After snowshoeing to most of the well-known winter destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park — Dream & Emerald, Cub Lake, Mills Lake, The Loch, Gem Lake, Chasm Falls, Trail Ridge Road — it was time for something a little off the beaten path. Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene are not long snowshoes, but they’re not as popular so the trail isn’t easy to find in the winter.
The trail starts at the very popular Bear Lake trailhead. This is a big parking lot, but rangers say it can be filled by 10:30 a.m. on a winter weekend. To start this trek, walk over the bridge, turn right and follow the path to Bear Lake. Take a moment here to marvel at the view of the distinctive Hallett Peak wedge. 500 feet below Hallett and to the right is Flattop Mountain. You’ll see more of it later.
After a couple photos, continue on the path a short distance until you see the turnoff for Flattop/Odessa Lake/Fern Lake/Bierstadt Lake and turn right. From here, the trail begins to climb as it winds through a forest of Aspen trees. You’ll climb about 200 feet in the next third of a mile to another trail split. Watch carefully for this split. I’ve had other snowshoers tell me this missed it. If you continue straight on the trail, you’ll go to Bierstadt Lake. Turn left for Flattop, Fern and Odessa.
You’ll notice the signs don’t say Two Rivers Lake or Lake Helene. The lakes are on the trail to Odessa and Fern lakes.
The trail gets steeper now as it climbs up a hillside. When the trees to your left open up, you’ll get a great view of Glacier Gorge across the valley. That high cirque to the south holds Blue, Green and Frozen lakes and is topped by Longs Peak and a mountain range called the Keyboard of the Winds. After a climb, the trail mellows out a bit as it winds through the forest. There are a few spots in here where the trail hugs the side of a mountain. You’ll need to be very careful on snowshoes so you don’t go sliding. You’ll have quite a few of these sections ahead.
About a mile from the parking lot, you’ll come to your last trail split. The Flattop Mountain Trail goes to the left, but the Odessa/Fern Trail continues straight ahead. You’re now at 10,000 feet in elevation.
The trail continues to climb and contour the hillside for the next half mile. When the trees open up on your right side, you may get a glimpse of the Lumpy Range (those rocky mountains way out there) and even the town of Estes Park.
About 1.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll get to your first meadow. Up above you is Flattop Mountain, but the meadow is where many people lose the trail. There are no signs here, there are no markers in the trees, and the wind often blows snow over the path. At this point, you either need a GPS, good map skills or people who know the way. You’ll continue contouring around Flattop Mountain here and soon you’ll get a view of our destination — Notchtop Mountain. While we’re not climbing the mountain, the lakes we are going to are at the bottom of the peak. You’ll know Notchtop when you see it because it has a notch at the top.
The trail now switches back and forth between wide-open meadows (that can be windy) and forest. Be aware, the summer trail doesn’t go to Two Rivers Lake or Lake Helene, it goes slightly north of the lakes. Again, that’s why you’ll need a GPS to get to the lakes. Nearly every person I talked to on the trail didn’t make it to the lakes. That’s because the path was blown over by snow. You really have to know where you’re going.
When you arrive at Two Rivers Lake though, what a treat! This small, beautiful, frozen lake, near the base of Notchtop Mountain is in a very scenic cirque. That really thick area of snow to the left of Notchtop, between Notchtop and Flattop? That’s Ptarmigan Glacier and Ptarmigan Pass. You’ve now come about 2.8 miles and gained about 1200 feet in elevation.
You may be ready to turn around here, but don’t. If you cross the lake, or go around it, depending on conditions, Lake Helene is about a quarter mile west. Lake Helene is even more beautiful and it’s right at the base of Notchtop Mountain.
This is a good spot to turn around, but if you’re really adventurous, keep heading west toward Notchtop. Hike slightly up the snowy hill on the west side of the lake to the ridge overlooking the valley below Notchtop. Be very careful! From here, look for a frozen patch of ice below the mountain but above your elevation — that’s Grace Falls. Look down valley and you should spot Odessa Lake. It’s not recommended to go to Odessa Lake in the winter from this direction because of the avalanche danger.
When you’re done exploring, return the way you came.
Details: The snowshoe to Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene, depending on your path, is 6.2 miles roundtrip with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From Estes Park, go west on Elkhorn Ave/US 36 through town. Turn left on Moraine Avenue and take it about 3.7 miles to the Beaver Meadows entrance. Just past the Beaver Meadows entrance station, take the first left on Bear Lake Road. Take Bear Lake Road to the Bear Lake parking lot. The shuttle buses do not run in the winter.
Get admission fee, maps and other information on the Rocky Mountain National Park website. Find more Rocky Mountain National Park hikes, Colorado hiking trails and Colorado snowshoeing trails on this extensive list. Don’t miss any of my trip reports, find the “subscribe to author” button at the bottom of this page and follow me on Facebook.