After a year without a single backpacking trip, I was ready and excited to hit the trail again. We had planned a family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park with Andrew’s family, and I knew while we were there that in addition to day hiking I wanted to spend at least one night in a tent. Because we were visiting with family that we only get to see once or twice a year, we decided to stick with an overnight instead of a lengthy excursion. While Andrew had hiked in the Rockies with the Boy Scouts growing up, I had never been to the Rockies before. After my brush with altitude sickness on the Rae Lakes Loop, I also wanted to select a hike with a reasonable amount of elevation gain.
We chose a point to point hike from the Bear Lake trailhead to the Fern Creek trailhead. Rocky Mountain National Park has an incredible free shuttle system that makes point-to-point hiking significantly easier. With an elevation gain of 1200 feet and a maximum altitude of nearly 10,700 feet, we booked our permit for Wednesday night to allow us to acclimate to the elevation for a few days. We were staying at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, so we spent 3 nights above 8,000 feet before heading out on the trail. I had booked our permit back in April, and we were extremely lucky with the weather while we were on the trail. Most afternoons, we had pop up thunderstorms, but the day we were out there were no storms in sight.
We picked up our wilderness permit from the office around 8:30 and set off into the park. There was a huge amount of traffic going into the park. I have heard people complain that Iceland is busy but we probably saw more people that day in RMNP than we did at all of the attractions in Iceland combined on our trip a few weeks previous! We grabbed on of the last spots at the Park and Ride and hopped on the very full shuttle to Bear Lake. It was a good thing we got there when we did because there were only a few spots in the parking lot left! We got on the trail at 10 AM and started to climb. The trail around Bear Lake is very flat and accessible, so it was almost overrun with people while we were there. As soon as we took a right off the Bear Lake loop, the trail began to climb almost immediately and we saw (and heard) far fewer people. As we went up, we had views of Bierstadt Lake, Steep Mountain, and even parts of Estes Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is bear country, so we had to carry a hard sided bear canister. We didn’t see any bears on our hike, but we did see lots of rodents, including a pika, ground squirrels, and least chipmunks. The trail started to level out a bit after about a mile, where the trail splits. There is a route to go to Flattop Mountain that remains steep, but we headed towards Odessa Lake and Lake Helene.
I had heard that there was an unmarked trail to a beautiful lake, Lake Helene, just as the trail crests over the saddle between the Bear Lake basin and the Fern Creek basin. We planned to stop for lunch there. We saw a social trail through some pines when it felt like things had leveled out and took it! We walked down towards and incredible blue-green alpine lake with incredibly clear water. We sat down and started in on lunch – some nuts, almond butter, and Wheat Thins.