Just after entering the Beaver Meadows Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left onto Bear Lake Road. If you are visiting between late May and mid-October, you’ll need to have a timed-entry permit to gain access, as this is the busiest area of the national park.
Follow this road through the trees and keep your eyes open for wildlife. There are often elk wandering through these trees. In just under a mile the trees will open up, and you’ll enter Moraine Park, a vast meadow with a backdrop of snowy peaks. As the road enters the top end of the meadow, find a pull-over and stop for a while. If you look, you can often see herds of elk grazing in the meadow. You’ll also notice the Big Thompson River flowing through the middle of it and there are often people fishing at its banks. This is a great place to sit and enjoy the view. Alternatively, you can head up to the Moraine Park Nature Store on the hill to your left or drive along the north end of the meadow on South Moraine Road.
Continue south along Bear Lake Road. After leaving Moraine Park you’ll enter an area known as Tuxedo Park where you’ll notice a forest of tall ponderosa pines with bright orange trunks. In the winter these are especially fabulous.
1 mile (1.6 km) past the Tuxedo Park parking area, the road will reach a sharp bend to the left. There is a road running off to the right. Follow that little road into Hollowell Park. This is a quiet and little visited area where you can sometimes find elk grazing in the meadow or moose in the willows. There are a number of picnic tables here and it makes for a great place to have lunch.
Return to Bear Lake Road and turn right to continue heading south. The road will now climb up the hill and enter the lodgepole forest. You’ll soon get a glimpse of Longs Peak straight ahead of you. After a several minute drive through the trees you’ll reach Park and Ride on your right. This is the main parking area and bus station for this part of the park. The signs will tell you if you are allowed to continue driving up or if you must park and take the bus to continue.
Assuming that you are allowed to continue driving, continue onward for another 0.7 miles (1.1 km) and then turn left when you see the sign for Sprague Lake. If you have the energy, park at Sprague Lake and enjoy a flat and beautiful 0.8 mile (1.3 km) walk around the lake as it provides some of the most spectacular views in the park from the far end of the lake. Another option is to visit the Glacier Creek Stables next door where you can head out on horseback to explore the park.
When you’ve finished at Sprague Lake, head back out to Bear Lake Road and turn left to continue your journey south. Keep your eyes open as you’ll soon get an impressive view of Hallett Peak towering over the road with its big blocky shape. Next, you’ll pass the Storm Pass Trailhead where there is a small meadow with another view of the Continental Divide. Feel free to pull over here if you have time.
As you continue down Bear Lake Road, notice the large hill off to your right. In late September and early October, this next stretch of road can be magical as the entire hillside turns brilliant yellow with patches of orange and red as the aspen put on their autumn finery. You may have noticed a trailhead on your right as you were driving. This is the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead and it zigzags up the steep hill to the shelf on top where there is a large lake named after the famous western landscape painter Albert Bierstadt.
In about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) the road will begin the first of four switchbacks. Just after the second switchback you’ll see the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and parking lot. This is one of the most popular trailheads in the park, leading to nearly a dozen beautiful lakes tucked into the mountains. The closest one is about 2.7 miles (4.3 km) from the trailhead. There is also a small waterfall called “Alberta Falls” just 0.7 miles (1.1 km) from the trailhead.
Continue up the hill and through two more switchbacks to arrive at Bear Lake. This is probably the most visited place in the national park. If you have time, park your vehicle and take a 0.6 mile (1 km) walk around the lake to enjoy several spectacular views. Bear Lake is also the starting point for hikes to many different areas of the park. Many are here to climb Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak, some to hike to Dream and Emerald Lake, and others to hike all the way to Grand Lake on the west side of the park.