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The exposure grade describes the potential consequences of falling or slipping off the path.
Low Exposure: The path is on completely flat land and potential injury is limited to falling over.
Medium Exposure: The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.
High Exposure: Some trail sections have exposed ledges or steep ascents/descents where falling could cause serious injury.
Extreme Exposure: Some trail sections are extremely exposed where falling will almost certainly result in serious injury or death.
Access to Bear Lake is from the North Cottonwood trailhead.
The trailhead is at the end of CR365, a dirt road accessible by most vehicles, except during the winter when it is not plowed. The first 1.7 miles is a mellow stroll on the shared access to Kroenke Lake.
It follows a wide, smooth trail that gains little elevation next to the lovely, gurgling North Cottonwood Creek.
At 1.7 miles, the trail splits at a signed junction where the Kroenke Lake trail heads left, and continues on to take hikers into Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake, as well as routes to 14ers Mt.
Harvard and Mt.
Columbia. After passing the split with the Kroenke Lake Trail, the elevation gains gradually for the most part, with an occasional stretch that increases one's heart rate.
As the trail travels through the trees, the tread alternates between smooth and easy and rocky steps.
In the spring, it includes a LOT of potentially deep, slick mud; be prepared to walk directly through the mud to avoid widening the trail! The route passes the “under construction” Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) re-route of the trail to 14,073 Mt.
Columbia, due to be complete in 2020.
When finished, the new trail will be yet another reason to head to Horn Fork basin. Breaking into the basin provides stunning views for the remainder of the hike, as the trail takes hikers through willows and across the creek several times.
The basin is a frequent destination for backpackers as it allows access to two 14ers in addition to Bear Lake, so there are numerous tent sites scattered about. In the summer, the hike to Bear Lake is likely to be shared with climbers en route to Mt.
After the hike increases in steepness, be sure to look for the split that goes left to Bear Lake at around 5 miles in; continuing straight goes to Harvard. After taking a left at the split, it is less than ½-mile to Bear Lake.
There are plenty of options to get a bird's-eye view of the lake before arriving at Bear Lake proper.
Take a moment to look over at the gnarly ridge that spans from Harvard's summit to Columbia's summit before descending to a perfect location for a relaxing shore lunch.