Upon our last visit to Rocky Mountain National Park on a sunny Saturday morning, the usual scene ensued: Drivers bound for the Bear Lake Trailhead were getting turned around, told that parking was full. Busses back at the Estes Park Visitor Center were ferrying people into the park, to a spot where they could board another bus to Bear Lake.
It might sound like a hassle. But no frowns could be found on the faces of passengers. They knew what lay ahead: Prime adventure from one of the park’s signature gateways.
Bear Lake is the starting point to higher, more glorious alpine waters. Our destination was Lake Helene, tucked between spectacular granite marvels. And while the park lists the level of use there as “moderate,” we were pleased to have the shore to ourselves.
From Bear Lake’s trailhead, keep right, following signs toward Flattop Mountain. It’s a steady ascent through the woods mixed with aspen, the trees clearing for views of Longs Peak’s jagged spine.
At the next junction, veer left, again following markers for Flattop. Continue to follow arrows for Odessa Lake — the next split points straight.
The eye eventually looks out to a valley home to the craggy wonder known as Lumpy Ridge. The landscape shifts to a lush meadow, before the trail leaves the forest for an exposed, scree-covered slope.
You’re getting close when you behold Notchtop Mountain, looking like something from Yosemite National Park. Our tracker read 3.1 miles when we came to an unmarked path running left toward Lake Helene. You’ll know you’ve missed the turn if you wind right and descend toward Odessa Lake.
Trip log: 7.4 miles (out and back), 1,376 feet of elevation gain, 10,700 feet elevation max
Getting there: Bear Lake Trailhead is reached from the Beaver Meadows entrance station along U.S. 36 through Estes Park.
FYI: $25 day pass per vehicle. In the summer, parking at Bear Lake Trailhead usually fills by 8 a.m. Hiking only. No dogs. With wilderness permit, camping along trail allowed at Sourdough Backcountry Site.
Before you go, check out these tips for following the core principles of Leave No Trace.
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