Ultimate Guide to Hiking Loch Vale in RMNP
Loch Vale (also known simply as the Loch) is one of the prettiest hiking destinations in all of Rocky Mountain National Park! We’ve hiked to Loch Vale twice, once in winter as our main destination, and again the next fall on our way to Sky Pond. Even after completing the Loch Vale hike twice, we would hike it again and again. It is that beautiful!
Set beneath majestic mountains, the Loch is a bucket-list-worthy hike that includes a waterfall, alpine terrain, and glacial lakes. Add all of this to the fact that the trail to Loch Vale is less than 6 miles round trip with a modest elevation gain of approximately 1000 feet, and it’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular (and therefore busiest) hikes in the park.
This guide covers everything you need to know about hiking to the Loch, from where to park to trail details to what to pack and wear. Lace up those hiking boots and join us as we relive one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s prettiest trails!
Loch Vale Trail Basics
Loch Vale Hike Distance and Stats
The hike to the Loch is 5.7 miles round trip from the Glacier Gorge trailhead, with 1,040 feet of elevation gain. You can also hike to the Loch from the Bear Lake trailhead if no parking is available at Glacier Gorge. From Bear Lake trailhead, the route is 5.9 miles round trip with 1,050 feet of elevation gain. It’s a pretty comparable option, only adding a small distance to your overall hike. It takes an average of 3 hours to complete the hike to Loch Vale. Fun fact: Loch Vale translates to Lake Valley from the Gaelic language.
Loch Vale Hike Parking
Parking fills up quickly in both the Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake trailhead parking lots, particularly during the spring, summer, and fall. In winter the parking lots and trails are less busy, but to be on the safe side we recommend getting to Rocky Mountain National Park before 8 am.
Permits and Entry Fees for Loch Vale
The hike to the Loch is located on the Bear Lake Corridor, which means that between the months of May and October, you need a timed-entry permit from recreation.gov to enter the park at all, and a specific permit for the Bear Lake area.
Regardless of when you visit, you will need to pay a $35 entrance fee good for one vehicle for 7 days in order to enter Rocky Mountain National Park. Alternatively, if you have an annual park pass like America the Beautiful pass, you do not need to pay anything additional to enter the park. Note that even with an America the Beautiful pass, you will still need a timed-entry permit for Bear Lake road between May and October!
If you don’t succeed in getting a timed-entry permit that includes the Bear Lake corridor, you can also obtain a permit for the Rocky Mountain National Park hiker’s shuttle, which can pick you up at the Estes Park visitors center and drop you off at several trailheads within the park.
Are dogs allowed on the hike to Loch Vale?
No, dogs are not allowed on the trail to the Loch or on any trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s best to leave your pups at home when visiting RMNP since they are limited to parking areas and designated picnic spots, and must always be on a leash.
Loch Vale Trail Details
While you can complete this hike from either Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake parking areas, this post is going to focus on the hike to Loch Vale from Glacier Gorge trailhead. That’s the route we’ve done both times we’ve hiked to the Loch and the most popular route as well. You’ll still see all the same things if you’re hiking from Bear Lake trailhead, though! Only the distances will be slightly different.
Glacier Gorge Parking to Alberta Falls
The trail starts from the Glacier Gorge parking area and heads south while very gradually ascending 233 feet over 0.8 miles to Alberta Falls. The waterfall is 30 feet high and very picturesque. It’s understandably quite popular with photographers! This part of the trail is family-friendly and very popular, so you will probably see a lot of other hikers, including children, here. This makes for a less-serene waterfall-viewing experience, sure, but we love seeing so many people, especially kids, appreciating nature and creating meaningful experiences together outside! So, don’t sweat the crowds. They thin out after the falls anyway!
Alberta Falls to the Loch
The next stretch of the trail after Alberta Falls is a steady climb with several switchbacks leading the way to Loch Vale. To be honest – I find this part of the trail rather tedious. You do get some fantastic mountain views at times along the trail, but mostly it’s a bit of a slog for the next approximately 700 feet of elevation gain over the course of about 2 miles. The last half mile of your ascent will be the steepest. Don’t despair, it means you’re getting close!! Trust us – the views at the Loch are worth the effort in any season!
Loch Vale: Your Destination!
When you arrive at the Loch you’ll be greeted by one of the prettiest views in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. The trail officially curves around the right side of the lake, but there is also a trail to the left and we think this is the best vantage of the lake. On a still day with no wind, you can catch an amazing reflection in the Loch’s waters. Regardless, the towering peaks behind the lake make Loch Vale a wonderful sight to behold in any weather!
If you visit in winter, the lake may be frozen. If so, it’s very fun to walk out onto the ice – and a good photo op too! Just be sure to chat with a park ranger before setting off on your hike to ask about the ice density. There are tragic stories of people falling through the ice when it was too thin to traverse in Rocky Mountain’s Lakes!
Optional: Continue on to Sky Pond for a much longer and more challenging hike
If you’re up for a challenging hike, you can follow the trail along the right side of Loch Vale further to eventually reach Sky Pond. This is one of our favorite hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it’s only suitable for experienced hikers. We don’t recommend tagging Sky Pond onto your day spontaneously, so if this sounds up your alley, plan ahead by reading our blog post about what you need to know about hiking to this spectacular alpine lake.
What to Pack
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- Hiking Boots: I hiked to Loch Vale 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 wore 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!).
- 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.
- Sunglasses: I love these wooden frame sunglasses, so they are my go-to.
- Hiking pants: These hiking leggings are my favorite in winter. In summer, I usually hike in biker shorts or leggings.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- Camera: I always hike with my Sony a7iii. It’s a great full-frame camera for capturing all of our hiking memories!
- 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!
- Trekking poles: Many people like hiking with trekking poles to reduce the impact on the knees, especially going downhill. We don’t use ours often, but these Black Diamond Trail Back hiking poles are really popular!
- If you’re hiking to Loch Vale 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!
Guided Tours in Rocky Mountain National Park
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.
- The Historic Crag’s Lodge
- Silver Moon Hotel
- Best Western Plus Silver Saddle Inn
- 4 Seasons Inn on Fall River
- Hotel Estes
Click here to search for additional hotels in Estes Park or search below!
Final Thoughts on Hiking to Loch Vale
We hope this post helps you have an amazing time hiking to the Loch and that you find Loch Vale as beautiful as we do. If you love hiking, don’t miss our guides to Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, Chasm Lake, and Sky Pond. There are also dozens of ways to mix-and-match hikes and lakes in the Bear Lake Road Corridor and our guide gives you all the details you need to design your ideal hike. And, if you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer, a drive on Trail Ridge Road is a MUST!
Lastly, don’t forget to get your annual national parks pass and to make your timed-entry permit reservation.