Welcome, once again, to my Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes series!
If you’re only in Rocky for a day or two, or you’re visiting from lower elevation, this is my #1 hiking recommendation for you! It’s not terribly long, not too steep, and at a lower elevation than most of the other park destinations. This was the first hike we took my sister on when she visited from LA and she didn’t have too much trouble completing it.
As I’ve mentioned before, Rocky has a free shuttle system that will get you from the Park-n-Ride to the Bear Lake trailhead from May-October, and I highly recommend using it. The shuttle doesn’t run in the winter, but when I returned to hike this trail last winter we arrived at 8:45am on a Saturday and there were only about 4 other cars in the Bear Lake lot, so it’s obviously a less popular winter destination.
From the parking lot, Bear Lake is about 100 feet (30 m) up the trail to the right. If you’re looking for a short, easy stroll, a fairly flat trail encircles the lake.
If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, take the left fork out of the parking lot, keep right, and follow signs towards Emerald Lake. I’ve hiked this trail multiple times in summer, fall, and winter; the photos below really demonstrate how beautiful a destination this is at any time of year!
About 0.6 miles (1 km) up the trail is Nymph Lake. This is the smallest of the three lakes and – beautiful as it is – the least stunning of the three.
The trail continues about halfway around Nymph Lake (or, in the winter, straight across the frozen lake) before heading west and up another 0.6 miles (1 km) toward Dream Lake. This section of the trail has some steep, rocky sections. In the winter, it’s fairly well trafficked, and should be doable with just boots and microspikes unless you’re hiking immediately after a storm. This stretch of trail also provides some spectacular views east toward the town of Estes Park and the Moraine Park area, as well as south over the Glacier Gorge area, which will be the topic of an upcoming post!
Dream Lake lies in the shadow of the recognizable profile of Hallett Peak and its neighbor to the north, Flattop Mountain (from this angle, one would assume that Hallett Peak is actually Flattop Mountain, given its – well – flat top, but this is incorrect).
From Dream Lake, you have two options: continue along the shore and up to Emerald Lake or take the left fork to Lake Haiyaha. Today we’re going to go the final 0.6 miles (1 km) up to Emerald Lake. Lake Haiyaha will be the topic of a future post.
In the summer, the trail parallels Dream Lake to its western tip; in the winter, you can simply walk right across the lake as it will be frozen solid. Beyond the lake, the trail begins its final push upward to Emerald Lake. This is one of the steeper portions of the hike, but it’s well worth the effort. In the winter, this section of the trail may also be doable with just microspikes. I’ve done it, though it wasn’t nearly as packed down and there was some slight post-holing. On my second trip with snowshoes on my feet, it was much easier.
Emerald Lake sits in a second, higher elevation valley beneath Hallett Peak. The trail ends here, though Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain can be ascended via other trails, and in the winter many backcountry skiers will make their way up the walls of the valley towards the ridgeline.
While we’re on the topic of winter hiking, I should take a moment to discuss the very real avalanche danger that exists in Colorado in the winter. This past winter in particular was terrible; at one point there were 346 recorded avalanches in the state in a 7 day period!
This hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes is relatively safe as far as avalanches are concerned, but there is a possibility for slides above Emerald Lake. If you don’t carry the proper avalanche equipment (beacon, shovel, and probe), I’d recommend not going beyond the lake. Rocky is pretty good about keeping their website updated with road, trail, and avalanche conditions, so it’s always a good idea to check before heading out.
Alright, obligatory avalanche safety speech complete.
And if you ever visit Rocky in any season, this is a hike I highly recommend!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: this hike departs from the Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road; consider leaving your car at the park-n-ride in the summer and taking the free shuttle to the trailhead
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency annual passes are accepted. From May-Oct 2021, if you arrive after 5am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead
- Hiking: one-way distances are 0.6 miles (1 km) to Nymph Lake, 1.2 miles (1.9 km) to Dream Lake, and 1.8 miles (2.9 km) to Emerald Lake; easy to moderate
- Other: plan for thunderstorms in summer and fall, wind year-round, and beware of avalanche danger and road and trail conditions in winter and spring