About Alberta Falls
Alberta Falls is a very popular waterfall near both Bear Lake and the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
Flowing on the rushing Glacier Creek, it drained a variety of alpine lakes that were each hiking destinations in their own right.
As you can see in the photo above, this waterfall had a modest size (about 30ft over its main drop) followed by additional cascades rushing past large boulders.
During our late July 2020 visit, we wondered why this part of Rocky Mountain National Park was so crowded even with COVID-19 restrictions that limited visitor numbers in the reserve.
After all, this waterfall may be pretty in its own right, but we figured that it certainly wasn’t the sole reason for this area’s popularity.
Even the nearby Bear Lake was scenic and very easy to visit (taking only a half-mile to go around the lake), but it too, couldn’t be the reason why this area was so busy, could it?
Well, it turned out that in addition to the waterfall and the scenic Bear Lake, this area was also the starting point for a variety of alpine lake hikes of varying difficulty and length.
As a result, it offered a variety of options from the short 1.6-to-2.2-mile hike encompassing Bear Lake and Alberta Falls that I’m describing on this page to the much longer ones right up to and beyond the Continental Divide.
Among the popular destinations include Mills Lake (5.6 miles RT), Black Lake (10 miles RT), The Loch (6 miles RT), Sky Pond (9.8 miles RT), Emerald Lake (3.6 miles RT), and others right up to and beyond the Continental Divide..
Logistical Gymnastics in the Busy Season
Due to the popularity of this area when we visited this waterfall in late July 2020, we had to do some logistical gymnastics.
What we ended up doing was letting my wife drop me off at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, and then we’d re-unite at Bear Lake.
I figured that with the time it would take to do this hike and reach the Bear Lake shuttle stop, both my wife and daughter ought to make it there via the park and ride by the time I was finished.
But alas, the line at the park and ride shuttle was so long that they didn’t even make it to Bear Lake until 90 minutes after my start at Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
That should give you an idea of how crazy busy this part of Rocky Mountain National Park can get!
There were a handful of rangers at the entrance to the parking lot at Bear Lake making sure that any drivers testing their luck would have to turn around there (even prohibiting drop-offs).
However, it appeared that drop-offs at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead were tolerated on the weekday that we visited.
Nevertheless, after chatting with the ranger working at that trailhead, he told me that this parking lot was full before 7am, which meant that we would have had to start before sunrise from Boulder (about 1.5 hours drive) to park here.
Alberta Falls Trail Description
From the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, I followed a well-developed 0.4-mile stretch of trail that briefly descended then crossed Chaos Creek then ascended to a pair of trail junctions.
The first trail junction was for the Glacier Creek Trail and the other one was for the Glacier Gorge Trail, which I followed going east towards Alberta Falls.
The Glacier Gorge Trail pretty much had a gentle climb as it made its way about 0.3-mile towards Glacier Creek where I can finally hear the sounds of rushing water beneath the outcrop there.
Then, the trail veered to the right and pretty much followed Glacier Creek upstream for the remaining quarter-mile before reaching the signposted Alberta Falls.
The best viewing spot that I found was from the banks of the rushing creek just below the sign, but I also managed to scramble closer to the brink of the falls for a scenic downstream view across the forest towards mountains rising above the trees.
This was my turnaround point as the continuation of the Glacier Gorge Trail climbed more steeply from here.
Had I continued, I had the option of following the Glacier Gorge Trail to Glacier Falls and Mills Lake or even Ribon falls and Black Lake.
I also could have gone in a different direction towards Loch Lake, Sky Pond, or even the Andrews Glacier.
Moreover, I could have made a loop hike out of this by reaching Lake Haiyaha before returning via Nymph Lake and ultimately ending at Bear Lake.
Hiking from Alberta Falls to Bear Lake
After having my fill of Alberta Falls, I decided to go back the way I came, then continue towards Bear Lake.
This 1.2-mile hike descended back towards the junction with the Glacier Gorge Trailhead spur trail before climbing towards the trail junctions near Bear Lake.
It was only about a 400-500ft walk between the Bear Lake Shuttle Stop to the first lookout across Bear Lake, which was already very nice as it featured reflections of knobby mountains as well as the short loop trail around the lake.
Because it seemed like most of the Park and Ride passengers disembarked at the Bear Lake Shuttle Stop, it was noticeably busier here than it was throughout the Alberta Falls hike (which was saying something).
It seemed like many of the people either went towards Emerald Lake or at least Lake Haiyaha, or did the hike that I did in reverse towards Alberta Falls.
Alberta Falls resides in the Rocky Mountain National Park near the city of Estes Park in Larimer County, Colorado. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
Alberta Falls is best accessed from either the Glacier Gorge Trailhead or the Bear Lake Shuttle Stop. Given the Park and Ride system in place during the busy season for this section of Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s pretty easy to start in one trailhead and finish at the other.
That said, in order to reach the Park and Ride (or either of these trailheads if you get a very early start), you first have to reach Estes Park, which is the gateway town to the main entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Note that while it’s also possible to drive across the Continental Divide over the Trail Ridge Road from Grand Lake, they’ve instituted a reservation system where you won’t be able to enter without a pre-booking.
Thus, I’ve only chosen to describe the driving directions from Estes Park given the COVID-19 measures that have taken place here.
As for reaching Estes Park from any of the foothill or basin cities further to the east like Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, and even Denver, it’s pretty straightforward to use your favorite routing app or software to get from city to city.
Once in Estes Park, we then followed the signs, which took us on the US36 through downtown Estes Park and ultimately another 4 miles to the Beaver Meaders Entrance Station.
This was where they checked for reservations along with entrance fees or passes.
Beyond the entrance station, we then continued another quarter-mile before turning left onto Bear Lake Road.
We then drove another 5 miles towards the signed turnoff for the Park and Ride across from the Glacier Basin Campground.
This was where it made sense to leave the car and queue up for the shuttle to go the rest of the way to Bear Lake or the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
If you choose to continue driving past the Park and Ride turnoff, it was a little over 3 miles to reach the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and over another mile to reach the Bear Lake Trailhead.
The drive between Estes Park and the Bear Lake Trailhead would take around 30 minutes though it would likely take longer than that due to traffic in Estes Park as well as entrance station queues.
For context, Estes Park was about 37 miles (about an hour drive without delays) northwest of Boulder, 41 miles (over an hour drive) west of Fort Collins, 47 miles (about 90 minutes drive with tolls required) northeast of Grand Lake, 65 miles (about 1.5 hours drive without delays) northwest of Denver, and 173 miles (under 2 hours drive) southwest of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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