Rocky Mountain National Park Overnight – July 2018

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.

Our Route

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.

Mountain views

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.

Two Rivers Lake

While it was windy, the lake was absolutely incredible and we even saw someone lounging on the other side of the lake in a hammock. We were sure we’d made it to Lake Helene and were glad that we stopped. However, it turned out this wasn’t Lake Helene at all – it was Two Rivers Lake! Another hiker came down and asked if we’d been at Lake Helene. “Are we not there?” I replied. Apparently in my excitement to find Lake Helene we instead found a different social trail less than a quarter of a mile away!

After lunch, we put our packs back on and headed toward the saddle of the trail. We briefly stopped at the extremely windy Lake Helene. While not a marked trail, Lake Helene’s trail is very obvious whereas you have to look for the trail to Two Rivers Lake. When looking for the Two Rivers Lake trail from the Bear Lake trailhead, look to your left for a trail the enters the pines before dropping. The trail “V”s off the side of the main trail. Lake Helene’s trail looks much more like a trail junction itself. I actually thought Two Rivers Lake was more impressive!

Lake Helene

Immediately after Lake Helene, the trail starts to descend rapidly. The alpine views were incredible, with waterfalls cascading off the snow into crystal clear alpine lakes.  The rocky trail was hard on the knees, so I was happy to have my trekking poles with me.  We quickly came up on Odessa Lake, situated nearly 500 feet below the trail.  We saw people camping at the lake, but I was surprised to see just how far you had to go and loop back in order to get down there.

Trail over Odessa Lake

After passing Odessa Lake, we knew we had less than a mile left to get to Fern Lake, so we were pretty quick to get down there.  In the heat of the day, hiking on an exposed ridge was tough even though it was all downhill.  We got to Fern Lake, our campsite for the evening, around 2.  We’d hiked about 5 miles in 3 1/2 hours with a half hour break for lunch.  We were excited to take our packs off and relax, but first we had to find the campsite.

Showing off where we’d been

The group campsite is just off trail and very close to Fern Lake, but the individual sites were about a 10 minute walk from the lakeshore itself.  There are three individual campsites at Fern Lake, and they are well laid out and private.  There is also water available from a stream at the campsite so you don’t have to hike all the way back to Fern Lake, but overall it seemed like Odessa Lake likely had campsites that were better situated for lounging by the water.  The other two sites were taken by the time we got to camp, but we were happy with our site (#2) regardless.

As soon as we laid down our packs, a mule deer came to visit us!  She spent several minutes chewing on the plants around our campsite, looking at us but seemingly uninterested in what we were doing.  She continued on towards the next campsite after a few minutes.

Mule deer at camp

After setting up camp and relaxing for a few hours, we walked back to Fern Lake to read, cook dinner, and enjoy the evening.  Fern Lake was very clear, and we could see trout moving around in the water and eating the bugs on the surface.  Just the day before we had gone fly fishing for the very first time, and one of our guides noted that Fern Lake was a great place to fish.  It was too bad that we didn’t have gear to fish – they were plentiful!  Our guide had also mentioned that Spruce Lake, about a mile from our campsite via an unimproved trail, had some of the biggest Cutthroat Trout in the park.

Trout swimming in Fern Lake – only caught fish on camera, not on a hook!

We cooked a dinner of dehydrated chili on the shore of the lake.  We saw a dozen or so hikers go by, but as it was getting later and later, we saw far fewer people than we had earlier in the day.  As we were getting ready to clean up our pots and pans, we filtered several liters of water from the lake.  We must not have been paying enough attention to our food dishes, though, as we heard movement and a chipmunk had found its way into our cooking pot and was excitedly eating our leftovers.  This chipmunk was huge – I wondered if it was pregnant!  After that, we cleaned up quickly to make sure we weren’t unintentionally feeding anyone else our scraps.

A relaxing evening at Fern Lake

We headed back to our campsite around 7 and snuggled up in our sleeping bags, our smellable items safely 75 adult steps away (as instructed by the ranger we picked up our permit from) in our bear can.  I fell asleep before it was even dark out, but Andrew stayed up late enough to see the stars and the faint line of the Milky Way.

Our camp all set up

We woke up the next morning ready to hike quickly.  We wanted to get back to where we were staying with Andrew’s family early so we could spend more time with them and head up to the Alpine Visitors Center.  We left camp around 8 after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee.  As soon as we left Fern Lake, the trail started to descend again – and quickly.  The trail was steep steps with occasional glimpses of Fern Creek.  The previous day’s hike had been much more scenic.  This area was much more tree-covered, and as we descended into the canyon there was little that you could see.  I was very glad we went from the Bear Lake trailhead – the hikers we passed that morning looked very tired as they slogged uphill.

About an hour into the hike, we passed Fern Falls right off the trail.  It was great to walk through the cool mist as the morning heated up.  Unfortunately most of the lower part of the falls was full of old log-jammed logs, so the waterfall itself didn’t feel very scenic.

Fern Falls

We continued to descend toward the trailhead, passing the confluence of three rivers which creates “The Pool” – Fern Creek, Spruce Creek, and the Big Thompson River.  The Pool had turbulent water and a lot of people, even at 9:15 AM!  We continued down the trail and started seeing lots of people.  There were many day hikers in the area hoping to take advantage of another warm, sunny day.  As we hiked, we would occasionally catch a glimpse of the Big Thompson River to our right, which eventually flows into a beautiful meadow.  We saw lots of people with fishing gear and families out on day hikes as we got to the trailhead at 10 AM, just a little over two hours after leaving Fern Lake and a little less than 24 hours after getting on the trail.

The Big Thompson River just off the Fern Creek Trail

We had another mile of road walking ahead of us to catch the bus back to our car, as there isn’t bus service down to the Fern Lake trailhead.  However, a few minutes into our walk, a private bus stopped and asked if we wanted a ride to the bus stop.  “Sure!” we said, excitedly.  The driver was in his mid 30s and brought people down from a lodge to different trailheads in the park.  He said that he was happy to give us a ride and we chatted with him for the five minutes it took to get to the bus stop.  He gave us some advice on places to go the next time we were looking to backpack in the park as we hopped off his shuttle.  Almost immediately, a park bus pulled up to bring us back to our car.  We took the short ride back to our car and were back with family by noon.

This trip was a great, relatively easy overnight in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I would absolutely recommend doing this trip the direction we did, with about 1200 feet of elevation gain and 3000 feet of elevation loss.  Hikers looking for more of a challenge could easily turn our overnight into a day hike, with the great shuttle system in the park.  Our total mileage wound up at about 10 miles.  The views were great for most of the trip, and where it was less impressive we were quickly moving towards home.  Even a day hike up to Lake Helene from Bear Lake and back would be a great way to see some beautiful areas of the park.

Planning Resources

  • Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry camping webpage
  • Rocky Mountain Hiking Trails – a great site that includes details about a lot of different day hikes and backpacking trips
  • You will need a hard-sided bear canister during the summer months for any scented items and food
  • Many sites are not snow free until late June.  You can find a list of estimated snow free dates here.
  • For the more adventurous, cross country camping and off trail travel is allowed in certain areas.
  • You will certainly want to buy a topo map of the area.  The maps provided by the park service range from hilariously not to scale to mediocre.  I recommend this map.
  • Permits are available here starting on March 1st, and you can check site availability here.
  • Costs: Wilderness permits are $25.  You can reserve up to 7 nights on a permit.  Park entrance was $35 for a week.
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