Why should you elope at Bear Lake?
Bear Lake is one of the thirteen locations in Rocky Mountain National Park that can be rented for a wedding ceremony, and one of the most popular. It’s one of my favorite places to elope in RMNP in winter, because the frozen lake gives you more space to play around on than the narrow summer trails. And the views of both Longs Peak and Hallett Peak, two of the most recognizable mountains in the park, are unbeatable from here.
What’s the best time of year for a Bear Lake wedding?
You can only reserve Bear Lake for weddings from Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day (the second Monday in October) through the Friday before Memorial Day, so summer elopements are not an option here. If you’ve ever hiked from Bear Lake trailhead in summer, you’ll know why — the parking lot is usually packed before sunrise every day of the week, shuttle buses run throughout the day, and there are so many people hiking the trail around Bear Lake that you would have a miserable time trying to elope there.
Bear Lake is usually frozen solid enough to walk on from around Thanksgiving and until the beginning of May, depending a bit on the weather, of course. January through March are my favorite months for elopements here, because you avoid the holiday crowds, get beautiful snow-covered mountains, and don’t have to deal with the spring melting slush/mud on the trails. February is also the slowest month of the year for visitation numbers in Rocky Mountain National Park, so it’s a great time to avoid crowded trails.
You can’t reserve Bear Lake for weddings on weekends at any time of the year; Monday through Friday only. And again, this is a good thing! Even in winter, the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly on weekends, and once the parking lot is full, the park closes down the road to incoming traffic. This isn’t a problem at all on weekdays, so plan your elopement for a Monday through Friday and enjoy the quiet!
How do I get to Bear Lake?
Bear Lake is located eleven miles from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, at the very end of Bear Lake Road. When driving along 36 from Estes Park toward Grand Lake on highway 36, you’ll make a left turn onto Bear Lake Road, then continue to the very end of the road. It’s well-marked and easy to find — a big plus if you’re having guests at your elopement who are driving separately from you.
I’ve marked the exact location of Bear Lake Trailhead on this Google Map, but you can input Bear Lake to any navigation app and it’ll take you to the right trailhead. Just make sure that you download the directions before leaving Estes Park, as most people won’t have cell phone service to navigate by inside the park.
The trailhead parking area is plenty big, but there’s a limit on 5 cars for elopements here, so make sure that your guests are carpooling to stay within this limit. Your photographer and any other vendors also count toward that car limit, so you might even want to rent a minivan or shuttle bus for your guests.
Practical information for Bear Lake
Ceremony size: 20 people max, which includes the couple, photographer, officiant, and any guests.
Number of vehicles: 5 cars max.
Trailhead restrooms: Yes.
The wedding permit required to reserve Bear Lake costs $300. National Park entrance fees still apply for every car – it’s currently $25 per car for a day pass.
Rocky Mountain National Park has issued all available permits for 2021. The park offered a limited number of permits this year due to the pandemic. If more permits become available later, I will update this page.
The permit does not give exclusive use of the area. All sites remain open to the public, which means you can expect to run into other hikers and visitors no matter the date. If you’re still undecided on your date, contact a local photographer (hi, that’s me!) — we can help you pick a more quiet date and time to avoid crowds.
The following guidelines are included as conditions of the permit:
- Follow “Leave No Trace” Principles
- No disruption of the atmosphere of peace and tranquility in the park; no amplified music
- Minimize interference with park programs, activities, and visitors
- Minimize interference with the operations of public facilities or the services of NPS concessionaires or contractors
- Maintain a safe and healthy environment for other park visitors
Source: National Parks Service
Insider tips for Bear Lake weddings
For wedding ceremonies at Bear Lake, please do not ever throw flower petals, bird seed, or other forms of confetti. This is against the rules of your permit, incredibly hard to clean up, and leaves the site in poor condition for the next couple to get married here. Always do a final sweep of the area to make sure you haven’t left anything behind.
You cannot bring tables, chairs, ceremony arches, signs, or other furniture to elopements at Bear Lake. If you would like to incorporate ceremony decor into your wedding or elopement, please consider one of the many Estes Park wedding venues instead of the national park.
The trail from the parking lot to the ceremony area is a flat and easy walk, and takes 5–10 minutes. I do not recommend wearing high heels or men’s dress shoes to weddings here. Since the trail and area surrounding Bear Lake is usually covered in snow from October through early May, good footwear is key to having a good time. Boots that go over your ankle (like Sorel and Ugg boots) are great, since there’s often fresh snow on the lake, and it can easily be a foot deep or more if the snow is fresh.
Bear Lake is accessible year-round, including the winter months. Driving in the Colorado mountains in winter can be challenging, and roads can be closed on short notice when there are adverse driving conditions. The roads are only plowed from around 7am until 5pm, so for sunrise ceremonies you risk having unplowed roads. Please drive safe in winter, and dress for snow: there is no plowed or shoveled path to the ceremony site, and you may be hiking through deep snow.
Want to learn more about weddings and elopements in Rocky Mountain National Park? I wrote this guide to help you choose your ceremony location, learn how to apply for a permit, and find the best places for photos.
About Nina Larsen Reed
Nina Larsen Reed is an elopement photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. She plans and captures adventure elopements and intimate weddings, and has photographed over 200 couples across the Rocky Mountains since 2017.