The 1.8 mile hike up to Emerald Lake passes by four classic Colorado lakes with some of the best views of snow-capped granite mountains in the area. If you only have time for one hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, this is a great choice for jam-packed alpine views in just a few miles.
Length: 3.2 miles (roundtrip)
Elevation Change: 650 ft
Trail Type: Out and back
Cost: $20 Rocky Mountain National Park entrance fee (daily)
Trailhead: Google Maps
Before You Go
- Mind the altitude - Coming from sea level the night before, we were unprepared for how much the altitude would affect us. Nothing like 8,000 feet between you and the sea to make you feel completely out of shape when you need to catch your breath after just a couple steps. It might be better to let your body acclimate a little and not do any strenuous hiking right away.
- Be prepared for crowds - Regarded as Rocky Mountain National Park's most crowded trail, be ready for lines everywhere from entering the park and finding parking, and don't expect any solitude on this hike. As with all popular trails, it's best to arrive as early as possible.
Bear Lake Trailhead sits at the end of Bear Lake Road less than a two hour drive from Denver, CO. Although it there is a large parking lot, it is also Rocky National Park's most popular trailhead. If you have trouble finding parking, you can also park elsewhere and take the free park shuttle.
Don't forget to keep an eye out for elk along the side of the road on the drive in.
From the bustling parking lot, you can hike the Bear Lake Loop to the right, or take the trail to Emerald Lake to the left. Being so accessible with its flat and paved walkway, Bear Lake makes for a great first stop before heading up the steeper trail to Emerald Lake or on its own can be a nice and leisurely stroll around the lake with views of the surrounding peaks.
Heading back to the left on the trail up to Emerald, you have a steady 0.5 mile climb up to Nymph Lake, a slightly marshy lake with benches around the pond to relax.
As you continue past the lake and up the trail leaving Nymph Lake and the forest floor below you, the views of Hallett Peak (12,713 ft) and Longs Peak (14,259 ft) get better.
The trail passes by a rushing waterfall before climbing over the ridge to Dream Lake, which sits only 1.1 miles from the trailhead. Before reaching Dream Lake, on the left you will also pass the branch off to Lake Haiyaha, a nice side trip option. Dream Lake is stunning with its clear views of the snow-capped mountains from any spot around the lake.
I've heard Dream Lake is a prime fishing spot, and while we were there we spotted a couple fisherman trying their luck on the opposite of the snowy shore. Not a bad view for a fishing spot!
As you make your way around the North shore of Dream Lake, it's another 0.7 miles to the final destination - Emerald Lake sitting up at 10,110 feet. In mid June, the trail from Dream Lake was almost completely snow-covered and had quite a few icy spots.
Approaching Emerald Lake was one of my favorite views of the trail. You are treated to essentially a 360 degree view of an enormous basin with dramatic peaks encompassing the lake. We could still spot some of the vivid green hues of the water below the thawing edges of the ice, giving the lake its name.
After soaking in the views to your heart's content and catching your breath from the altitude, the hike back to the trail head is all downhill. I can see why this trail is one of Rocky Mountain National Park's most popular - you truly can experience everything the park has to offer in just a couple miles from the trail head. Can't wait to come back and explore the tons of other trails in the area!