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Best Hiking Trails

Hike the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

This stunning hike will take you past three picturesque alpine lakes: Nymph, Dream and Emerald.

Emerald Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for good reason. This relatively short and moderate hike packs a ton of bang for your buck with three beautiful alpine lakes and incredible views along the way. You’ll pass the lily-pad covered Nymph Lake and the aptly named Dream Lake with perfect views of Hallett Peak before reaching your final destination of Emerald Lake.

This trail is gorgeous year-round. Summer is the most popular time to hike it but fall and winter are also great choices. There aren’t a ton of deciduous trees on this trail in the fall so autumn colors aren’t quite as impressive as other areas of the park, but you’ll still get a healthy dose of color and crisp and cool weather. When the snow falls, strap on your snowshoes (rentals are available in Estes Park) to experience a winter wonderland. The lakes freeze over in the winter and the trail goes right across the surface making for a truly unique experience. Since the trail is shaded by evergreens all winter long, packed snow often remains on the trail until late June.

Sunrise at Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Sunrise at Dream Lake on the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: Stacey Rundio)

When planning your hike to Emerald Lake, make sure to take the park’s often intense weather into account. In the summer months, thunderstorms occur most days around mid-day or early afternoon. The exposed sections of this hike put it at extreme lightning strike risk, so plan to be back to the trailhead by mid-day. In the winter, storms can make the winding road up to the parking lot harrowing and lead to heightened avalanche conditions. Always check road conditions and the avalanche forecast before setting off in the winter. Weather can change quickly no matter the season in the park, so pack wind and waterproof layers to make sure you stay warm in case the wind picks up or it starts to storm.

How Long Does It Take to Hike to Emerald Lake?

This hike is approximately 3.5 miles round-trip. It’s a relatively short hike, but you’ll be gaining almost 700 feet in elevation to reach the 10,110-foot Emerald Lake. Experienced hikers who are used to hiking at elevation could do the trail in less than two hours, but it might take those who are less acclimatized to the high altitude, or groups traveling with small children, much longer. The trail is steep and rocky in many sections. This hike is not suitable for those who have mobility problems and may be unsuitable for young children unless you have a backpack to carry them in if it gets too steep.

Plan to spend half a day out on the trail, giving yourself plenty of time to stop and take tons of pictures and enjoy a picnic lunch when you get to Emerald Lake.

Be sure to bring at least two liters of water per person even in the winter months. Hiking at high elevations can dehydrate you faster, especially under the intense Colorado sun. Hydrating properly can also help you combat the effects of altitude sickness.

How Do You Get to Emerald Lake?

The trail to Emerald Lake starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead. This parking lot is very popular and often fills up well before 7 a.m. on weekends. To help combat crowding, Rocky Mountain National Park is implementing a timed entry reservation system May 27 – Oct. 10, 2022. Reservations for the Bear Lake Road corridor are required from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day through the season. A reservation doesn’t guarantee you a parking spot, however. Plan to get to the trailhead as early as possible or skip the headache of looking for a parking spot and ride the free park shuttle instead. Park at the Park & Ride on Bear Lake Road and ride the Bear Lake Shuttle to the trailhead, which runs every 10-15 minutes. The shuttle only operates from May 27 – Oct. 16, so be sure to get to the trailhead early in the winter months to snag a parking spot. Visit www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses-and-public-transit.htm for more information about the shuttles.

Just past the trailhead, you’ll come to a junction. The trail to Emerald Lake is to the left, but if you want to add on another alpine lake and some extra distance, you could check out Bear Lake to the right before starting off towards Emerald Lake. The full Bear Lake Loop is 0.6 miles, but you’ll quickly come upon the lake and beautiful views where you can turn around if you don’t want to add the full loop.

From the junction, the trail steadily climbs to the first lake: Nymph. This picturesque little lake is filled with lily pads and from here you’ll catch your first views of Hallett Peak’s square face. Be sure to practice Leave No Trace and leave the lily pads in the lake. This area is filled with unofficial paths that should be avoided. The official park trail goes around the right side of the lake. Follow this one to avoid further eroding the surrounding area.

Hallett Peak reflection on Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hallett Peak reflection on Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

From Nymph Lake it’s a steep climb along a band of cliffs where you’ll find amazing views of the park’s tallest mountain, Longs Peak, towering at 14,259 feet.

At just over a mile, you’ll reach the shores of Dream Lake. This gorgeous alpine lake is quite long. Some of the best views are from the eastern shore, but the trail continues along the northern edge of the lake giving great views the entire way.

At the end of the lake there’s one more steep climb to go before you reach Emerald Lake. The trail follows Tyndall Creek as it cascades down the slope. At approximately 1.8 miles you’ll leave the trees and the breathtaking view before you is your final destination: Emerald Lake. The lake is tucked in the Tyndall Gorge with the steep peaks of Hallett and Flattop Mountain rising from its far shores. There’s plenty of rocks around the edge of the lake to enjoy a picnic from, so make sure to pack lunch. The ground squirrels here are notorious beggars. As cute as they might be, it’s important not to share your lunch with them as human food can make them sick and reliant on people for sustenance.

After soaking in the stunning views, return the way you came.

Hikers at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hikers at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

Can You Swim in Emerald Lake?

The short answer is yes, the longer answer is that you probably won’t want to. Swimming is allowed in all lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park with the exception of Bear Lake, but Emerald Lake is fed by snowmelt making it extremely cold. Even on a hot summer day, the water temperatures will be so cold it can be dangerous to be submerged for long periods of time. There is often wind at Emerald Lake, so the second you leave the cold waters you’ll get even colder.

It’s better to admire the lake from the shores or, if you’re really determined to feel those ice-cold lake waters on your bare skin, just get your feet wet.

Are Dogs Allowed at Emerald Lake?

Dogs are not allowed on any hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, so you can’t bring your dog to Emerald Lake. It’s also illegal to leave your dog in a parked car while you go hiking. If you’re planning to visit the park, leave your dog at home or board them at a nearby doggy day care while you explore for the day.