This is one of the few hikes in Rocky that I actually completed in the winter first, and this experience really emphasized the fact that everything looks so different beneath the summer sun than it does covered in snow. I’d never done much winter hiking before moving to Colorado but I learned quickly that winter navigation is no joke. The trail signs are often completely buried, and you can’t necessarily rely on familiar landmarks because they may not look very familiar this time of year.
Fortunately, the main trails in Rocky are still moderately traveled in the winter, so as long as you’re not the first person up after a storm you should have footprints to follow. We also always bring along a trail map, and I have the COTREX app downloaded on my phone, which is a free Colorado hiking app that GPS tracks you even when you’re out of phone service range (just make sure to download the appropriate section of the map first). Every few minutes, I’d pull out my phone and double check the GPS, and we managed to stay on the trail.
There are 3 options for hiking to Lake Haiyaha: (1) depart from Glacier Gorge and form a giant loop that includes Alberta Falls, (2) depart from Glacier Gorge toward Bear Lake, or (3) depart from Bear Lake. The latter option is the shortest, and this is the route I’ve taken.
From the Bear Lake trailhead, begin by following signs toward Nymph and Dream Lakes (see this post for more info on that hike). Just prior to your arrival at Dream Lake, you’ll come across the trail split for Lake Haiyaha. Beware that the sign will probably be buried in the winter.
The trail to Lake Haiyaha climbs the hill immediately south of Dream Lake in a set of steep switchbacks. In the summer, this section of the trail was no problem. In the winter, the steepness of the hillside combined with the softness of the snow was slightly problematic. We were on snowshoes, and you’ll need them in the winter. This section of trail is much less travelled than the path up to Dream Lake. Even so, we kept sinking in and sliding down the hill with every step. This is a pretty steep trail, and once it rounds the corner out of the Dream Lake valley, the exposure becomes much greater. In the aftermath, I’ve learned that the alternate option from Glacier Gorge is a much easier and safer route in the winter.
The trail loops out and around into the Chaos Creek drainage. It’s about 1 mile (1.6 km) from Dream Lake to Lake Haiyaha, but it was slow going in the winter so it felt much longer. At one point, we ended up at a dead end; the loosely packed trail came to an abrupt halt and there wasn’t any obvious path for continuation, despite the fact that my GPS showed us pretty much on track. Rather than attempt to climb through branches and brush with snowshoes on our feet, we turned and headed straight down to the creek, which we then followed up to the frozen lake. It wasn’t the correct trail, but it did get us there.
The second time I hiked this trail was in late June, but the never-ending winter of 2019 meant that there was still some snow. My mom and I had microspikes and hiking poles, and they were necessary to complete this hike safely. The others we passed on the trail without them were slipping all over the place, and we had to lend some girls our poles so they could navigate a particularly steep section of snow.
The trail was easier to follow this time around and led us across Chaos Creek and around to the opposite shore of the lake. “Haiyaha” means “large boulders” in the Arapaho language, and it’s definitely an accurate name for this lake. The haphazard collection of giant boulders is certainly a highlight of this destination.
Lingering snow, however, made it nearly impossible for us to get down to the shore as the snow + boulder combo made it challenging to find a path that didn’t involve collapsing snow, feet getting stuck between the giant boulders, or broken ankles. It took us 5 tries to find a route we could walk safely.
But if you can make it to the lake, it’s gorgeous! It may not have the towering, uniquely shaped mountains behind it, but Lake Haiyaha is every bit as beautiful as the other lakes in the Bear Lake area and I highly recommend a visit.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: this hike departs from the Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road; consider leaving your car at the park-n-ride in the summer and taking the free shuttle to the trailhead
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency annual passes accepted. From May-Oct 2021, if you arrive after 5am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead
- Hiking: round-trip distance to Lake Haiyaha from Bear Lake is 4 miles (6.4 km) with 800 feet (244 m) of elevation gain; the other two trail options listed at the beginning of this post are slightly longer
- Other: this is a less traveled trail than the others in this area; in the winter you’ll definitely need snowshoes and good route-finding skills