Rocky Mountain National Park - Estes Park, CO
text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
The thing about last minute plans is that they are last minute. I generally like to plan out a hike or a trip into the mountains, but sometimes, you just need to get up and go. And that is exactly what I did over the 4th of July weekend. And even though there is so much to see and do in Rocky Mountain National Park, this was just going to be a half-day trip.
Just The Facts
- Trail: Bear Lake Trail and Bierstadt Lake Trail
- Difficulty: Super Easy
- Elevation Gain: 400 ft.
- Distance: .8 mi. (Bear Lake) 2.0 mi (4.0 mi. round trip to Bierstadt Lake)
- Trail Use: Hiking
- Trail Condition: Well maintained, and clearly marked
- Bring Your Dog: No
- Access: Open Year Round (snowshoeing in the winter)
- Trail Map: Bear Lake Summer Trails Guide
- Entrance fee $20
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS) and what a achievement it has been. If you are not familiar with the NPS, they are responsible for management of all the National Parks —no surprise there—but they also manage a lot of our National Monuments (manmade - Statue of Liberty, and natural - Devil’s Tower) as well as other conservation and historical sites. The NPS has an enormous responsibility and it is one that is often overlooked.
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has been celebrating more than just the birthday of the NPS. Last year marked the 100th birthday of RMNP. So, back-to-back centinnial celebrations—in the Centennial State—is pretty cool.
The history surrounding RMNP could fill many blog posts, but as you might have guessed, I’ll just focus on a couple hikes. My wife, daughter and I decided to take my mother-in-law up to RMNP for the day and enjoy the views and hike some of the easy trails. Like most National Parks, the park is designed with all types of "exploration" in mind. You don't have to strap on a pack, and trek out into the great unknown to have a good time. And occasionally, that is exactly what you need.
That’s One Busy Place
What should you expect from a visit to RMNP. Well, in a word: people. RMNP is one of the most visited parks in the States. And that isn’t really surprising. Colorado is a popular outdoor destination and that brings the visitors from far and wide. If you're a social butterfly, then this works out great! We hiked along two trails and they both had lots of visitors. But, if you would rather be completly alone and not see a single soul all day long…this could be a little rough. So, if you are visiting the park—especially during peak season—be patient and be prepared for the crowds.
Look! The Lake isn’t Frozen
FYI: If you want reduced crowds, then winter is the time to visit. The last four, maybe five times we visited RMNP have all been in the winter. Since I love the cold and snow, this is ideal for me, but not everyone in my family likes to trudge through the snow. My family likes warmth (for some strange reason) and I guess only seeing one season of the park is doing it an injustice. The spring and summer months create an altogether new experience.
When we visit the park, Bear Lake is usually one of our first stops, and (during in the winter months) it has always been frozen over. But, in early July the lake is clear and teaming with activity. You will need to get here early if you want to find a parking spot. Bear Lake is an easy spot to get to—hence the extreme crowds—and is perfect for a quick walk or as a gateway to other trails and lakes. The short, easy walk around the lake provides stunning views of Hallet Peak and Longs Peak and is a perfect spot to catch a sunrise.
Let's See What's Over This Hill
If your adventure level is high, you can hike to about a dozen lakes from Bear Lake. Granted, most of those lakes will take the better part of a day to get to. But, If you are only able to visit for a short time, you might consider Bierstadt Lake.
The trailhead (on the north-east side of Bear Lake) climbs quickly for about a half-mile (this is the most difficult part of the trail) before slowly descending to the lake. The trail cuts through the thick forest of pine, fir and aspen trees with small breaks providing views of the peaks around you. In a matter of moments, you are transported from the hurry and bustle of people and surrounded by the serene and still of the the Rocky Mountains.
We did pass several other hikers on the trail and most are here for the very same reason we are…to be out in nature and to get some exercise too.
Much like Bear Lake, Bierstadt Lake has a trail that loops around it. But, if you are looking for the best mountain views, stick to the northside of the trail. From this side of the trail, you can just see the tops of several mountains including, Longs Peak and Hallet Peak.
The shore provides an excellent spot to have a snack, or to just sit and watch the clouds drift across the mountain tops. The lake is a good spot to see moose, so be on the look out and you might get lucky. I didn’t get to see any moose, but maybe next time.
It's A Highway To The Sky
Before you leave the park, you must travel along Trail Ridge Road. If you only have time to drive through the park, this will be the quintesential experience.
Trail Ridge Road travels along some of the best scenery in Colorado and rapidly takes you from the forest of aspen and pine, and above treeline to the wind swept tundra. Be sure to bring a jacket, maybe even a coat. The wind is constant and it is not warm, even in the hot summer months.
There are several pullouts to catch sweeping views—perfect spots to stop and take a picture—like Many Parks Curve and Rainbow Curve. The road travels over 11 miles above treeline and it is along this stretch that you will often see large heards of elk (warming in the sun), pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep. There are so many spots to stop and breath in the crisp, clean air and marvel at the expansive views surrounding you.
This is a busy road (in the summer) and be prepared to stop. Sometimes, I forget that the car in front of me is probably full of people who have never seen views like this before. So be patient, because I did the same thing the first time I visited the park.
You could spend a lifetime exploring RMNP. Even though we only had time to spend a few hours here, we are looking forward to coming back. And that is the joy of our National Parks. They are being protected and preserved, not just for the past one hundred years, but for generations to come.