I have written in past summers about our ride to Bierstadt Lake. It is one of my two favorite RMNP trails. (My other favorite is Ouzal Lake, which we will ride again this summer for sure.) The Bierstadt/Bear/Sprague Lakes loop offers a little bit of everything and a lot of incredible beauty.
Our park entry pass that morning was for the time slot of 8-10 AM. We aim for arriving at 8 AM. For us, that means getting up pretty early to get all of the critters fed and make the 50 minute drive to the park entrance. Additionally, there is usually a line that takes about 15 minutes to navigate before we finally enter the park. Another 10-15 minutes will pass before we arrive at the parking area.
It was a very cold morning when Alan headed out to feed horses. Poor Sadie was shivering! This was the middle of June, and the thermometer read somewhere around 50 degrees. However, the wind was horrendous and it felt much, much colder. For once, we didn’t drop the trailer windows so that the horses could heat up their space and Sadie could get warm!
The challenges of Park & Ride
As I have mentioned previously, we are limited as to where we can park to access the trails. Once again, we parked at the Park & Ride located right across from the Glacier Basin Campground. Thus far, we have been the only horse trailer in the parking lot. We line up next to RMNP buses and numerous RVs. While we are tacking up, it is common for there to be bus air brakes going off all around us.
After donning our heavy coats, gloves, and ear warmers, we mounted up and headed towards the trail that declared “No horses beyond this point!” Again, as I have previously mentioned, there are no connector trails that are listed as horse-friendly that provide access to the trails we want to ride. When we have done this route in the past, we take a human connector trail to the horse-friendly Bierstadt trailhead.
The trail goes a short distance and then splits into two. The northern one goes directly to Bierstadt, but once again isn’t horse-friendly. Before we reached the split, we encountered one woman that commented, “I didn’t think horses were allowed on this trail?” She was just curious, not bothered by it. We explained our dilemma.
A little farther on, when we were on the rarely used lower connector trail, we encountered a couple. They were the only people we saw on this connector trail. The man was not a happy camper that we were on a “no-horse trail.” Once again, we explained our problem. He was not impressed. We continued on…
Heading up towards the switchbacks
Once we reach the Bierstadt trailhead, we are “legal”. A large group of YMCA kid campers were gathering and preparing to head up the same trail we planned to take. They left ahead of us because, of course, I had recycled coffee that needed to be addressed…
The switchbacks start fairly quickly after heading up the trail. All of the YMCA kids had to find some place to perch as we rode by. I was riding Sadie again because the switchback section of this trail is not a great place to be on a squirrelly horse. Since it was so windy and chilly and she can be kind of a butt on a good day, we decided I’d be on her. She did fine, although I had Kadeen in front of us so she was limited in her ability to charge forward!
I didn’t take any photos on the switchbacks this time. I was wearing gloves, and it was cold and windy, and I decided I’d better pay attention to my horse! This is a photo from an early morning ride in a past year, but the scenery is still the same…
A previously unseen view of the lake
Once you get past the switchbacks, it is very easy. It doesn’t take long to get to the trail that branches to the right, taking you to Bierstadt Lake. There is a hitching rack near the lake and a sign that says, “No horses beyond this point.” For whatever reason, I took that to mean that horses were not allowed to ride the trail that circles the lake. I was wrong.
With the help of COTREX, I realized that we could ride around the lake… so for the first time ever, we did. The feature photo was taken from the perspective of the other side. The only snow we encountered was a little patch on that back section of trail. Kadeen was quite happy that he didn’t have to walk through it.
As we were leaving the lake and preparing to resume our ride, we encountered the YMCA group again. A good ten minutes was spent with a dozen kids pressing around the horses and admiring Kadeen’s willingness to kiss me again and again to get a treat!
The switchbacks are one reason this is one of my favorite RMNP trails. The other part is the ride down to Bear Lake, the wooden bridges over rushing water, and beautiful Sprague Lake. The Bear Lake parking lot is always a zoo, with lots of hikers and tourists on the trail in that area.
Impassable stock trails
However, the trail from Bierstadt to Bear Lake has very low traffic. We didn’t see a soul once we left Bierstadt. Before you get all of the way down to the Bear Lake parking lot, there is a stock trail that splits off. When we tried to ride it last year, it was impassable. We hoped this year would be different… but it wasn’t.
We did manage to make our way down to the parking lot on the stock “trail”… but it required dismounting and some serious bushwacking. Alan was in front on Kadeen. He came upon a large downed tree with exposed roots. Kadeen eyed it carefully and then picked his way over it. Sadie wasn’t having it, so she decided she’d circumvent it. However, there really wasn’t flat, visible, good footing in the route that she chose before I could redirect her. Still, we made it!
When we attempted to pick up the trail on the other side of the parking lot, we very quickly encountered a downed tree. We had little choice but to return to the parking lot and walk along the sidewalk until we reached the start of the human trail.
There were several rangers in the midst of many tourists. We explained our struggle, and one ranger quickly noted that she had already put wheels in motion to clear the stock trails. She gave me her phone number and asked us to let her know if we found any other issues on our way back to our trailer. We also discussed our parking problem. She promised to look into it.
The horses were wonderful as they stood on the pavement, surrounded by people and buses and chaos. The trail we take on to Sprague Lake is heavily used. Both horses do great when it comes to sharing the trail with hikers. Backpacks make people look like bears… it takes some acclimation for the horses.
“Are those private horses?”
By the time we stopped at a picnic area by Sprague Lake, it had thankfully warmed up a little bit. We were eating a snack when a livery guide and a single guest rode by. The guide was immediately busy coaching the guest on how to keep her horse from coming to visit our horses! The guide was quite surprised to see private horses in the park. Alan said it was obvious they weren’t livery horses… no sign of draft blood! The liveries have nothing like our dainty Arabians.
An alternative parking option
The ranger who wanted a report on the trails had suggested to us that we inquire about parking at the Glacier Creek Stables. When I rode RMNP in 2013 and 2014, I did park there, but that was because I frequently rode with the owner of the livery. I hadn’t renewed that friendship or pursued that option since my return to the area.
Nevertheless, we did stop and ask about that option. We were given permission to park there in the future, so we are quite excited about that. After a little poking around, we found the connector trail that would take us to the Glacier Basin Campground again. This time we rode through the campground without interference, crossed Bear Lake Road, and returned to our trailer.
My GPS died about 2/3 of the way into our ride, but again, with the help of COTREX, I was able to recreate it. We covered about 11 miles if you add in our little wanderings as we figured out which way to go.
I’ll wrap this up with a little video of the highlights of the day. Check out the whitecaps on the lake, the trees rocking back and forth in the wind, and a settled-down mare crossing a very loud river. As I was filming the whitecaps, the wind would buffet me and the phone would wiggle…
Next week, the Grand Canyon series starts!
I will be starting my series describing our epic adventure rafting down the Grand Canyon. I want to write it up while it is fresh, and I hope to include lots of interesting facts about the Canyon itself. Plus, I have LOTS of photos! It will be at least 5 posts, if not one or two more.
This will not be a horse-related series of posts. However, of the 8 million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year, only 29,000 will see it from the perspective of the Colorado River. That is less than .4% of all visitors.
I have already had one horseman tell me that rafting the Colorado River is on his bucket list. He has ridden some of the trails with his own horses. We did encounter a mule train, and at the end of the series I will provide whatever information I can find about riding options, both public and private. If you have any interest in seeing what it is like to raft down the river and see one of the most beautiful places on earth, check out the blog.
I also want to once again call your attention to the Horses of Gili. As I was completing this blog, I saw a post from them where they had rescued a goat that was all but dead. I know there are many, many groups out there that do amazing work. There are lots of places to make charitable donations. But I have to say, I think this group makes an absolutely incredible difference on their tiny island. If you are looking to make a difference in the life of an animal, start with a donation to them.