The Bear Lake Area is one of the most popular starting points for hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. From here, you can take a variety of hikes. The Bear Lake Loop is an easy 0.7-mile trail that circles Bear Lake with phenomenal views. If you are looking for a more challenging hike, the Sky Pond Trail climbs over 1600 feet with rock scrambling over its 8.4-mile route.
As you may know, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular parks in the National Park system, receiving nearly 4.5 million visitors in 2017. Since the Bear Lake area is one of the most popular spots in the park, it can get quite crowded. If you’re like us, you’ll be longing to find places to hike that are away from the crowds. The trail to Emerald Lake is notoriously crowded, as is the trail to Alberta Falls. However, if you connect the two with a trek to the out-of-the-way Lake Haiyaha, you’ll find the quiet that you were likely envisioning when you planned your trip to the mountains.
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD: BEAR LAKE
The hike starts from the Bear Lake Trailhead, and parking for the trailhead is approximately 13 miles from Estes Park, CO (see map). The large parking lot usually fills up by 8:15 AM on a typical summer day, with weekends being the worst. If arriving early in the day is not possible, there is a free shuttle bus that runs from the parking area near Glacier Basin.
Once in the parking lot, the trailhead starts from the western end. Avoid the temptation to hike the Bear Lake Trail until after you return from this hike to help get a head start in front of the crowds.
THE HIKE: NYMPH, DREAM AND EMERALD LAKES
Starting off toward Nymph and Dream Lakes, the trail passes through an evergreen forest as it slowly climbs just over 220 feet. Along the way, you’ll have views of Longs Peak (one of the most distinctive peaks in the area). A portion of the trail to Nymph Lake is paved to help prevent erosion. After just under a half-mile, you’ll arrive at Nymph Lake. This lake offers nice views and good places for a picnic.
After passing Nymph Lake, the trail continues to climb (at a slightly faster rate) on the way up to Dream Lake. This area is known for having wildflowers, though we happened to be too early in the season to see them during our hike. At just over the 1-mile point (about 0.3 miles from Nymph Lake), you’ll arrive at Dream Lake.
For those wanting to continue to Emerald Lake, the hike has one last ascent to the turnaround point which is about 0.5 miles past Dream Lake. Emerald Lake has terrific views. As the hike requires a bit of distance (1.6 miles from the parking lot) and some climbing (620 ft. total), not everyone who starts the trail ends up getting to this point, making for a slightly quieter experience than the other two lakes.
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THE HIKE: LAKE HAIYAHA AND ALBERTA FALLS
After arriving at Emerald Lake, the trail ends abruptly. Retrace your steps back just past Dream Lake, where you’ll see signs leading to Lake Haiyaha. You’ll take this trail for about 1.1 miles. After crossing a river and a moderately steep climb, you’ll be rewarded with an easy hike alongside the mountain before once again heading back into the woods. Before you know it, you’ll be at Lake Haiyaha.
Lake Haiyaha is a great destination by itself, as it has a boulder field that you’ll have to climb over on your way to the lake shore. These large boulders are not too difficult to navigate and can be very enjoyable for kids. They also act as fantastic seats when you break for water or a snack and take in the views. The hike to Lake Haiyaha is not crowded at all, and the spot along the shore is very peaceful.
Leaving Lake Haiyaha, you’ll have to retrace your steps for about 0.2 miles before turning right (east) onto the Haiyaha Cutoff Trail. This (mostly) flat part of the loop crosses over streams while traversing through a mix of new and old-growth forest. This is by far the least traveled part of the hike. When we hiked it, we saw only two other hiking parties (and this was in mid-July!).
After about 2 miles, foot traffic will pickup slightly as you pass by hikers heading to The Loch or Sky Pond to the south. Finally, approximately 3.5 miles after leaving Lake Haiyaha, you’ll see plenty of people gathering around the overlook near the 30-foot Alberta Falls. Though likely the most crowded spot on the trail, this is a great place to relax before heading back.
THE RETURN TRIP
The trip back to the Bear Lake Parking area is about 1 mile. Keep in mind, the last ~0.3 miles are slightly uphill, which can be a bit more taxing than it normally might be, since at this point you’re passing the 8-mile point on the hike. To cut the trip short by about 0.5 miles, the shuttle bus does run from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead Parking Area back to the Bear Lake Parking area. However, this option may not be the fastest, as it is routinely quicker to walk and avoid the wait.
Once back in the Bear Lake Parking Area, if you feel up to it, the Bear Lake Trail is an easy, 0.7-mile loop around Bear Lake. This trail is known for having great mountain views behind the beautiful lake.
- Colorado is full of great hiking, and Rocky Mountain National Park just has a taste of what you can experience here. Sage (from “Everyday Wanderer”) covers her recommendations in her article, 8 of the best day hikes in Colorado.
- If you happen to like adventures, the Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is one to add to your itinerary when you are visiting the park. This daring drive has no guardrails and is something you’ll want to be sure and experience!
- Make sure to wear good hiking shoes or boots for this trail. You’ll need them for the boulder scrambling near Lake Haiyaha. Also, you want to do everything you can to avoid injury out here, as it is remote and a bit of a haul back to the parking area.
- Most of the trail is in the shade. While not as exposed as other hikes, sunblock is still recommended.
- The trail is at elevation, so make sure you bring plenty of water and plan on taking breaks.
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