Colorado, Colorado Hikes, Rocky Mountain National Park, US National Parks

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Two Rivers Lake & Lake Helene

Pat and I haven’t had a lot of luck with this hike. The first time, in August 2018, we began our hike under blue skies, but as soon as we sat down at Lake Helene to eat a snack it began to rain. Between the precipitation and the low-hanging clouds obscuring the mountains, it wasn’t very enjoyable and we couldn’t see a whole lot. Also, at the time we were pretty new to the area and didn’t even know about Two Rivers Lake.

Lake Helene

Our second attempt was in March 2021, and it was off to a rocky start from the moment we woke up thanks to an alarm clock snafu. We dashed out of bed and probably set a speed record for getting ready to go, and ended up reaching the trailhead only about an hour later than planned. We were looking forward to what – according to the weather forecast – should have been a lovely outing. This is a lesser-traveled route in the off-season, and we were excited for a relatively windless day on the trail with sunshine and lots of solitude. One of those three things came to fruition, and it wasn’t the sunshine or the lack of wind.  

Nonetheless, we strapped on our snowshoes and headed off from the Bear Lake Trailhead, figuring that since the trail was mostly in the tress the wind would be bearable. And it was. Until we reached an exposed section of trail about 1 mile (1.6 km) shy of the lakes. In the summer, this is a talus slope with a visible trail across. On this particular day, there was so much blowing snow that we couldn’t even see the trail, let alone the other side of the slope. Also, the wind was flinging snow into our faces and the strongest gusts were knocking us off balance, so for purposes of safety and not being miserable, we decided to turn around.

Blowing snow near our turnaround point; I wish I could have captured a photo during the strongest gusts, but they probably would have blown the phone right out of my hand
Hiking back to Bear Lake

Upon return to the Bear Lake trailhead, we opted to check out the trail that circumnavigates the lake… something we’d somehow never done despite numerous visits to Bear Lake. Rather than following the trail, we actually just ended up walking on the frozen lake. And while the main view of Bear Lake – which is just a one minute walk from the parking lot – is pretty neat, the views from the opposite side are far more impressive! I’m glad we finally decided to take this little loop.

Bear Lake
Post-hike sunset

And now, for the time we actually made it to Lake Helene. This time, the weather forecast was accurate; partial sun and some wind, but not nearly as much as last time. We set off from Bear Lake with microspikes on our feet and snowshoes strapped to our packs, following signs for Odessa and Fern Lakes (note that Lake Helene is not actually on any of the trail signs). The trail was well-packed and easy to follow for the first 2.5 miles (4 km), and all the trail junction signs were visible. In a snowier winter, keep in mind that the signs might be buried.

Eventually, we reached the point where we’d turned around last time. Periodic gusts of wind were whipping down the slope of Flattop Mountain and sending snow swirling through the air, but even during the strongest gusts we could easily see all the way across. The actual trail was obscured by blowing snow, though, so we had to just point our feet in the approximate direction of the route and make our way across. We postholed a few times, and once we reached the other side we decided it was time for snowshoes.

Making my way across the open area
Blowing snow is visible on the slopes of Flattop Mountain

The trail then re-enters the forest, gradually gaining elevation and staying just below tree line before reaching another wide open slope. The snowpack has been extremely unstable in Colorado this winter, leading to very high avalanche danger. I’d checked the slope angles prior to setting out (I use Caltopo for this purpose) and knew this particular slope was just on the edge of being steep enough for there to be reasonable risk. To be safe, we stayed as close to the bottom of the slope as possible (note that the actual trail cuts across the middle, which would be much riskier), listened closely for sounds of shifting snow, and walked across one at a time.

This is the potentially avalanche-prone slope; we stayed to the bottom (right) and proceeded with caution

From here, it was just another twenty minutes (and one very steep climb) to Two Rivers Lake. There are no signs, but the trail will travel through a rocky low spot and then turn sharply left to reach the lake. If the trail veers right and begins to descend, you’ve overshot both lakes.

Nearing the turnoff for the lakes (and some neat ripples in the snow)
Approaching Two Rivers Lake, with Notchtop Mountain in the background

Two Rivers Lake is larger and a little more open than Lake Helene, and was therefore my favorite of the two. Both lakes were beautiful, though. And we had them all to ourselves!

Two Rivers Lake
Ice patterns on Two Rivers Lake
Me taking the previous photo (Pat is getting good at sneakily snapping photos of me)

After basking in the beauty of Two Rivers Lake, we made our way across the ice – the lake freezes solid in the winter – and through the patch of trees separating it from Lake Helene. Lake Helene is so close to the mountains that the sun hadn’t reached it yet; it was substantially colder at this lake so we didn’t stay too long. We did, however, take the time to walk across the lake and admire the smooth surface of the ice. I don’t understand the physics of freezing lakes enough to understand why some lakes freeze in rippled patterns while others are smooth. Or, in this case, why half the lake is textured and half is smooth. It was really weird… and really neat.

Patterns in the windblown snow between Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene
Lake Helene
I wanted to do a handstand but I didn’t want to take my snowshoes off. It… didn’t work

We then made our way back to Two Rivers Lake – and by the way, our snowshoe tracks were already mostly buried by blowing snow after just ten minutes – where we stopped for a snack. One of the many fun things about winter hiking: the ability to have a picnic in the middle of a lake!

One of the annoying things about winter hiking: it was too windy to take our gloves off for more than a few seconds at a time, which made eating a challenge. But with gloves on, we were able to stay warm and spend some time enjoying the view before retracing our steps back to the car. On the way down, we encountered many backcountry skiers headed up the trail (and a few coming down). Fortunately, everyone was courteous and we didn’t have any incidents. That being said, beware that this trail is popular amongst skiers in the winter.

And there we have it. Third time was the charm for us on this one, and I’m glad we finally got to enjoy Lake Helene and Two Rivers Lake!

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. Once at Bear Lake, follow signs for Fern and Odessa Lakes (Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene are not on any of the signs). Bring a map or GPS tracking app so you can locate the turnoff to both lakes
  • Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency annual passes are accepted. From May-Oct, if you arrive after 5:00am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead
  • Hiking: round trip distance to both lakes from the Bear Lake Trailhead is approximately 5.8 miles (9.3km) with 1240 feet (380 m) of elevation gain. You can also reach these lakes from the Fern Lake Trailhead, though I believe it’s longer and steeper from that direction, and is a much sketchier route in the winter
  • Other: these lakes are somewhat of a hidden gem in Rocky; most people at Bear Lake head off in another direction so this is one of the few places you might get a little bit of solitude (especially in the winter). If there is snow on the ground when you do this hike, be sure you have microspikes and snowshoes, a map/GPS, and are familiar with the route; the path will likely be buried in spots and you may have to break trail. Stay low on the wide open slopes and take appropriate avalanche precautions
  • For more information on winter hiking and necessary gear, click here

31 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Two Rivers Lake & Lake Helene”

  1. You are surely hardy soles to do such a hike under deep winter conditions and possible avalanche conditions. I’m sure that taking your gloves off to snap photos leave your fingers numb (it does mine in even less cold).

    Thanks for sharing your adventures.


  2. Winter hiking certainly requires a lot of preparation and patience to make it work. Looks like you two took it lead on, and you were rewarded with some freezing, but gorgeous scenery all around! The icy patterns along the lake are worth a trek over, although I personally wouldn’t stay for a picnic!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful photos, Diana. I admire your tenacity in getting up to the the lakes. The third time was a charm, indeed. I can see why you had it to yourselves. 🙂 BTW thanks for the note on Firehole vs Fireball. I made the change. I certainly knew the right name. Who knows what I was thinking.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. How stunning! The views seem really worth the gushing wind, though I would have feared the avalanche risk with that slope! I didn’t know lakes could freeze with ripples on them, but again I’m not sure I’ve ever stood on a frozen lake ahah! Thanks for sharing this beautiful adventure!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Avalanche conditions have been really bad here this year too. Good plan to stay low. The pictures of both lakes are gorgeous with the snow on that rocky peak and blue sky above. Glad you finally got there. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, snow flinging into your face is not fun. It’s almost always windy here, especially in winter, and we have the gear to handle some wind. But when it’s that strong it’s just miserable. We were glad to have turned around the first time

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Winter hiking is an adventure. Winter hiking in the mountains is a crapshoot. Glad that you persevered Diana. The lake and mountain views with the blowing snow and blue skies were well worth it and good on Pat for documenting the photographer. My Pat always seems to manage to catch me in awkward poses too. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah Doc, to be young again. I remember when I was in the Boy Scouts, we did a lot of winter hiking back in Ohio. Of course, not as challenging as you do but cold and windy no the less. I am just too old for that stuff now. A windy day will almost keep me inside now unless it is really warm. Bundle up and be careful.
    Uncle Rick

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s funny how certain places are just destined to be challenging in some ways. I can think of a few over the years that simply weren’t meant to be plain sailing. Nevertheless, your photos show incredible beauty, even with those crazy conditions wreaking their havoc. But oh boy surely the whole endeavour was worth it simply for that sunset shot and the wondrous ice patterns on Two Rivers Lake. Your half-handstand was a gallant effort, methinks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it was definitely worth the perseverance, and I’m glad we finally had a nice day to enjoy it. That sunset photo was actually taken from my back yard once we got home. No hiking needed for that one!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m always amazed at how casually you mention walking on a frozen lake 👀 … I’ll keep wondering if it’s going to break under me! You took such beautiful photos – I love the patterns on the snow and lake. And let me just say: Even your ‘attempted’ handstand is way better than one of mine will ever be!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess it’s just something we’ve gotten comfortable with over the years. We were really tentative the first time. But we know now that these lakes freeze solid with many inches of ice from about Nov-March so we know they’re safe to walk on. You can see how thick and sturdy the ice is. It’s definitely a weird feeling, but I love it!

      Liked by 1 person

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