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Everything You Need to Know about Hiking to Bierstadt Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park is full of stunning lakes and mountain views, and Bierstadt Lake boasts one of the best panoramic views of them all! Located on the popular Bear Lake Road corridor, the hike to Bierstadt Lake features views of Rocky Mountain’s most iconic peaks. From this subalpine lake, hikers can enjoy views of the mountains that make up the Continental Divide. 

Sarah sits on a rock at a frozen Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park overlooking the continental divide and mountains

Lesser known than Rocky Mountain National Park’s most famous hikes (like Emerald Lake or Bear Lake), Bierstadt Lake is an ideal option for those seeking epic views and fewer crowds. 

I recently hiked the Bierstadt Lake Loop on a beautiful fall day shortly after Rocky Mountain National Park got its first snowfall of the season. It was serene, quiet, and in a word, magical. 

From where to park, what to wear, and what you’ll see along the way, here is everything you need to know about hiking to Bierstadt Lake! 

Bierstadt Lake Hike distance, elevation gain, and difficulty

Where is Bierstadt Lake? 

Bierstadt Lake is located on the Bear Lake Road corridor of Rocky Mountain National Park, approximately 11 miles southwest of the town of Estes Park. Excluding the time it takes to get through the Beaver Meadows entrance station and, in peak months, the Bear Lake Road timed-entry gate, it takes 25 minutes to drive from Estes Park to the Bierstadt Lake trailhead

Rocky Mountain National Park Entrance Fees

To enter Rocky Mountain National Park, you will need to pay for park admission. You can do this in person at the entrance gate for $30 for one vehicle for one day, or $35 for seven days. Alternatively, and what we recommend if you plan on visiting three or more national parks in a 12-month period, is getting an annual national park pass online in advance. We get America the Beautiful pass every year and you can order it online! It covers your entrance fees to over 2,000 national park service locations throughout the United States for no additional cost. 

Timed Entry Permits for Bierstadt Lake

In addition to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance fee, you will need to obtain a timed-entry permit from recreation.gov if you are planning to visit between May and October. No matter where you are going in the park during those peak months, you will need to obtain one of these permits to enter during peak hours. To get to the Bierstadt Lake trailhead, you will need to choose the Option 1 permit which grants access to Bear Lake Road. The Option 2 permit is what you need to visit any other section of the park EXCEPT Bear Lake Road – meaning it won’t help you get to Bierstadt Lake. 

Rocky Mountain National Park Timed Entry Information
NPS Graphic/A. Andreas

If you aren’t able to get a timed-entry permit, you have two other options. You can enter the park outside of the peak hours (meaning, before 5 am or after 6 pm for Bear Lake Road) or you can obtain a pass for the hiker shuttle which picks you up at the Estes Park Visitors Center and drops you off at numerous trailheads in the park, including Bierstadt Lake. 

Shuttle Map for Rocky Mountain National Park courtesy of the NPS
Shuttle Map for Rocky Mountain National Park courtesy of the NPS

Of course, this is only if you are visiting between May and October. Exact dates within those months vary every year, so be sure to check the official RMNP website to know if you’ll need a permit for the days you want to go. 

Where to Park for Bierstadt Lake hike 

To get to Bierstadt Lake, you should park at either the Bierstadt Lake parking lot, Bear Lake parking lot, or the Park and Ride lot.

Bierstadt Lake Parking Lot

I parked at Bierstadt Lake, and generally, that is the route I would recommend. I’ll explain why later in this post! That said, the Bierstadt Lake parking lot is fairly small, so if it’s full when you arrive, the Bear Lake parking lot is your next best option. The Bear Lake parking lot is larger but also fills up quickly during the summer and fall since it’s the trailhead for many of the most popular hikes in the park. We recommend getting to the park early, before 9 am if possible, so you don’t have to deal with a stressful parking situation. 

Bear Lake Parking Lot

If you end up parking at Bear Lake but want to hike to Lake Bierstadt from the Lake Bierstadt parking lot, you can take the free park shuttle (summertime only). Of course, you can also hike from the Bear Lake parking lot, and we share details about that option below!

Park and Ride Parking Lot

The last option is to park at the Park and Ride lot and hike to Bierstadt Lake from there. It’s about 1.5 miles from the Park and Ride parking lot to Bierstadt Lake, and while the views along the hike won’t be as great as hiking from the Bierstadt Lake parking lot, it will be a more mild hike since there isn’t as steep of an ascent. 

What Time of year is best to visit?

Bierstadt Lake is a great destination year-round, but your experience will vary depending on the season you go. Here’s what you can expect in each season. 

Summer

In the summertime, expect more crowds, sunny mornings, and afternoon thunderstorms. This is another reason to plan your hike for in the morning since thunderstorms come in pretty much every day after noon in the summer. Additionally, the ascent up Bierstadt Moraine will be quite exposed, so be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen

Fall

Bierstadt Lake is one of the best hikes to do in Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall, thanks to the many aspens you can see along the trail. In late September and early October, the aspen tree leaves turn a stunning golden yellow. It’s an extra special time to visit the park! 

In late fall, the trail will be snowy and icy in places. I recommend wearing microspikes if you are hiking in November or later. 

Winter

In winter, the trail to Bierstadt Lake will be snow-covered. You will likely want to use microspikes or snowshoes for the entirety of the hike. Be on the lookout for animal footprints in the snow, always a thrilling sign of the many wildlife that lives in the park! 

Microspikes over a frozen Bierstadt Lake
Microspikes are KEY for winter hikes

Spring

In spring the snow on the trail to Bierstadt Lake will start to melt but may still be icy and snowy in some parts. The ground will likely be muddy from the melt, so be prepared for potentially sludgy conditions. Hiking with hiking poles can help you stay steady on the slipper descent back down to the trailhead.

History of Bierstadt Lake

Bierstadt Lake is a subalpine lake, at 9466 feet elevation above sea level. For a long time, I thought any lake with mountain views was an “alpine lake”, but technically, alpine lakes are only those which sit at 10000 feet or higher above sea level. So, Bierstadt Lake is close to being an alpine lake, but not quite!

How was Bierstadt Lake formed?

Bierstadt Lake has no streams or rivers running into or from it. Only snowmelt and rainwater fill up the basin that creates Bierstadt Lake. Consequently, it’s a fairly shallow lake.

How did it get its name?

“Bierstadt” is German for “beer city”, but no, that is unfortunately not where the lake gets its name! Lake Bierstadt is, predictably, named after a man who visited there in the 1870s (much like many locations in Rocky Mountain National Park). Albert Bierstadt was a German-American artist who was known for his landscape paintings of the American West. His work made RMNP more popular since his work was well known. You can think of Bierstadt as the original Rocky Mountain Instagrammer. 

Hike Details for Bierstadt Lake

Here’s what you need to know about the trail to Bierstadt Lake whether you are hiking from Bierstadt Lake Trailhead or Bear Lake Trailhead!

Bierstadt Lake Trailhead Information Board

Trail Description to Bierstadt Lake from Bierstadt Lake Trailhead

We recommend hiking to Bierstadt Lake from the official Bierstadt Lake Trailhead. Although the trail is steeper from this starting point compared to the Park and Ride lot or Bear Lake, the views of the mountains and nearby Sprague Lake as you ascend Bierstadt Moraine just can’t be beaten! Here’s what you need to know about the trail:

Bierstadt Moraine

From the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead, your hike starts in a lodgepole pine and aspen forest before then ascending the Bierstadt Moraine. The moraine is what gets left behind after Ice Age era glaciers moved through the area. Bierstadt Moraine is a lateral moraine, meaning it’s a parallel ridge of debris deposited along the side of the glacier. The glacier is long gone, and the moraine is what remains as a testament to the geological history of the area.

Switchbacks on Bierstadt Moraine

This part of the hike consists of many switchbacks and is the steepest part of the hike. The good news is there are plenty of opportunities to stop to catch your breath and enjoy the views of the Rocky Mountains to the west and Sprague Lake to the east. You can also catch cool views of winding Bear Lake Road from here. It’s truly quite a magnificent view all the way up the trail, which is why I recommend this route so strongly! 

View of Sprague Lake from the Bierstadt Lake Trail
View of Sprague Lake from the Bierstadt Lake Trail

It’s also super important to stay on the designated trail on the Bierstadt Moraine. This matters everywhere, but especially on these switchbacks which are vulnerable to erosion. You’ll see signs on the trail reminding you to stay on trail as well as wooden supports that prevent erosion.

Bierstadt Lake Forest

After 1.4 miles of climbing 566 feet, you’ll be at the top! From here you’ll enter spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine forest. You may also notice some dead trees which are the result of mountain pine beetle infestation. Soon you will come to a sign indicating that you’ve reached the Bierstadt Lake Loop.

Forest at the top of Bierstadt Moraine
Forest at the top of Bierstadt Moraine

Bierstadt Lake Loop

From here, you can go in either direction. I went counterclockwise, but there really isn’t a difference in which way you go if you plan to do the whole 1-mile loop. 

Spur Trail to the Best View of Bierstadt Lake

When you get to a large wooden fence, you’ll see a sign marked Bierstadt Lake with a directional arrow. The fence is simply to keep horses out of this part of the trail, as horseback riding is another option for this trail. Hikers should not be deterred by this fence! This is an official part of the trail and leads the way to the best views of Bierstadt Lake.

Sign to the best view on Bierstadt Lake
Follow this sign to get to the best view of Bierstadt Lake!

After 100 meters on this trail, you’ll get to the eastern shore of the lake. Facing west, you’ll be greeted with spectacular views of all of the peaks along Rocky Mountain National Park’s Continental Divide. From left to right, you can see Longs Peak, Chiefs Head Peak, McHenrys Peak, Powell Peak, Taylor Peak, Otis Peak, Hallett Peak, and Flattop Mountain. Whew! What a view, right!? 

Trail Description to Bierstadt Lake from Bear Lake Trailhead 

The hike to Bierstadt Lake from the Bear Lake Trailhead is less demanding than the hike from the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead. Starting your hike at Bear Lake, it’s 1.6 miles one way, so it is slightly longer, but less than half the elevation gain with just 255 feet of elevation gain. To take this route, you’ll start your hike on the Bear Lake Loop trail going counterclockwise.

Shortly, you will get to a sign for Flattop Mountain on your right. You’ll take this trail for half a mile to the Mill Creek Basin area and from there you will arrive at the Bierstadt Lake Loop trail. Once you are on the loop trail, everything is the same as if you’d hiked from Bierstadt Lake trailhead or the Park and Ride lot. 

Pros and Cons of Hiking to Bierstadt Lake from Bear Lake


The main disadvantage of this route is that you will miss the beautiful mountain views along the ascent of Bierstadt Moraine. You’ll also miss the view of Sprague Lake in the distance. The advantage of course is that it’s a much milder hike with less elevation gain, and likely easier parking as well. 

Wildlife at Bierstadt Lake

You have a good likelihood of seeing some of RMNP’s most populous residents on the Bierstadt Lake hike, such as ground squirrels and various species of birds. You also have a chance of seeing two of the park’s more elusive species: moose and bear! Here is what you need to keep in mind about hiking in moose and bear habitats.

Moose

Moose are commonly spotted at Bierstadt Lake. Unlike other animals, moose don’t tend to hide away when around other animals, including humans. They also blend in fairly well with their surroundings, which can make an encounter particularly startling. While they are stunning animals to see, it’s important to know that more hikers are injured each year by moose than by bears or mountain lions.

If You See a Moose at Bierstadt Lake

Be aware of your surroundings and do not approach a moose! A good rule to go by is to stay 25 meters away from a moose. If you see a moose and he or she hasn’t noticed you, continue along the hike as long as it doesn’t bring you closer to the moose. Do NOT try to get the moose’s attention. If the moose has spotted you, calmly talk to the moose and back away to indicate you are not a threat. 

If a Moose Charges You at Bierstadt Lake

In the unlikely event that a moose charges at you, you need to run and find cover! This is different from the common guidance for when you see other animals in the wild, which generally is to NOT run away. With a moose, however, you can and should totally run away. If you can’t run away, your next best bet is to hide behind a tree. If the moose attacks you, curl into a ball and protect your neck and head. Do not fight back. Again, you want to convince the moose you are not a threat. Only then will the moose back away. Don’t get up until the moose is very far away. You can read more about moose in RMNP on the national park’s official website.

Bears

While there are fewer than 50 black bears (and no grizzly bears) in Rocky Mountain National Park, you may see bears on your hike to Bierstadt Lake. While rare, they do live in this area. If you see a bear, keep your distance and slowly back away. Bears generally do not want to be around people, so as a basic guideline, it’s a good idea to make noise by talking to your hiking partner or to yourself if you’re solo. You can read more about black bears in RMNP on the national park’s official site.

What to Pack and Wear

  1. Day Pack: It’s so helpful to have a good day pack to carry everything you need. I’ve had the Osprey Skimmer 20 for Women for years and it’s held up on every adventure! And here’s the Osprey Talon 22 Pack for Men!
  2. Water Reservoir: If your day pack doesn’t have a water reservoir in it already, you can buy one separately to slip into your bag. It’s absolutely NECESSARY that you bring water with you on every hike. Here are our favorite 2-liter reservoir and 3-liter reservoir!
  3. Sun Protection: This is so important year-round – even more so in winter when the snow can reflect the sun back up to your skin, multiplying your exposure! Sun Bum is our favorite sunscreen brand.
  4. Hiking Boots: I hiked to Bierstadt Lake in my Columbia hiking boots. I literally have these in multiple colors because I love them so much! You can’t beat the price for the quality, too. Tim always hikes in his Foxelli boots and swears they are the best hiking boots he’s ever owned. He also has multiple pairs on stand-by in his closet for when the tread on these finally wears out (though it’s been a few years and they are still going strong!). 
  5. Socks: I started wearing these double-layer Wrightsock brand socks when marathon training years ago and have never gotten a blister with them! In winter, I might mix it up with merino wool socks, too.
  6. Sunglasses: I love these wooden frame sunglasses, so they are my go-to.
  7. Hiking pants: These hiking leggings are my favorite in winter. In summer, I usually hike in biker shorts or leggings.
  8. Moisture-wicking layers: SmartWool is our favorite layering brand. I wear this pullover all the time (it went around the world with us in 2014 and is still in great condition) and their wool t-shirts are great base layers. There are also SmartWool t-shirts for men!
  9. Jacket: Even in summer it can be really chilly on Rocky Mountain National Park’s lakes! I always pack my Columbia jacket when hiking in the mountains.
  10. First Aid Kit: An ultralight first aid kit is a must-have for every hike. You never know what can happen, and you’ll be glad to have a first aid kit if you need one!
  11. Camera: I always hike with my Sony a7iii. It’s a great full-frame camera for capturing all of our hiking memories!
  12. Snacks: Clif Energy Bars are our favorite hiking snack. It’s got the perfect mix of carbs, fats, and protein to power us through our hikes!
  13. Trekking poles: Many people like hiking with trekking poles to reduce the impact on the knees, especially going downhill. If your knees bother you when you hike, you’ll want hiking poles, especially for the descent back down Bierstadt Moraine. We don’t use ours often, but these Black Diamond Trail Back hiking poles are really popular!
  14. If you’re hiking to Bierstadt Lake in winter, you’ll absolutely want to bring a pair of microspikes with you. These will slide over your boots and keep you from slipping on icy portions of the trail. Trust us, you’ll be able to enjoy your hike so much more if you aren’t worried about falling on the ice! 
microspikes on a snowy hiking trail
Microspikes are my absolute MUST HAVE for winter hikes

Guided Tours

Looking for a guided experience in Rocky Mountain National Park? Check out some of these tours you can book to help you make the most of your time in RMNP without the hassle.

Where to Stay in Estes Park

We recommend basing yourself in Estes Park when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are some well-rated hotel options in Estes Park, which is just a few miles from the Beaver Meadows entrance station to RMNP.

Luxury

Midrange

Budget

Click here to search for additional hotels in Estes Park or search below!

 

Follow us on instagram @organized_adventurer
Follow us on Instagram @organized_adventurer

Final Thoughts

There you have it! Everything you need to know about one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most underrated hikes – Bierstadt Lake! Don’t miss our other guides to RMNP (linked below for ya!) to help you plan the most epic bucket list trip to Colorado’s most-beloved national park!

  • Bear Lake Corridor Explained – everything you need to know about all the various hikes you can do from the Bear Lake trailhead!
  • Bear Lake – a guide to RMNP’s most famous lake
  • Emerald Lake – hiking guide to Rocky Mountain’s most popular hike
  • Lake Haiyaha – hiking guide to the milky teal lake everyone is talking about
  • Chasm Lake – hiking guide to our favorite trail in Rocky Mountain National Park!
  • Sky Pond – hiking guide to a challenging bucket-list-worthy adventure in RMNP
  • Loch Vale and Alberta Falls – hiking guide to two of Rocky Mountain’s most beautiful views you can see on one trail
  • Sprague Lake – a hike around Sprague Lake is a great option after your Bierstadt Lake hike. Yes, this is the lake you can see as you climb the Bierstadt Moraine!
  • Trail Ridge Road – ultimate guide and itinerary to the highest continuous paved road in the United States – right here in Rocky Mountain National Park!

And one last thing before you go – don’t forget to get an annual national parks pass before your trip and if you’re visiting between May and October, be sure to grab your timed-entry permit for Rocky Mountain National Park!

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