Length: 7.6 miles roundtrip
Why we love it: Gorgeous forests, serene lake views, and exceptional wildlife viewing make this a relaxing hike with scenic rest areas along the way.
When to go: Fall for colorful leaf peeping; spring and summer for shady, lush foliage; winter for snowshoeing over the frozen river
Restrooms: Located at the Fern Lake shuttle area
Dogs: Not allowed
Located in the always-beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park, Fern Lake Trail offers everything a hiker wants—mountain views, waterfalls, wildlife, and a sparkling lake, plus several scenic stopping points, which make it easy to shorten (or lengthen) the hike based upon your experience level or available time.
The hike begins along the Big Thompson River with little elevation gain for the first few miles, which is ideal for hiking with children and for spotting wildlife. Elk, deer, and even bears can sometimes be seen close to the trailhead.
After the first mile, you pass through Arch Rocks—two giant boulders that presumably split after falling from the cliffs above. About a half-mile later, you will hit the first great resting point, the Pool, where the Thompson River and Fern Creek meet, creating a clash of waters. Stop here to catch your breath, try your hand at fishing, or pack in a picnic to enjoy atop of the rocks that overlook the water. At this point, you will also have the option to take the Cub Lake Trail to Cub Lake, which is dotted with lily pads during the warmer months.
Should you choose to stay along the Fern Lake Trail, the elevation will pick up as you continue on, but it’s nothing unmanageable—especially for experienced hikers. The extra cardio is worth it, because less than a mile later, you’ll arrive at Fern Falls, a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall that will mist away any sweat you’ve accumulated during the hike. This is a great spot for a quick water break or Instagram photo before you tackle the home stretch.
The trail resumes its climb for the next mile or so in the most strenuous part of the hike. Watch your step here, as the path is a little rugged and fairly steep. About a mile later, you’ll arrive at Fern Lake, which offers incredible views of Notchtop Mountain, Little Matterhorn, Knobtop Mountain and The Gable from the north side. Small trout are visible in the water, and catch-and-release fishing is allowed.
After you’ve had your fill of relaxation, head back to the trailhead through the golden aspen groves, while keeping your eyes peeled for deer and elk that regularly roam the area.
Getting there: From Denver, drive north on I-25 to Exit 243. Turn left to follow CO 66 west for 16 miles to the town of Lyons. Just past 4th Street, veer right onto US 36 and follow this for 20 miles to Estes Park. At the junction with CO 7, turn left and proceed south for 7.2 miles to the signed access road on the left (east). Turn left on Bear Lake Road, and follow Moraine Park Road for a half mile until your reach an unmarked junction. Take a left and drive about 1.1 miles to the Fern Lake shuttle stop or about 1.9 miles to the trailhead.