Odessa Lake and Fern Lake

      by Gordon S. Novak Jr.

Odessa Lake and Fern Lake are lovely lakes in a high valley with dramatic peaks on the west side; these include the Little Matterhorn, a ridge extending eastward from the Continental Divide that looks like the Matterhorn when viewed end-on.

These lakes can be approached from the Fern Lake trailhead via The Pool, a hike of nearly 5 miles each way with considerable altitude gain. However, there is an easier way to experience this great hike using the hiker's best friend, the bus. By parking the car near the Cub Lake trailhead and taking the shuttle bus to Bear Lake, the hike becomes a one-way linear hike that is mostly downhill and has much less elevation gain.

A reasonably early start is needed for this hike. Turn right (west) from Bear Lake Road in Moraine Park across from the Moraine Park visitor center. This side road leads to the Moraine Park campground. Before reaching the campground, turn left and follow the road down into the valley of Moraine Park, continuing for about half a mile to the Cub Lake trailhead. The road becomes dirt and splits in half next to a privy with a little bit of parking; this is the place to catch the bus, and you can park here or farther along the road towards the Fern Lake trailhead. After parking, catch the shuttle bus and ride it up to Bear Lake.

From Bear Lake, take the trail to the right toward Flattop mountain. The trail rises as it heads north for half a mile to a trail junction; turn left at the junction, still heading toward Flattop. The trail rises steeply along the side of a ridge, now heading west. After another half mile, continue going straight as the Flattop trail branches off to the left. Now the trail curves around the base of Flattop and becomes more moderate in elevation gain until it becomes level at the top of the pass, near Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene.

In early season, this area may be covered by snow, and careful navigation will be needed. There may be a dozen elk trails across the snow in addition to the hiking trail, and choosing the right one is difficult. One time I followed the wrong trail and wound up bushwhacking along the ridge for a couple of miles before finally dropping down to Fern Lake.

Near Lake Helene, the trail turns north and descends into a new valley along the side of the ridge; it will be all downhill from here. This part of the trail is rocky and rather barren of trees, making it possible to see the dramatic scenery across the valley. The distinctive notch of Notchtop can be seen clearly.
About a mile from Lake Helene is Odessa Lake, a beautiful lake with the best view of the Little Matterhorn. The Little Matterhorn can be climbed from this area; it is third-class but quite exposed, so great care is needed.
A mile farther down along the trail is Fern Lake, a beautiful alpine lake with forested shores. A bridge over the outlet of Fern Lake is a good place to observe native cutthroat trout. There is a large cabin at Fern Lake, probably a left-over tourist lodge cabin, now used by the rangers and usually deserted and locked.
Below Fern Lake, the trail curves to the left, then has a few switchbacks leading to Fern Falls, a beautiful falls on the outlet creek. The trail continues past a privy to The Pool, a picturesque spot and a trail junction.
The Pool is getting close to the end of the hike. From here, you can go back either to the Fern Lake trailhead or via Cub Lake. If you parked at the Cub Lake trailhead, Cub Lake is only a little farther, although it will involve some elevation gain.

This is an outstanding hike that visits many attractions in a single trip that is mostly downhill, suitable for a family hike.

Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks