No trip to Rocky Mountain National Park would be complete without a hike to the stunning Emerald Lake! Tucked deep into the mountains and situated perfectly in the shadow of peaks, this trail provides the perfect alpine experience in just a few short hours. Hikers of all abilities will appreciate the spectacular trees, waterfalls, lakes, and mountain views that emerge around every turn in the trail.
Planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park? Be sure to check out my list of 12 Things You Can’t Miss!
Although this trail is quite popular and littered with people at almost any time of day, we were thrilled with the incredible views, craggly peaks, and beautiful lakes along our hike. There is just something so awe-inspiring about a pristine alpine lake nestled high in the mountains, and this trail has three! Pass by the lily pad covered Nymph Lake and the dramatic Dream Lake before reaching your destination, the stunning Emerald Lake.
What You Need to Know
This trail is a steady climb to all three lakes, with outstanding views of Long’s Peak (a Colorado 14er), Hallett Peak, and Flattop Mountain. Each lake is about a half a mile apart along a well-worn trail.
The Emerald Lake Trail weaves in and out of beautiful pine forests full of perfectly shaped Christmas trees with streams and rivers along the way. The beginning section of your hike is primarily in the trees, with occasional mountain views peeking through.
You may be surprised to find that the trail is paved (although the pavement is not well-kept). The trail turns to dirt as you near Nymph Lake and stays dirt for the rest of the hike. You will approach the gorgeous lily-pad covered Nymph Lake from the south, blending in with the surrounding greenery. I felt that the best views emerged as we continued along the trail to the north side of the lake, and it was here that we stopped to soak in the views.
From Nymph Lake, the trail climbs out of the pine forest and onto the mountainside, providing sweeping views of the phenomenal Rocky Mountains. I loved this section of the hike! Get your camera out and take time to breathe in the crisp mountain air while snapping photos of the incredibly photogenic Longs Peak, standing majestic at 14,259 feet.
Continuing up and around the mountainside, your view shifts to the recognizable crags in the distance. From here, it is just a few short steps to lake number two, the beautiful Dream Lake.
We met a charming golden mantle ground squirrel searching for food as we approached the lake. These squirrels are often mistaken for chipmunks because of their similar stripes, but chipmunks are smaller and have stripes across their faces as well as on their back. This little guy was a little too comfortable around us, so please remember not to feed the wildlife in an effort to help them thrive on their own.
Your first glimpse of Dream Lake will take your breath away! The crystal clear water surrounded by incredibly dramatic alpine peaks creates an atmosphere full of audible ooh’s and ahh’s. The stormy weather we experienced while hiking this trail cast a spooky shadow over the lake as the wind howled through the trees.
One of the many reasons that I love hiking is because you never hike along the same trail twice. The weather, the wildlife, the time of year, the way the sun breaks through the clouds….all of these things and more transform the landscape every minute of every day. Nature is constantly changing!
The steepest part of the trail is the section between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake as you climb deeper into the Tyndall Gorge. Get ready for some stairstepping!
Take a small detour to the waterfall that connects Dream and Emerald Lake. I was elated to see some lovely yellow wildflowers were still in bloom, although I knew that we had missed the rush of color that covers these mountains in July. That’s just one more reason for me to hike to Emerald Lake again!
We made it! The spectacular Emerald Lake sits at the base of those recognizable crags, Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet), and is fed by a large waterfall supplied by the Tyndall Glacier. The sheer majesty of these peaks cannot be properly captured by a camera. After trying to snag the shot I wanted, I decided to just put down my camera and enjoy the view.
This hike is a must-do for any Rocky Mountain National Park vacation! Start early for the smallest crowds and the best chance of finding a parking space. The trail to Emerald Lake is 3.5 miles roundtrip. The total elevation gain for this hike is about 650 feet, with the elevation at Emerald Lake at just over 10,000 feet above sea level, making this trail easy-moderate.
From Estes Park, drive west on Highway 36 to the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. After paying the entrance fee at the station, take a left onto the Bear Lake Road. The trail to Emerald Lake begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead, located at the end of the road.
The Bear Lake Trailhead Parking often fills by 7:30 a.m. during the summer and on weekends, so I suggest parking at the Park & Ride across the street from the Glacier Basin Campground and take the free shuttle to the trailhead.