Beginner’s Trail Guide: East side of Rocky Mountain National Park

bear lake rocky mountain national park

The entrance to the eastern side of RMNP is right outside of downtown Estes Park. Now that Highway 36 is completely restored, the drive is an easy and scenic hour and a half from Denver.


As any basic Google searching will tell you, Bear Lake is the perfect place for beginners, first timers, out of towners, and anyone that is not familiar with Colorado or hiking. Or even nature. Because of this, the Bear Lake parking lot fills up VERY quickly in the summer. There’s a shuttle from a satellite lot which isn’t a horrible pain in the ass, but it’s not especially convenient either. Plan on being there by 7 am in the summer. Once school is back in, your start time gets a lot more generous.

Bear Lake has a very nice level trail (except one short stretch) offering stunning views and plenty of benches to take a break on. The loop around the lake is short – just a half a mile, so it’s the perfect starting point to test the waters of hiking and higher elevation. You’ll start at about 9,000 feet at most places in the park and then climb from there, so don’t be surprised if you’re huffing and puffing.

If you want to adventure beyond Bear Lake (red trail on the map below), there are plenty of options depending on how ambitious you want to be. You can do a 3-4 mile out and back route from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake (orange), or if you’re more ambitious, you can make a large loop (yellow…about 8 miles!) by continuing on to Lake Haiyaha, Alberta Falls, and Glacier Gorge before returning to the Bear Lake parking lot. You can also just hit Alberta Falls from Bear Lake, which is a 2-3 mile round trip. For a complete trail map, click here.

Yeah, my Paint skills are pretty impressive. #advancedblogging

For my boyfriend’s birthday, I got really ambitious (I was in the peak of summer fitness, mind you) and we decided to go for the 8 miler. Each lake you arrive at is increasingly beautiful, so make sure you have plenty of room on your phone to take pictures of EVERYTHING. You have varying awesome views of Hallett’s Peak, which hardcore outdoorsy peeps like to actually climb. I prefer to admire from afar.

First stop, Nymph Lake.

The path up to Emerald Lake does get steep. There are plenty of places you’ll want to stop in and take the scenery, but you’re going to get in a good workout! The trail is mostly downhill on the way home and also offers several flatter areas. Don’t forget to take care of your knees and take it slow coming back down.

Your reward for that climb! This was taken on an unusually calm day, hence the epic reflection of Hallet (the peak, not the old man in the corner).

If you’re continuing on to Haiyaha, be prepared to climb right back up! Once you get back to Dream Lake from Emerald, you’ll be going up. For a while. Lake Hiyaha doesn’t offer quite the same caliber of scenery as the previous lakes, but it still offers some pretty cool views. Plus, you start going back downhill or, at least, leveling out for a while.

From Haiyaha (by the way, this is pronounced Hi-yay-uh…I think), you go for 2.1 miles before coming to a junction. Turn left to go back towards home. You’ll pass two amazing waterfalls, the second of which being Alberta Falls, which means you’re on the home stretch.

Are your legs yelling at you yet? You could’ve taken the easy route and just headed here after Bear Lake.

Whatever the opposite of a false summit is (False parking lot? False end of the trail? False access to badly needed bathrooms?), that is the only way to describe what happens after Alberta Falls. You assume that since you did nothing but go up for the first half of the hike, you’ll be doing nothing but going down. No, RMNP has a cruel sense of humor. After passing the Glacier Gorge trailhead, you go BACK.UP. Like seriously steeply back up. You’ll be fine, just prepare yourself emotionally.

If you are in dire need of a restroom (or the shuttle bus to take you back to the Bear Lake parking lot…no judgment here), you can end your trip at Glacier Gorge. Once you turn onto the trail towards the parking lot, it’s about a five-minute walk before you’re near benches and bathrooms.

Bottom Line

RMNP is obviously a national park, so it does cost money to get in. Insert my usual preaching about how this fee is well worth it, helps keep the park awesome, etc.

Test the waters at Bear Lake. You’ll get your money’s worth of scenery and a good starter hike. If you’re feeling ambitious, go out to Emerald Lake – you won’t regret it. If you’re inspired to take on a big hike (check the weather first!!) then try out the loop of lakes. And if you want to mix things up a bit after taking a lap around Bear Lake, then pop by Alberta Falls before heading out.

Remember – you’re at substantial elevation. Bring LOTS of water. And snacks. Check the weather and pay attention to it as you’re hiking! If there’s a chance of rain, bring rain gear. If you want to know what else to wear hiking, here’s my beginner’s guide.

If you’re looking for a guide to the other side of the park, check out my trail guide from the Grand Lake entrance.

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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