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Cub Lake Loop

Rocky Mountain National Park

July 3rd, 2008

5.8 miles
760 vertical feet
Total Time: 7:00

Starting elevation
8084 feet
Max elevation
8749 feet

Rating: 8/10

Directions: From Estes Park, take Highway 36 into the park. Turn left onto Bear Lake Road, then turn right to head toward Moraine Park campground. Before you reach the campground, turn left to head to the Cub and Fern Lake Trailheads. You'll see the Cub Lake bus stop on your right as you enter the parking area.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

We arrived at the Cub Lake trailhead around 10am, and it was already almost full. It was probably full by 11am. If you have problems finding parking, you can park at the shuttle bus stop further on, or you can park back at the Park and Ride and take the shuttle. Another alternative, if you're staying in Moraine Park campground, is to simply walk down to the C-loop bus stop and take the shuttle. However, the bus only runs every half hour, so you'll have to wait.

Big Thompson River

We crossed the foot bridge at the start of the trail, then crossed another over the Big Thompson River which flows wide and gently at this point. The trail heads generally south and generally flat for the first half mile. Along the way are some great rocks perfect for little kids to climb on. If we let them, our two boys would have never got anywhere on the trail and just climbed there the whole day.

Moraine Park meadow

Heading down the trail

Grasses flowing in Moraine Park meadow

There are also wildflowers along the sides of the trail, here and throughout the entire hike. To the left are great views of the flowing grasses of the Moraine Park meadow. After a half mile is the first trail intersection. We turned right to head toward Cub Lake (the left fork follows the southern edge of the meadow). We now had views of snow-covered peaks to the west.

View of mountains looking west on the trail

View from the trail

Pond next to the trail

Wild flowers

Yellow Stonecrop (Amerosedum lanceolatum)

This part of the trail starts out in open forest and climbs gently, with occasional small ponds visible to the left. Eventually, however, the vegetation becomes thicker and the trail climbs steeper. It becomes steeper still as it passes through a beautiful fern-filled aspen grove. By this time we were ready for our lunch break, so we asked some oncoming hikers how far it was to the lake. They said about 15 minutes, though it probably took us closer to 20. After more steep climbing, the trail finally levels off and then heads into a clearing. There's a side trail to the left which heads to Cub Creek campground. It would be a great place for a stay if we were backpacking, but we were only day hiking, so we continued straight to the lake.

Aspen and fern forest

Taking a break on the steep trail

After that tough stretch of climbing, Cub Lake is very inviting. It is mostly filled with lily pads, except for the very center. The trail traces the northern shore of the lake, about 50 feet away. There is dense forest along this shore, and plenty of good spots to sit down and have a picnic or a nap. Even though there were other groups of hikers at the same time we were there, we didn't notice them much because of the dense forest. It was a stark contrast to Alberta Falls and Dream Lake.

Duck swimming in Cub Lake

Lilies on Cub Lake

While we were there (and we were there for over an hour), we saw a duck swimming in the water, and he came right up to us, probably expecting a handout (sorry, buddy, can't feed the wildlife). Also showing no fear were several ground squirrels, threatening to run away with our snacks. Other than having to shoo them away occasionally, however, this was the perfect picnic spot.

Cub Lake

Yellow pond lily (Nophar luteum polysepala)

After our extended stay at the lake, we noticed clouds were starting to form and we needed to get moving. We had the option of just turning around and heading back the way we came, making a 4.6 mile round trip. However, we decided it would be more interesting to do a 5.1 mile loop, stopping at the Fern Lake Trailhead and then taking the shuttle back to our car. Little did we know that the bus doesn't actually stop at the Fern Lake Trailhead. But we didn't know that yet, so we continued past the lake.

Looking back down on Cub Lake

View from the trail

Blue columbine (Colorado state flower, aquilegia coerulea)

The trail climbs a bit to provide some nice views of the lake, surrounded by forest. The trail then mostly levels off for a bit. We felt a few rain drops and were worried we'd have to hike in the rain again, but it stopped quickly and the skies cleared. The trail breaks out into the open for some views of the surrounding mountains before descending into the forest again. We descended past more wildflowers until we reached The Pool, about a mile or so past Cub Lake.

Rushing water at The Pool

The Pool is a place where the Big Thompson River crashes through a rocky area. There's a wooden foot bridge over the river here. It's a nice spot for a short break, but it doesn't compare at all to Cub Lake for a picnic stop. We were glad that we did the hike in this direction rather than the opposite direction, so that we could enjoy the lake.

After a brief stay, we hit the trail again. The trail from The Pool follows the Big Thompson River for about 1.7 miles to the Fern Lake trailhead. It descends slightly but it is basically flat. There are some flowers and a few interesting rock formations, along with numerous short spur trails to the river itself. However, there are no views of the surrounding mountains at all, it's almost entirely in dense forest, and it's not nearly as interesting as the trail to Cub Lake.

Big Thompson River

Rocks by the trail

We did encounter one bit of drama on this part of the hike. I noticed a few ants battling a caterpillar, which was still alive and squirming. Three ants were dragging it toward their home. The caterpillar was fighting a losing battle, but we had to leave before it was over. Nathan said he wanted the caterpillar to win, and we assured him before we left that it would, even though we knew it wouldn't. Telling him the truth would be like telling a kid there's no Santa Claus. Maybe if I feel inspired I'll post the video I took of the epic struggle.

Ants taking on a caterpillar

After this easy walk along the river, we finally reached the Fern Lake trailhead. We saw a ranger there and asked him when the next bus would arrive. Unfortunately, he mentioned that the bus doesn't actually come this far because there wasn't enough space for it to turn around here. Instead, it stopped in a parking lot 0.7 miles down the road. Ugh.

We didn't want to miss the next bus, so we walked as fast as we could down the dirt road. There's really nothing to see here, but it's all flat so you should be able to make good time. We reached the bus stop in time to take the bus -- all of 0.2 miles to the Cub Lake trailhead. Well, at least the kids enjoyed the bus ride (and we had the bus all to ourselves). So if you don't want to bother with the shuttle at all, you can just make it a 6.0 mile loop.

I was impressed that Nathan did the entire hike without complaining. I was even more impressed that Jared (only 2 1/2) walked the entire 1.7 miles back from The Pool by himself, plus 1.2 miles at the beginning of the hike, plus about 0.4 miles by himself along the road, for a total of about 3.3 miles! This gives me great hope that we can do some short backpacking trips and some longer day hikes in the near future. Sure, it took us 7 hours to get our kids to cover this distance, but they really didn't complain. In fact, it's sometimes hard to get Jared into the backpack since he wants to walk by himself.

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