5 Lake Loop, Bear Lake Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

5 Lake Loop - 12.5 miles

Bear Lake Trailhead

Rounding Joe Mills Mountain on the descent to Odessa Lake

Rounding Joe Mills Mountain on the descent to Odessa Lake

Round-Trip Length: 12.5 miles (includes all destinations)
Start-End Elevation: 9,475' - 10,662' (max elevation on loop)
Elevation Change: +1,187' net elevation gain (+3,336' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Strenuous
Dogs Allowed: No
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: Yes
Related Trails:

5 Lake Loop - 12.5 Miles Round-Trip

Bear Lake, Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, Fern Lake and Cub Lake can be linked to form a 12.5 mile loop through Rocky Mountain's upper-montane and subalpine zones. Miles of diverse forests, meadows and streams connect the five lakes. 

Trail Map | Photo Gallery

Clockwise travel is preferable for reaching the highest and most scenic points before afternoon storms develop, and for favorable lighting throughout the day.

This is a challenging route with several up-down sections, especially between Cub Lake and Bear Lake on the final third of the loop. The following description travels clockwise:

The trail rises over Bear Lake through young aspen to the Odessa Lake - Mill Creek Basin split (.45 miles : 9,725') and veers left toward Odessa Lake to begin clockwise travel on the loop.

It climbs steadily to the Flattop Mountain Trail split (1.0 mile : 9,965'), past which grades steepen in a thick pine forest. The trail pushes steeply to the Sourdough Campsite spur (2.65 miles : 10,585') and eases near treeline in the upper valley.

The trail crests and dips to the first of several unmarked spurs (3.0 miles : 10,610') that thread patchy krummholz to the north shore of Lake Helene (3.1 miles : 10,580').

Lake Helene fills a shallow bench on the east slope of Flattop Mountain (12,324'), Ptarmigan Point (12,363') and Notchtop Mountain (12,129'). Retrace your steps to the main trail, which makes a sharp hairpin turn (north) around and down the west flank of Joe Mills Mountain.

Knobtop Mountain (12,331') and Little Matterhorn (11,586') come into view as the trail runs across open talus sto the Odessa Lake access spur (4.1 miles : 10,035'). Bear left and follow the outlet stream to Odessa Lake (4.25 miles : 10,055'). Odessa Lake's east shore is cluttered, but those with time can find social trails leading to more open areas.

Return to the main trail (4.4 miles) and resume a fast, nondescript descent to the east shore of Fern Lake (5.2 miles : 9,503'). Anglers will enjoy Fern Lake's plentiful greenback cutthroat trout, and over-nighters one of its 5 deep-wood campsites.

The trail bends NE past Fern Lake and down steep, winding switchbacks to The Pool - Cub Lake Trail junction (7.25 miles). Note the introduction of aspen, oak, maple and alder in these lower riparian woodlands.

Bear SE on The Pool-Cub Lake Trail toward Mill Creek Basin, which continues through a diverse forest to the Cub Lake access spur - Mill Creek Trail junction (8.15 miles : 8,710').

Cub Lake lake is visible from this point, and a few steps downhill lead to its aspen and berry-ringed shore (8.35 miles : 8,624').

Return to the junction and turn south on what is now the Mill Creek Trail. Here the nearly 5 mile, 2000' leisurely descent ends and the route's most demanding climb begins up the south wall over Cub Lake.

The Mill Creek Trail climbs 750' in just .8 miles, crests and drops to a level clearing on the north side of Mill Creek Basin and the 1st of two spurs for Hollowell Park (9.95 miles : 9,010'). The trail skirts aspen-lined meadows and hops Mill Creek to the 2nd Hollowell Park spur and Mill Creek Basin backcountry campsite (10.2 miles : 9,005').

A methodical climb resumes to the Upper Mill Creek Basin backcountry campsite (10.4 miles : 9,125'). Follows signs for Bear Lake.

The grade steepens a final time to the first of two spurs for Bierstadt Lake (10.85 miles : 9,395') and moderates under a thick canopy to the second (11.35 miles : 9,605'). Look for deer, elk, bear, grouse, fox, coyote and hare in this quiet, richly appointed spruce-fir forest.

Travel eases to the Odessa Lake - Mill Creek Basin Trail junction (12.05 miles : 9,725') to complete the loop. Follow signs back to Bear Lake Trailhead (12.5 miles : 9,475').

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N40 18.716 W105 38.761 — 0.0 miles : Bear Lake Trailhead
  • N40 19.051 W105 38.638 — .45 miles : Mill Creek Basin junction - begin loop
  • N40 18.987 W105 39.185 — 1.0 miles : Flattop Mountain Trail junction
  • N40 19.357 W105 40.359 — 2.25 miles : Trail levels across scree field
  • N40 19.383 W105 40.732 — 2.65 miles : Sourdough Backcountry campsite spur
  • N40 19.238 W105 41.142 — 3.15 miles : Lake Helene
  • N40 20.024 W105 40.975 — 4.1 miles : Odessa Lake access spur
  • N40 19.901 W105 41.058 — 4.25 miles : Odessa Lake
  • N40 20.286 W105 40.546 — 5.2 miles : Fern Lake
  • N40 20.841 W105 40.073 — 6.35 miles : Fern Falls
  • N40 20.963 W105 39.580 — 7.25 miles : Mill Creek Basin Trail junction
  • N40 20.797 W105 38.840 — 8.15 miles : Cub Lake access spur
  • N40 20.792 W105 38.630 — 8.35 miles : Cub Lake
  • N40 20.415 W105 38.490 — 9.35 miles : Crest hill - begin steep descent
  • N40 20.179 W105 37.899 — 9.95 miles : Hollowell Park spur #1
  • N40 20.089 W105 37.871 — 10.2 miles : Mill Creek Basin campsite spur
  • N40 19.963 W105 37.989 — 10.4 miles : Upper Mill Creek Basin campsite spur
  • N40 19.715 W105 37.970 — 10.85 miles : Bierstadt Lake access spur #1
  • N40 19.481 W105 38.323 — 11.35 miles : Bierstadt Lake access spur #2
  • N40 19.051 W105 38.638 — 12.05 miles : Mill Ceek Basin junction - end loop
  • N40 18.716 W105 38.761 — 12.5 miles : Bear Lake Trailhead

Worth Noting

  • Lake Helene is partially concealed by krummholz, and its access spurs are unmarked and easy to miss. Anticipate the lake approach; if you turn sharply north and begin going downhill, you've gone too far.

  • The large glacier between Flattop Mountain and Ptarmigan Point is the origin of Fern Creek. Lake Helene also drains into these headwaters, which can be seen flowing in the deep valley below into Odessa Lake.

  • Clockwise travel is recommended for reaching the loop's highest elevations early on, and favorable lighting patterns. Anticipate changing weather conditions throughout the day and carry versatile layers.

Camping and Backpacking Information

Permits are required for all backcountry overnight stays in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Fires are not permitted within Rocky Mountain National Park. Camp safely away from dead trees, as close as possible to the metal arrowhead posted at each site.

Red arrowheads on trees provide additional guidance to each campsite from the main trail. Distances are given from clockwise travel on the loop as described above, but may vary slightly by individual route. The following campsites are located long the 5 Lake Loop:

Sourdough Backcountry Campsite (10,628')

  • There is one designated site located 2.65 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead, 60 yards north of the main trail on the south flank of Joe Mills Mountain. The site is located in a level spruce bench. One bear box is available. Water is available from the North Fork of Mill Creek, Lake Helene and Two Rivers Lake.

Odessa Lake Backcountry Campsite (10,065')

  • There are two designated sites located 4.1 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead in a spruce-fir stand east of Odessa Lake on the north side of its outlet stream. The sites are located just over the log bridge crossing of this stream. One bear box is available. Water is available from Odessa Lake and its outlet stream.

Fern Lake Backcountry Campsite (9,530')

  • There's one group site and four individual sites located 5.1 miles and 5.3 miles from Bear Lake Trailhead, respectively. Both are located in a mixed pine forest on the NE and NW sides of Fern Lake, respectively. Each has access to a bear box + privy. Water is available from Fern Lake and its inlet - outlet streams.

Cub Creek Backcountry Campsite (8,600')

  • There are two designated sites located 8.4 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead in a mixed pine forest on the south side of Cub Creek, about 250' below the east end of Cub Lake. Each has access to a bear box. Water is available year-round from Cub Lake and Cub Creek.

Mill Creek Basin Backcountry Campsite (9,005')

  • There are two designated sites located 10.2 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead in an aspen-spruce stand at the south end of the basin. The sites are located on the west side of the trail, north of Mill Creek. A bear-resistant food canister is required. Water is available year-round from Mill Creek.

Upper Mill Creek Basin Backcountry Campsite (9,125')

  • There are two designated sites located 10.4 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead in a lodgepole pine stand south of Mill Creek. One site is located right off the main trail just over the access bridge; the other is deeper in the woods. A bear-resistant food canister is required. Water is available from Mill Creek.

Fishing Information

A valid Colorado fishing license is required for all persons 16 years + to fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. No other permit is necessary, however special regulations may exist for each location. It's your responsibility to know and obey them.

Regulations may change at anytime. Special restrictions may be put in place above and beyond what's listed here. Contact the Park before your trip for current information.

  • Greenback Cutthroat Trout may never be kept. Catch and release only. Return greenbacks immediately to the water. No bait or worms are allowed in catch-and-release waters.
  • Certain waters in the park with restored native fish populations are open year round during daylight hours, except as indicated. Use barbless hooks only. Any and all fish species taken must be immediately returned to the water unharmed.
  • Method of Capture: Each person shall use only one hand-held rod or line. A 'second rod stamp' is not honored in park waters. Only artificial lures or flies with one (single, double, or treble) hook with a common shank may be used. "Artificial flies or lures" means devices made entirely of, or a combination of, materials such as wood, plastic, glass, hair, metal, feathers, or fiber, designed to attract fish.
  • This does not include: (a) any hand malleable material designed to attract fish by the sense of taste or smell; (b) any device to which scents or smell attractants have been externally applied; (c) molded plastic devices less than 1.5 inches long; (d) foods; (e) traditional organic baits such as worms, grubs, crickets, leeches, minnows, and fish eggs; and (f) manufactured baits such as imitation fish eggs, dough baits, or stink baits. Fly fishers may utilize a two hook system, where one hook is used as an attractant.
  • While in possession of any fishing equipment, bait for fishing (insects, fish eggs, minnows, or other organic matter) or worms is prohibited. Children 12 years of age or under, however, may use worms or preserved fish eggs in all park waters open to fishing except those designated as catch-and release areas.
  • Use of lead sinkers (or other lead fishing materials) is strongly discouraged.

Rules and Regulations

  • A $20 Day Use Fee is required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park (or $30 for a 7 Day Pass).
  • Dogs are not permitted on hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Horses are permitted on the 5 Lake Loop, but not on the Odessa Lake access spur. There are hitchracks for horses at the spur junction.

Directions to Trailhead

Bear Lake Trailhead is located 8.9 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station on Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Just past the Beaver Meadows entrance station, turn left onto Bear Lake Road. The Bear Lake Trailhead is located at the end of this road. Additional parking and alternative access can be found at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This will add an additional 1 mile roundtrip to the hike.

Contact Information

Rocky Mountain National Park
Visitor Information:

Backcountry Office:

Campground Reservations:

Emergency Dispatch:

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


"Don't know if I can ask a question on here, but I'm going to anyway. I wanted to do this hike but was reading that instead of doing a full loop, we could end at Fern Lake and it would only be 9.5 miles. Is this correct. Also i read that by starting at Bear lake, this is a mostly down hill hike vs startting at Fern Lake. Thank you so much for any help/ advise you can give. "
Nansi m  -  Nj  -  Date Posted: July 25, 2013
"HI Mikella, Thanks for your note. We often do the 5 Lake Loop as a longer day hike so depending on how strong of a hiker you are, the loop is certainly a great 2 day backpacking adventure. For specific backcountry campsites along the way, see the Camping section above and then call the park to check availability. Enjoy! It's one of the best loops in the entire park. Dave"
 -   -  Date Posted: April 30, 2012
"Hi Protrails, I was wondering. Can the 5 lake loop trail be done in 2 days. Are there campsites along the trail?"
mikella  -  Philly  -  Date Posted: April 30, 2012
"Hi James - Thanks for your inquiry. It's always advisable to call the Park before your trip, as they'll have the latest trail conditions on this popular trail corridor. From experience, I'd anticipate snow on the approach to Lake Helene (the route's highest point), and on the descent to Odessa (a north facing slope). Otherwise, I'd expect fairly clear passage. This trail system sees heavy use year-round, so what snow remains will likely be packed and traversable. "
 -   -  Date Posted: April 25, 2012
"Hi Protrails, I am a local of Colorado but not familiar with this area. The 2012 snow season has been terrible and I was wondering if late may is too early in the season to do this trail? Thanks"
James  -  United States  -  Date Posted: April 25, 2012


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