HIKE DATE: 10/16/15
STARTING ELEVATION: 8,121’
ELEVATION GAIN: 690’
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy-Moderate. We saw many children, senior citizens, and hipsters in flip-flops on the trail. (Flip-flops NOT recommended.)
TRIP LENGTH: 4.6 miles to the lake and back. Completing the full loop around on Fern Lake Trail will take you about 5.8 miles (see map below the video).
TRAIL HIGHLIGHTS WE SHOT ON OUR GOPRO:
PROS: Great first time hike in the Rockies. It’s easy to get to if you’re coming from the east side of the Rockies and it’s just a short drive from Estes Park. The lake is a good turnaround point if you’re not used to the elevation, and there are trail extension options if you feel up to it, making this a good option if you are entertaining out of town guests.
GETTING STARTED: If your goal is to get to Cub Lake, you’re going to want to start out at the Cub Lake trailhead parking lot and take the trail that starts by crossing the bridge pictured to the right. This will start you out heading South on Cub Lake Trail. Once you get to Cub Lake you can turn around and head back the way you came, which makes about a 4.6 mile journey. Many people commenting on other hiking sites have complained that this trail is “much longer than 4.6 miles!!” These folks likely hit Cub Lake and continued on the full loop that hooks up with Fern Lake trail and comes back to the Cub Lake parking lot. Or they accidentally drove too far, started at the Fern Lake trailhead and did the loop counter-clockwise. (We ran into some folks who did this and were not happy about it.) Read your maps people! When folks talk about the “Cub Lake Trail” they mean just going to the lake and heading straight back. Fern Lake Trail is awesome, but it’s not the one most people are looking for.
OUR TRIP: We picked this trip out of our new book, “The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes”, which is awesome. We just moved to Colorado so we didn’t want to push ourselves before we were fully acclimated. We were looking for a trail that started at a modest elevation and wasn’t too long but had options to push the distance if we felt up to it. I also wanted something with some tree coverage, because ASPENS! Everyone is always talking about how great the Aspens are, and I’ve only gotten to see a small taste of what they have to offer since we moved to Colorado. The book sealed the deal with a beautiful photo of an Aspen grove.
Our trusty guide book warned, “Don’t be surprised if a car or two with out-of-state plates pulls over and the driver asks if you’ve seen any elk.” Well, we didn’t have that problem. There were elk EVERYWHERE. We saw Elk on a museum lawn in Estes Park, we saw elk in fields, and (spoiler alert) there were elk blocking the exit when we were trying to leave the park. Late fall is rutting season, so if you want to see an Elk at this time of year all you have to do is look to your left or right. You will see an elk. Or 50.
We arrived at the park around 9:30am, and it was a brisk 45 degrees or so. You’ll want to bring layers regardless of the time of year, but start packing that down! Brrrr… It was nice and warm while we were moving, but when we stopped it was not so. That being said, I’m also glad I wore long pants (these zip off’s are great!)
WHAT’S THE TRAIL LIKE? The trail starts out nice and flat. In the late fall (i.e. now) there are supposed to be tons of rutting elk in the field to the left of the trail. We saw an elk here, but it was by itself and had no one to rut with. He seemed pretty cool though, just hangin’ out chillin. As we continued along the path there were some ups and downs but nothing to write home about. There are some uneven stone steps but they don’t last long. Do you remember that first hike your parents took you on when you were a little kid? It seemed like a big hike to you back then but maybe you returned as an adult and you were like “psssssh, THIS hill??” That’s the difficulty level of this hike. Small unathletic children will be slightly challenged.
If you do a google image search for “Cub Lake Trail” you will find about 8,000 pictures of this:
I was wondering why this was virtually the only image google had to offer up, that is, until we got there. The trail comes up to the lake very suddenly, and there is exactly one viewing spot and it is from right here.
This bears repeating: If you are a flip-flop wearing hipster or someone who simply prefers being indoors and was dragged out to do this hike, TURN AROUND NOW and go back the way you came. You’ve reached the end of the Cub Lake trail! You are done! Yay! The next part isn’t any more difficult, but it does add some miles and it will be LONGER to keep going, and you are at higher elevation and you are a sensitive little thing and that’s OKAY. But if the thought of seeing more beautiful scenery makes you all tingly inside, and you are wearing sensible shoes, by all means keep going. We did!
After a hearty lunch of dried apples and disgusting granola, we decided to continue on from this point and head north/west to hit up the Fern Lake loop to get back to the car.
If you do choose to continue, you will be graced with….
The trail continues from the far end of the lake in the picture above, along the left (North) side of the lake, to this vantage point. This photo looks East, the way we came from, and when we turned around to continue West on the path we saw the gorgeous view of Sprague Mountain (photo to the right.) Note: If this paragraph containing cardinal directions was confusing to you, you’re one of the people who should have turned around when you hit Cub Lake.
The 2nd part of this hike went through a burned area and I felt bad for all the poor trees. It was still beautiful, and the amazing views of Sprague Mountain make it totally worth the whole trip. Despite 98% of the leaves having fallen off the Aspens already, which was incredibly disappointing to me, I couldn’t help but catch my breath at some of the views. Simply gorgeous.
Fern Lake Trail follows the Big Thompson River, and I suspect Andre knew this before we headed out because he brought his fishing gear with him. Despite the river being absolutely packed with fish, they just weren’t biting. We found a good looking spot about half way between where the Cub Lake & Fern Lake trails intersect, and the Fern Lake trailhead. I took the BEST NAP EVER on the riverbank while Andre tried in vain to pull one of the numerous fish out of the river. It appears they just DGAF.
The trail pops out at the trailhead for Fern Lake Trail (obviously), in a large parking lot. From here it’s a totally flat straight shot back to the Cub Lake trailhead. Although you’re walking on a road for about .5 miles, it’s still quite lovely. FYI there are numerous parking alcoves along this stretch, but MANY signs imploring you to not park on the sides of the road, so don’t do that.
FUN FACT! You will see a lot of fencing while in this area, and you will undoubtedly wonder what it is for. We learned from a handy sign that they are not enclosures, but EXclosures. It is fencing meant to exclude just the elk from certain areas they have damaged. The fencing doesn’t reach all the way to the ground, and it has larger holes than normal fences, all so that other animals can come and go freely through the fencing, including us humans. That’s right– there are gates you can enter, in case you ever wanted to know what it was like to live in a zoo.
We experienced a traffic jam while exiting the park. We just moved from Los Angeles so we’re used to traffic jams, but we couldn’t figure out why there would be one at the exit of a National Park, of all places. What on earth could it have been?
There was a herd of elk just hanging, blocking the gate while grazing. What ever happened to all this “rutting” we were hearing about??
These elk were like “hey what’s up? Mmmm… dry grass!”
IN CONCLUSION: This was a GREAT first hike in the Rockies. If you are the kind of person who is bothered by large numbers of touristy folks crampin’ your style, hit this trail up in the early morning hours. We didn’t see that many people before noon, but there were tons of folks post-nap stop. Personally I don’t mind, because these parks were established for everyone to enjoy, and there’s nothing I like seeing more than families bringing out their kids to have fun and learn about nature. But we also dig solo treks, and if that’s more your style then hit this one up in the morning or the off-season. We heard from a park regular that this area is virtually deserted in the winter, and it makes for some divine snow shoeing. We’ll definitely be back for that!
– C. Egli
PS. Be sure to head over to our facebook page for tons more pics!