ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK - Rocky Mountain National Park can be a place of beauty and wonder. In the summer it can also be a place of crowds and cars. There are still areas of the park that even on a busy weekend remain a peaceful place to escape, one of those areas is the Fern Lake Trail.
There are many different ways to get to this somewhat secluded spot on near the center of the park. Shuttles run to the trail head which is near the Moraine Park campground. I also found parking on a Saturday afternoon at the trailhead.
This is a trail with flowing streams, a waterfall and a jaw-dropping lake. How far you choose to go is up to you. There is a dramatic waterfall just 1.7 miles up the trail or Fern Lake is 3.6 miles away. Those are one way distances. Getting to the lake and back is more than a 7-mile hike.
Editors Note: Since this hike is in Rocky Mountain National Park, your dogs must stay at home. Pets may accompany you in developed areas such as campgrounds, parking areas and picnic sites but are not permitted on trails or away from roads or parking areas.
RELATED: Fern Lake Fire: 5 years later
If you choose to make the trip all the way to Fern Lake you are looking at about a 1,600-foot elevation gain from the trail head which starts at just above 8,000 feet. Make sure you have plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks for this trail.
Personally one of my favorite sounds is footsteps on a dirt trail, rarely did I think about that sound during this hike. The trail runs next to the start of the Big Thompson River. Relaxing sounds of rushing water are all around you for the trip to The Pool.
The first 1.7 miles of this hike are generally flat and is also the busiest section of this trail. There are also a couple of backcountry campsites along this trail for those who might want to spend the night next to the river or use it as a base for those exploring Odessa Lake or beyond.
As you head towards The Pool take a moment to look up to your right. Breathtaking rock formations rise up and as of late June there were still several small waterfalls making their way to the river below.
You will hear The Pool before you get to it. This is a point 1.7 miles into the hike where the Big Thompson combines with Spruce Creek and Fern Creek as it surges down the canyon. It's only about a 300 foot elevation gain to this point. Many people take in the view from the bridge over the river, enjoy the shade on the rocks, and decide whether to move onto Fern Falls or Cub Lake.
On this day I continued with the ascent towards the Falls. The trail immediately gets more steep and challenging. It's also starts a trip through a dark point in the park's recent history. After a brief climb the trail enters an area still recovering from the Fern Lake Fire of 2012. This fire burned for more than a month over more than 3,000 acres. Signs of life are now back on the ground while the trees still show the damage left behind from what started as an illegal campfire.
A little less than a mile from the pool and after another 500-foot elevation gain there is once again the sounds of rushing water. It's there and gone as you make a few switchbacks towards Fern Falls.
Around one last corner the falls are revealed. A huge rushing cascade flowing from above, the mist coming through the trees and onto the trail. On a warm summer day the falls are as refreshing as they are beautiful. It's a nearly 6-mile round trip from this point. This trail though continues to offer temptation around every turn to see what is just beyond the next curve.
The trail starts to become more shaded over the next mile. It feels more alpine and it's a climb up to 9,500 feet when once again the sound of rushing water quickens the pace to see the source of that sound.
Hikers will first come to a split on the trail. Fern Lake is just a couple hundred yards away. Another trail branches off to Spruce Lake. The Spruce Lake trail is unimproved. While there are a few wood planks over marshy areas, this trail involves climbing over rocks and finding your path. If you enjoy fishing, this is the lake for you. I'll talk more about this spot in another article.
Sticking to the Fern Lake you will see areas for horses, a nearby group cabin, and then the spot where I heard more than one person exclaim their excitement about the beauty laid out before them.
There is a trail around the lake and walking around this trail gives the best views of the mountains which feed this lake with their snow melt. The sound of the falls heard just before arriving at Fern Lake come from Marguerite Falls. A bridge gives a look in one direction at the falls and in the other a look out over Fern Lake. I saw several trout at this spot swimming in the crystal clear waters.
Continuing on this trail will take you to the far side of Fern Lake and eventually onto Odessa Lake. With clouds building over Little Matterhorn, Knobtop Mountain and other peaks nearby, I started the return trip. The best part is knowing I would get a second look at the incredible locations that I had seen earlier in the day.
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