With only a week to spend in Rocky Mountain National Park, I wanted to get the best bang for my hike. After much planning, I set my sights for a day hike in the Bear Lake Corridor. I check the weather and find a sunny day. I set an itinerary that includes several lakes along a trail filled with aspens in their autumn colors. On the day before, I prepare our backpacks with water, snacks, lunch, sunscreen, bug spray and our 10 essentials. I warn Hitch that this could be a long one and he seemed okay with it, at least before the hike he did.
Bear Lake Trailhead
On the day of our hike, we set out early in the morning for Bear Lake Trailhead, which is located at the end of Bear Lake Road via Highway 36. Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park make the Bear Lake Area a popular destination and the parking lot tends to fill up by 10am. During the summer, buses will shuttle hikers and tourists to various points along Bear Lake Road, but we arrive early enough and find parking right at Bear Lake. At the trailhead, a ranger station helped us with our last minute questions. The trail that loops around Bear Lake, following the shoreline, is one of the most popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park even in winter. We don’t take that hike, but we make a short stop to view the Bear Lake before heading out on our long journey.
We ascend the trail through a pine forest for half a mile before reaching Nymph Lake. I fall instantly in love with the view. Waterlilies grace the surface of a dark blue lake. Pines frame the shoreline, while waterfowl feed on the weeds. I look up and see Longs Peak, Flattop Mountain, and Hallett Peak rising in the distance. Visitors crowd upon benches and rocks enjoying this popular destination.
From Nymph Lake, we continue on another for another 0.6 miles to Dream Lake. Just like Bear Lake and Nymph Lake, Dream Lake draws a crowd, and for good reason. This lake rewards those who put in a little effort. The trail also provides a great view of Glacier Gorge before hand. When we reach our destination, I can see why they call it Dream Lake. The water reflects its surroundings like a mirror image, then occasionally the reflection shimmers and shifts from even a minute disturbance.
From Dream Lake, we continue for another 0.7 miles to Emerald Lake. As we gain altitude, a very pleasant and impressive looking pine forest surround us. To the left Tyndall Creek gurgles down the gorge and jagged spires of Flattop Mountain loom directly in front of us. When we reach the lakeshore, I check our altitude and discover that we’ve climbed 600 feet in about one mile from Bear Lake Trailhead and that we now stand 10,110 feet above sea-level. Whew! No wonder I’m breathing hard and my heart is about to burst!
For our journey to Lake Haiyaha, we have to backtrack 0.6 miles, down past Dream Lake to Glacier Trail Junction, where the trail crosses Tyndall Creek. From the junction, the trail takes us south and we flank Hallet Peak. For 0.9 miles we gain about 325 feet in altitude, most of that gain being in the first half. After that first sharp turn in the trail, the path opens up to a wonder view of Tyndall Gorge. We move forward and the trail levels out as we make way to Haiyaha Lake.
From Glacier Gorge, we follow the right fork in the trail which leads to Lake Haiyaha. When we reach the end of the path, I’m surprised to discover huge boulders and I wonder where the lake is. I see a few smaller pools, but the map indicates a lake more than a quarter mile long. We spot some hikers scrambling over rocks ahead of us and follow them.
I later learn that “Haiyaha” is a Native American name meaning “Big Rocks” and that proves to be accurate along the shore of Lake Haiyaha. As soon as we scramble over the huge rocks, we finally see the lake. I am stunned by the scene at Lake Haiyaha. The water is a deep green-blue. Otis Peak dominates at nearly 12,500 feet, while Hallett Peak looms at over 12,700 feet. Between the two mountains, aptly named Chaos Canyon looks like a scar of rugged and ruthless rock. To my left, I can bearly make out The Sharkstooth, a pointed rock which the only the bravest climbers dare.
For another 1.8 miles, the trail leads us downhill and about half way Hitch starts to get cranky. We stop and rest near a pond filled with water lilies before we push on. The trail then takes us down into Loch Vale and a crossroad. We take the south trail, which starts to ascend put only slightly.
By the time we reach the foot of Mills Lake, the hike has beaten Hitch and he finds a warm sunny spot to take a nap. I on the other hand push on. I make way over the rock face and through subalpine trees, and I am awarded the best view yet. Just nestled just below Half Mountain, Mills Lake clear blue waters shimmers. Near the shoreline, I can spot fish darting out under logs and rocks. I am surrounded by a stunning panorama of the Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain, Chiefs Head Peak and Thatchtop Mountain. Making way further down, I find a rocky outcrop that juts slightly into the middle of the lake. I sit and marvel, so very happy and amazed that I’ve made it this far. The sun still hangs high enough in the sky, and the light warm enough to lull me into my own nap.
Just the sun hits the crest of Thatchtop, Hitch has found me. He looks rested, but kind of cranky. We start to head back down Glacier Gorge Trail and toward Loch Vale crossroads. We turn right and make our way down a rocky path that parallels Glacier Creek. For most of the hike, we are shaded from the sun.
The trail starts to open up and we find another junction. We head straight and northward, following the downhill path. We then end up in an alpine forest filled with yellow and orange leaves. I can hear the rush of the waterfall up ahead.
The trail turns, and I can see Alberta Falls just through the trees. We take a break, Hitch still looks grumpy. I ignore him and enjoy the sounds of the water rushing over rocks and the wind rushing through the aspens. Before I head out, I quickly check our location and find we’ve decided over 500 feet in about 1.5 miles. I am so glad we’re going down hill. My heart would have exploded by now if was an uphill climb.
Back to Bear Lake Trailhead via Glacier Gorge
We have 0.9 more miles to go before we get back to the car. The trail takes us downward and into Glacier Gorge. We weave through a mixed pine forest and aspen groves. At one point, there’s a break in the trees and I can see down into the valley. I can also spot the Bear Lake Road, hills on either side swathed in alpine green and dotted with aspen orange.
When we reach the bottom, cross over Tyndall Creek and trudge our way back up to Bear Lake. At this point, I’m really tired and can feel an ache in my thighs and calves. It’s late afternoon and the sun is fully hidden by the mountain side, I should be cold, but I’m working so hard up the hill, I heat up and I feel like I’m sweating buckets. I watch as younger and athletic hikers pass us. I’m kind of jealous and wonder if this is how Hitch feels. I don’t ask because I know he is not happy right now.
We finally make to Bear Lake parking lot and into our truck. Hitch and I rest, drink and eat before heading back. We don’t say much to each other because we’re tired. We head to a Chicago pizza joint near our RV Park, which makes Hitch happy and he returns to being a nice human once his belly is full. For myself, I’m proud that I hiked 8 miles in the Rocky Mountains at an average altitude of 9,500 feet. I’m not fit, nor young or athletic, but I did it anyways. I got my beautiful alpine lakes and my golden aspen colors, so my reward is just.
I’m hoping to to this trail combo today! It looks amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your route.