Odessa Lake
Fern Lake

excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
  • loads of hiking tips
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    Distance: 9.1 miles (including 0.7-mile walk to shuttle bus stop) (plus 10.5 miles by Park Service shuttle bus)

    Walking time: 6 hours
    : 1140 ft. gain, 2500 ft. loss
      Bear Lake Trailhead (start): 9,480 ft.
      Odessa Lake: 10,020 ft.
      Fern Lake: 9,540 ft.

    Trail: Well maintained, easy to follow

    Season: Midsummer to mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from mid-November through early July.

    Vicinity: Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park

    Odessa LakeFern Lake


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    This extraordinary hike features a number of scenic attractions, including two of the prettiest lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Furthermore the Park Service has implemented a shuttle system that allows hikers to walk the trail one way and ride a shuttle back to the starting point. If you start at the Bear Lake Trailhead the route is almost all downhill!

    From the trailhead you must turn north and circle along the eastern shore of Bear Lake for 0.1 mile until you see a sign directing you to Flattop Mountain and Odessa Lake. Bear right at the sign and continue north through a picturesque field of lichen-covered granite and schist boulders. Negotiating this jumble of huge boulders without a trail would be a nightmare, but on the trail it is a pleasant walk. The trail climbs northward away from the lake for 0.3 mile, then turns west at the Bierstadt Lake trail junction to continue a relatively gentle climb up the eastern slopes of Continental Divide.

    0.8 mile from the trailhead you will come to another trail junction where the Flattop Mountain Trail branches off to the left. Bearing right at the junction the path continues climbing through the lodgepole pine forest for the next 2.0 miles, finally reaching the highest point of the hike on the southern side of Joe Mills Mountain. As the trail levels out you will see Two Rivers Lake followed by Lake Helene just below and 100 yards to the left of the trail. Watch for a short hiker-made spur that drops down to Lake Helene, meeting it near its outlet on the northwest side.

    The views in this area are sensational. The mountains slope up relatively gradually on the west side of the Continental Divide, but on the east side the topology plunges abruptly downward forming a succession of cliffs, escarpments, tarns, and waterfalls. Helene Lake lies just 0.6 mile east of the Divide, below a long line of 12,000-foot peaks.

    From Helene Lake trail junction the main path makes a hairpin turn to the right and begins a 0.8-mile descent down the western side of Joe Mills Mountain into Fern Creek Canyon. Soon you will see Odessa Lake 500 feet below the left side of the trail. The land is too steep and rocky to support many trees in this area, so the panorama of rugged country across the canyon is almost unobstructed. Odessa Lake looks so close you could almost hit it with a stone.

    As the trail passes above Odessa it starts to level out, and 200 yards beyond the lake you will come to another spur trail that doubles back along Fern Creek to the lake’s northern outlet. When you reach the shore you will be treated to a gorgeous view of upper Fern Creek Canyon, framed by Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain on the right and Flattop Mountain on the left.

    Fern Lake is only 0.9 mile below Odessa Lake. Many people hike to Fern Lake from the Fern Lake Trailhead 3.5 miles further east, so there are usually many more people at Fern than Odessa. Both lakes are very pretty, but Odessa is still my personal favorite. There is also a Park Service Patrol Cabin at Fern Lake, but it is usually unoccupied.

    The next major point of interest is Fern Falls, a roaring cascade of white water located 1.1 mile below Fern Lake. The trail switchbacks near the bottom of the fall, and the roar is deafening. Dozens of broken trees and logs at the bottom of the fall attest to the force of the water as it plunges down the streambed. Fern Falls is actually just one of several falls along Fern Creek below Fern Lake, although it is the most impressive one and the only one that is easily viewed from the trail. The creek looses just over 1,000 feet of elevation in its 1.2-mile descent from Fern Lake to the Big Thompson River.

    0.7 mile below Fern Falls, just below the confluence of Fern Creek with the Big Thompson River, the trail crosses a bridge above the Big Thompson. The River flows through a deep pool above the bridge that is a popular stopping point for hikers coming up from the lower trailhead. There is also a trail junction at the Pool, where the Cub Lake Trail joins the Fern Lake Trail.

    The last 1.7 miles before the Fern Lake Trailhead is along the relatively calm Big Thompson River. There are a number of tranquil river scenes along the way, but the most interesting feature on this segment of the hike is a collection of a dozen or so house-size granite boulders called the Arch Rocks. This odd accumulation of boulders lies on the otherwise flat riverbank, and the trail winds right through the middle of them. They almost appear to have been placed here by some giant that just got tired of carrying them around.

    When you reach the Fern Lake Trailhead you will still have to do another 0.7 mile of road walking to get to the shuttle bus stop. The buses run every half-hour. If you are going to Bear Lake you will have to change busses at the Park & Ride facility near Sprague Lake.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Odessa and Fern Lakes area
    we recommend:
    Rocky Mountain National Park (Trails Illustrated, map #200)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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