Hike to Arch Rocks and The Pool in Rocky Mountain National Park

The hike to The Pool in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite early season hikes. It’s lower starting elevation (8,150 ft) typically means there is less snow than other areas of the park.

The hike begins at the Fern Lake trail head. There is a small non-paved parking area. The road is narrow for two-way vehicle traffic. There is shuttle service and some additional parking .8 miles away from the trail head.

On our late-May hike we enjoyed spotting spring wildflowers, a busy humming bird, and a garter snake.

Arch rocks

40 foot vertical rocks called Arch Rocks are a main attraction along the way to The Pool. The rocks are 1.2 miles from the trail head.

Arch Rocks

big thompson river

Walking along the Big Thompson River is another highlight of this hike.

The Pool

A wooden bridge crosses over the river. This video shows the water gathering and powerfully flowing into the Big Thompson River. The Pool is 1.7 miles from the Fern Lake trail head. If you turn around at this point, the hike is a total of 3.4 miles. On this trip, we chose to turn around at this point.

Love loop hikes? From The Pool you can split off towards Cub Lake and head back around to the Cub Lake trail head. The final section of the hike between the Cub Lake trail head and the Fern Lake trail head is on a connecting road. This loop is 6 miles.

Fern Falls

Fern Falls

Another option to continue the hike is to make your way up to Fern Falls. To hike to the waterfall, you will add approximately 1 mile each way. Most of this section is uphill. If you are up for the challenge, the waterfall is worth the effort!

Fantastic Family Hike to Fern Falls

Fern Falls with a Fussy Baby

fern lake

The name sake of this trail is Fern Lake, which is 3.8 miles from the trail head. It has spectacular views of Notch Top mountain.

Fern Lake

The Fern Lake trail head is a launching point to many memorable destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Arch Rocks, The Pool, Fern Falls and Fern Lake.

on my mind: Ticks in Rocky Mountain National park

Well, it happened! After five years of living tick free, we found several ticks on my daughter during our most recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado. We were playing in some areas that had tall grass, so it’s not very surprising, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to remind everyone who is out enjoying the great outdoors to be checking themselves and their kids. Here is some additional information about ticks found in RMNP.

Make your reservations now: Trail Ridge Road is Open

Trail Ridge Road is a scenic highway that connects Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. The road is located within Rocky Mountain National Park, so a park pass and time-entry permit are required to travel on this scenic roadway which will take you above tree-line and into the alpine tundra. Trail Ridge Road opened on June 4, 2020. Here is an article from Estes Park News about the annual ribbon cutting celebration.

New! Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park can obtain a time-entry permit through Recreation.gov. 

Rocky Mountain Animal Game

I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.

Animal Game Rules:

1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points.
2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points.
3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.

We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.

Mountain Lions – 100 Points

We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.

Bear – 50

My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.

Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25

A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.

Male Bighorn Sheep – 25
& Female Sheep – 25

A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO

Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.

Coyote – 25

A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park
A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park

We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.

Fox – 20

One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.

Marmot – 20

A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks
A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks

We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).

Pika – 20

A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra
A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra

Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.

Eagle – 20

An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO
An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO

It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.

Owl – 20

If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.

Snake – 10

Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers
Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers

To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.

Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5

Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park

It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.

Elk rut in Estes Park, Colorado
During elk rut season in Estes Park, Colorado the bull elks duel

Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.

Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5

Deer standing right outside our front door in Estes Park, CO

Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.

Chipmunk – 5

Chipmunk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.

Hummingbird – 5

Hummingbird near Big Thompson River in downtown Estes Park, CO

Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.

Hawk or Turkey – 5

Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO
Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO

We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trout – 5

Trout swimming in The Loch

Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.

At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.

Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?

Government (is still) shutdown

I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.

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Cub Lake Trail – a Wildlife Hotspot in Rocky Mountain National Park

The 2.5 mile hike to Cub Lake begins in the Moraine Valley at the Cub Lake trail head in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Winding trail to Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

The hike is peaceful and scenic. The Big Thompson river winds through the valley and mountains tower in the distance.

Hike to Cub Lake in RMNP
The hike to Cub Lake is one of our favorite hikes to do in the early summer months.

Moraine Park is a hotspot for wildlife. We encountered a rabbit, Cooper’s Hawks, marmots, a mommy moose with her baby, a big buck elk with several female companions, chipmunks and two snakes.

coopers hawk moraine valley rocky mountain national park

Cooper’s Hawks– A fellow hiker told us to look out for Cooper’s Hawks and we soon spotted what I believe to be a Cooper’s Hawk perching on a pine. According to allaboutbirds.org, these guys are tricky to identify and ‘among the world’s most skillful fliers.’

moose in rocky mountain national park

Moose – If you are hoping to spot moose on your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, a good place to see them is in the Kawuneeche Valley, but we’ve spotted a couple this summer on the east side of the park at Sprague Lake and here at the Beaver Ponds along Cub Lake trail. Did you know moose can swim? You can learn more fun facts about moose on the National Park Service’s website.

buck elk in rut season - rocky mountain national park

Elk – Elk mating season or ‘rut’ begins September 1st. During this time, the park closes down areas in the evening until early morning (5pm to 7am). These areas include Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, Harbison Meadow and Holzwarth Meadow. Closures remain in effect until October 31st. (more info)

Snakes – According to this video clip by Nick Molle, Rocky Mountain National Park does not have poisonous snakes, but you can find garter snakes like the ones we spotted in the meadows by water.

Trail to Cub Lake

A good portion of this hike is in the meadow, but it becomes wooded and lush with ferns and noticeably picks up in intensity – gaining about 500 feet of elevation before arriving at Cub Lake.

Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

The lake was covered in lily pads and made a great resting spot for a hearty snack before our 2.5 mile return trip.

Picnic at Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking Gear Checklist

Kid carrier – we have a Deuter Kid Comfort Carrier backpack similar to this one. We can hike longer distances when the kids get to ride. Our daughter appreciates being up high so she can have a good view of our hike.

Hiking boots – Good hiking boots make a big difference when hiking on rocky terrain. I have a pair of Oboz waterproof boots similar to these.

Sunglasses and sunscreen for the whole family

GPS watch – My husband always wears a watch with GPS so he can track how far we’ve hiked. For anyone looking for a Father’s Day gift idea, a GPS watch could be a fun pick!

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Thank you for following along on our adventures!