Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trail is about one-third ascending and two-thirds descending with the high point at Joe Mills Mountain. Along the way, you’ll see breathtaking mountain views, alpine lakes and a waterfall.
Rocky Mountain National Park has a great (and free) shuttle system, which makes it easier for hikers to take this beautiful one-way Bear Lake to Fern Lake trail. While this hike is a little challenging, it’s a great warm-up for any bigger hikes you can do on your trip to the Rockies.
Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trail
A few tips before you get started on your trail: always arrive early (before 8 am) for your hike. Bear lake is a very popular trail head and it can be hard to find parking later in the day. It is especially important to arrive early for this hike as in the middle of the hike you will be on high elevation in exposed area. You want to start descending into the treeline before the afternoon storms come in. If this is your first time in the Rockies, please review a few tips so that you are prepared for your hiking experience and don’t have any setbacks on your trip.
The Trail Has So Many Photo Opportunities!
Although you can hike in either direction, the elevation gain is much lower if you start hiking from Bear Lake. After you get to the Bear Lake trail head, make a right turn onto the Bear Lake Loop Trail and then another right turn to Odessa Lake and Flattop Mountain.
About one-half mile from the trail head you will see the Bierstadt Lake and the Mill Creek Basin. From the junction the route begins heading west. As we went higher we got to see spectacular views of Longs Peak, the Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Peak and Chiefs Head Peak.
As you keep going up you will see the Joe Mills Mountain, a small peak that resides 1.5 miles northwest. It offers a great place for a break with amazing views and comfortable seating. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rest as that’s the time we started getting tired!
The Descent of the Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trail
After about 3 miles, the main trail makes a sharp turn to the right, and starts descending rapidly. From the unmarked junction you will reach Lake Helene by walking a short distance on a narrow path.
Traveler’s Tip: Note that ice and snow can remain on this section of trail until June, and sometimes even into July. If you are planning to do this hike during the early summer time period, check with a ranger on trail conditions beforehand.
As you proceed down the trail, you will pass the Odessa Lake that you see from the top.
The views of the surrounding mountains are simply outstanding!
From Odessa Lake this one-way hike continues by heading down to Fern Lake. Once back on the main route the trail descends fairly rapidly towards the lake. At roughly 5.1 miles from the trail head you’ll have a great view of Fern Lake from roughly 50 feet above the water. Beyond the Spruce Lake Trail junction the trail starts a very rough descent, and drops more than 650 feet in one mile and takes you down to Fern Falls. At roughly 6.6 miles you will reach Fern Falls, a stunning 60-foot waterfall that comes form Fern Creek.
During this section of the trail, it started to rain and we were really glad we had our rain jackets and water-proof boots! The boots also made it easy for exploring waterfalls and made it a lot easier on my feet for the 10-mile hikes! For more necessary hiking gear recommendations, check out this article!
The Last Part of the Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trail – Even More Descent
At roughly 8 miles you will pass the Arch Rocks, two huge rocks that landed on this spot when a they fell from the cliffs. We took a break here and had some water and snacks. We were exhausted, but it wasn’t even close to the end of the trail! From Arch Rocks the Trail goes through some forest areas and some open spots. Along the way you’ll see lot’s of aspens, willows and pines, which made me feel like home!
At 9.2 miles you will finally reach the Fern Lake Trail-head. If using the park shuttle for this hike you’ll still have another mile on foot along the dirt road to reach the shuttle stop! The Fern Lake Trail-head was actually just another couple of miles from the Moraine Park Campground where we stayed!
It was a great second day hike and it prepared us for other hikes with higher elevation, like the Mounts Ida and the Continental Divide trail and the Sky Pond Trail. I highly recommend this scenic hike on your next trip to the Rockies and I would love to hear about your experience in the Rockies in the comments below!