Bear Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Updated: Feb 25

Not only is Bear Lake incredibly beautiful, but it's also one of the easiest lakes to access in all of Rocky Mountain National Park!


In this post we're going to discuss everything you need to know when visiting Bear Lake, one of Rocky Mountain's most popular attractions.


If you have a specific question you need answered - feel free to jump ahead using the table of contents below:



If you're looking to make a reservation to enter Rocky Mountain National Park you can do so at the NPS website which I've included a link to.


I've also put together a resource on how to use the timed entry system for those who have never used it. The guide includes tips for securing reservations as well as what to do if there aren't any slots available.


Large mountain overlooking lake
Bear Lake offers stunning mountain backdrop views

Already have your reservation squared away? Perfect! Read on to learn more about what to expect when visiting Bear Lake!


Once you're finished reading this guide, be sure to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide I put together over on my YouTube channel. It includes tons of great footage I shot during my visit throughout the park.


You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!

 

Where is Bear Lake Located?


Bear Lake is best accessed from the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park via the Beaver Meadows entrance station.


Without traffic the drive from Estes Park to the Bear Lake Parking lot should take you between 30 and 45 minutes. Most of the drive time occurs after entering Rocky Mountain which means you'll be able to take in the parks beautiful scenery along the way.


Map of Bear Lake nature loop
Map of the Bear Lake nature loop

If you're entering Rocky Mountain from the west, near Grand Lake, you'll have to drive across the entire park to reach Bear Lake which can take upwards of two hours.



Considering many of the parks best hikes and sights are located along the Bear Lake corridor, it's no surprise that most people suggest staying in Estes Park over Grand Lake.

 

What to Expect When Hiking Bear Lake?


Bear Lake is one of the easier hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for several reasons and frankly I would consider this more of a 'nature walk' than a hike.


The lake is literally steps from the main parking making it easily accessible for all visitors. The trail is almost perfectly flat and well maintained. According to AllTrails the walk around the lake is only 0.7 miles, or just over 1 km.


While Bear Lake's elevation sits at about 9,450 feet or 2,880 meters, this shouldn't be an issue for visitors considering it doesn't have any uphill portions and the short duration.


Mountain overlooking Colorado Lake
Hiking on to Emerald Lake will lead you closer to the prominent mountain shown here

Not surprisingly since the stroll to Bear Lake is so easy and short you won't need to pack anything special. If you plan to continue on from Bear Lake towards Nymph, Dream or Emerald Lake (which I HIGHLY recommend) you'll need to prepare a bit differently. The Bear Lake trailhead also serves as the starting point for these areas.

 

Where do I Park For Bear Lake?


Unfortunately like many other popular National Park activities the parking situation at Bear Lake is pretty rough.


When I visited in late July we had a 9am timed entry slot which included Bear Lake Corridor access. We entered the park around 9:30am and reached the Bear Lake parking lot around 10am. At this time rangers were directing traffic at the lot entrance. Most cars were being turned away and told to park at an overflow lot (with shuttle access) down the road.


Looking for tips to save on airfare? Check out a full post I wrote on the subject here!

Some way, some how, we were the last car they allowed to park here before the main parking lot was temporarily blocked off again. Sometimes it's just about being lucky!


Bus at Bear Lake shuttle stop
The shuttle system at Rocky Mountain helps mitigate parking issues

Unless you're arriving very early you should probably just plan on parking at the overflow lot and taking the shuttle service to the Bear Lake trailhead. Shuttles are plentiful so you shouldn't need to wait long for one.

 

Other Things to Know About Bear Lake


Is There Cell Phone Service at Bear Lake?


Cell phone service throughout most of Rocky Mountain National Park is minimal. You may get intermittent cell phone service around Bear Lake but don't plan on it. The higher points of the park (towards the Alpine Visitor Center) will offer better opportunities to get a signal.


How Much Does Bear Lake Entry Cost?


There isn't a fee specific to accessing Bear Lake. The Rocky Mountain National Park entry pass and timed entry reservation are all you need to access Bear Lake. You can check out current rates at the National Park Service's website.


How Long Does it Take to Visit Bear Lake?


Start off by budgeting 30-45 minutes of driving time from Estes Park. From there let's assume you park at the overflow lot and need to wait 10 minutes each way on the shuttle for pick up. Given this you'll need to budget about 1 hour for logistics. The trail itself is very short so it's unlikely you'll spend more than one hour walking around the lake and taking photos.


Are Pets Allowed at Bear Lake?


Sadly, I'm afraid pets are not allowed. While your pet is welcome to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, don't expect to take them with you at Bear Lake or any of the other trails. Pets are generally only welcome around parking lots and certain campgrounds.


Are there Bathrooms at Bear Lake?


There are bathrooms at the Bear Lake parking lot.



Should I Bring any Special Hiking Gear for Bear Lake?


Negative. This is more of a nature walk so you don't really need to prepare for Bear Lake. You only need to prepare for a longer hike if you plan to visit Dream Lake or Emerald Lake.


What is the Best Time of Day to Visit Bear Lake?


Given the short duration of this trail you can really visit any time of day. Keep in mind that during the summer months Rocky Mountain often experiences afternoon thunderstorms. Arriving early or late in the day can improve your prospects at parking in the main lot and cut down on crowds around the lake.


Also - don't forget to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide over on my YouTube channel if you haven't already!

 

Looking for hiking gear recommendations?


Chances are if you're visiting Rocky Mountain National Park you'll be doing some hiking. If you're doing some hiking you'll want to have the right gear in order to have the best experience possible.


Finding gear that's functional, not overpriced, that also looks good can be a challenge.


For your convenience I've laid out some of my favorite hiking apparel below. All of the gear I link to below are items I personally own and have tested out on the trails. Quick disclaimer, I am an affiliate of several referral programs and I may earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.


  • Hiking day pack - If you're in the market for a hiking day pack I'd suggest browsing REI's selection. If you've never owned one before you can go into a retail store and they'll ensure you find one that fits properly with any of the bells and whistles you may require!

  • Water reservoir - I have reservoirs from Platypus and Gregory that I really like. While these come in a variety of sizes I wouldn't bother with those smaller than 3L. You can always just fill up the larger ones part way if you're concerned about weight since they collapse to the same size.

  • Moisture wicking t-shirts - Patagonia makes really great hiking t-shirts that keep you dry all day long. They also perform well under multiple layers of clothing.

  • Hiking socks - I absolutely love the FEIDEER brand of hiking socks. I've tried some other hiking sock brands, but I think these take the cake! They make great socks for women and men.


There's nothing worse than missing out on a great hike because you didn't come prepared, don't be that person!

 

Check Out Our Timed Entry Reservation Guide


There's one mistake you cannot afford to make when visiting US National Parks. Showing up without a timed entry reservation is a surefire way to blow up what should be an otherwise stress free day exploring some of Americas most beautiful destinations.


Fortunately - we have put together a guide walking you through that process. We also provide useful tips on how to get the best time slots and what to do if you find yourself without a reservation.


You can access our Timed Entry Reservation Guide here!