hike this trail again before the fire.
Not far past Fern Lake the rain finally let up, and by the time we arrived at Marguerite Falls and Fern Falls, the sun had made a glorious return. This section of trail is also really neat, with towering boulders and colorful flora.
The final attraction along this trail is The Pool… which we honestly found to be extremely underwhelming. From there, we continued to the Fern Lake Trailhead and down the Fern Lake road for about half a mile (0.8 km) to the shuttle stop. A quick bus ride returned us to the Park-n-Ride and our day was complete!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: this hike departs from the Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road and ends at the Fern Lake Trailhead at the end of Fern Lake Road; you’ll need to use the park shuttle system for this
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee at RMNP; interagency annual passes are accepted. From May-Oct, if you arrive after 5am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead
- Hiking: 10 miles (16 km) one-way, 1230 feet (375 m) elevation gain, mostly in the first portion of the hike if you start at Bear Lake; if you start at Fern Lake, you will have a significantly longer section of uphill
- Other: I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record, but our experience on this trail really reiterated the importance of always packing warm clothes, layers, and waterproof shells (top, bottom, and backpack) when hiking in the Rockies