Out and Back
Earlier in the month of June 2020, I hiked the Cub Lake Trail Loop, which passes through the heart of the 2012 Fern Lake Fire zone. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape and the many species of plants that are emerging and thriving in just eight years after the fire. On June 20, 2020, I decided to return to the fire zone and hike to Fern Lake.
The Fern Lake Fire started in Rocky from an illegal campfire on October 9, 2012, in steep and rugged Forest Canyon. The high winds, steep terrain, and beetle-killed trees posed danger to firefighters, meaning there was limited opportunity to fight the fire from the ground. Firefighters from across the country battled this fire for two months.
The Fern Lake Trail is a moderately rated, 9 mile out and back trail with an elevation gain of 1,453 feet and located in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado that features several waterfalls and the lake. This well maintained trail conditions meets up with other trails to Cub Lake, Spruce Lake, Odessa Lake and Lake Helene on the hike to Fern Lake. This moderate trail follows the Big Thompson River and Fern Creek to a heavily wooded lake framed by the Little Matterhorn (11,586′), Knobtob Mountain (12,331′), Gabletop Mountain (11,939′) and Castle Rock.
Take a look at my nearby Strava.com file and YouTube video from my hike on June 20, 2020. The hike took me about 5:45 hours after making numerous stops for photos. My actual moving time was closer to 4:45 hours. I arrived at the Fern Lake Trailhead (Waypoint: 40.354850, -105.631133; elevation: 8,165 feet) on June 20, 2020 around 8:30 AM and the parking lot was already nearly full.
I arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park around 6:45 am, but I spent a good amount of time enjoying the sunrise in Moraine Park on the way to the trailhead. It was a cool, frosty morning and I needed a coat. It had rained the night before, but on this beautiful morning, the sun was shining. I was enchanted by the elk herd peacefully grazing on the frost covered meadow grasses.
The Fern Lake Trail undulates gently for along the Big Thompson River through a mixed forest of aspens, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, cottonwoods and willows, plus a variety of wildflowers in the spring and summer. The trail alternates between forest and a few open areas that provide some pretty good views of the Big Thompson Valley. It’s 1.7 miles to The Pool and the Cub Lake – Fern Lake Trail junction (Waypoint: 40.349433, -105.659767; elevation: 8,365′).
I haven’t fly fished in several years, but I did see several nice fishing spots on this portion of the trail. About 1.2 miles from the trailhead hikers will pass through Arch Rocks, a couple of house-sized rocks that presumably landed on this spot when a large boulder fell from the cliffs above and split apart.
At 1.7 miles you’ll reach the Cub Lake Trail junction. This also marks the spot where Fern Creek meets the Big Thompson River. The Pool, a churning whirlpool below the turbulent confluence of Spruce Creek, Fern Creek, and Big Thompson River. The Pool is a popular area for picnics and fishing. Many hikers will combine the Fern Lake Trail with the Cub Lake Trail to create a relatively easy loop hike. When snow blocks the higher elevations in the park, the areas around Cub Lake and The Pool also become popular destinations for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
After The Pool, the trail starts to climb steadily for 2.65 miles through the Fern Lake Fire zone and beetle-marred forest to Fern Falls (Waypoint: 40.34767, -105.667850; Elevation: 8,855′). The falls give off a heavy mist during peak runoff, which can be nice on a warm day in the summertime.
Fern Lake (Waypoint: 40.338033, -105.675817; elevation: 9,503′) is located 3.9 miles from Fern Lake Trailhead. The lake offers great views of several nearby mountain peaks, including Little Matterhorn (11,586′), Knobtob Mountain (12,331′), Gabletop Mountain (11,939′) and Castle Rock. Cross the bridge to small grassy areas on the eastern shore. There are several trails to secluded areas that are great for lunch along the waterfront.
Odessa Lake is located about a mile and 500-feet up from Fern Lake and worth the trip. If you are up for an extended adventure, you can take the unimproved trail to Spruce Lake where there are fewer people. Another option for those of for a difficult trail is to hike further up the drainage to the headwaters of the Big Thompson River at Loomis Lake, which is in a cirque by Gabletop Mountain.
Here are a few worthwhile notes. The bugs are out, so bring bug spray. The trail very rocky, so hiking boots are recommended.