Julie United States 2 Comments

The Emerald Lake hike is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. On this hike, you get to see three very pretty alpine lakes (Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake), with the option to add on Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha.

This is a great hike for almost all ages and ability levels. The Emerald Lake hike is a family friendly hike and it also makes a great intro to hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. With its short distance and manageable elevation gain, it is a great first hike in the park, as you acclimate to the higher elevation (if you haven’t already spent some time in the Rocky Mountains).

Of course, you don’t have to hike all of the way to Emerald Lake. Nymph and Dream Lakes are beautiful, so you will have a wonderful hike if you choose to turn around at Dream Lake.

In this post, get all of the details on the Emerald Trail hike, with information on how to add on Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha.

Facts About the Hike

These are the stats for the round-trip hike starting at the Bear Lake Trailhead and hiking out-and-back to Emerald Lake.

Distance: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Total Elevation Gain: 605 feet
Starting Elevation (Bear Lake Trailhead): 9,449 feet
Elevation at Emerald Lake: 10,110 feet
Length of Time: 2 to 3 hours
When to go: You can hike to Emerald Lake year-round. From October through May, snowshoes may be necessary depending on weather conditions.

If you choose to turn around early, here are the hiking distances from the Bear Lake Trailhead:

Nymph Lake: 1.2 miles round trip, 236 feet of elevation gain
Dream Lake: 2.2 miles, 443 feet of elevation gain

Emerald Lake Hike Map

Emerald Lake Hike

Getting to the Trailhead

The trail to Emerald Lake starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead. To get here, drive to the end of Bear Lake Road and park in the large parking lot. This parking lot is very large but you do need to get here early to get a parking space. Ideally, plan on arriving by 7:30 am to get a parking space.

If the Bear Lake parking lot is filled, you will have to park at the Park and Ride on Bear Lake Road and take the free shuttle to the trailhead. During peak season, this lot can also fill (usually midday) so park rangers turn away visitors from this section of the park once all of the spaces fill. So, get here early or late in the day.

The trailhead is located at the top of the parking lot. There are toilets and a ranger station here.

Take the trail into the woods and then follow the signs for Emerald Lake.

Emerald Lake Trailhead

Nymph Lake

It’s an overall uphill walk to get to Nymph Lake. The very first part of the trail is paved, but that quickly switches over to a rocky, dirt trail. There are a few brief steep sections but nothing too difficult.

Once at Nymph Lake, enjoy the views. Lily pads cover the lake and we saw some ducks and ducklings paddling around among the lily pads. This is the smallest of the three lakes.

Nymph Lake

Dream Lake

From Nymph Lake, it is a half-mile walk to get to Dream Lake. This trail is a little bit steeper than what you hiked to get to Nymph Lake. There will be some steps and steeper uphill climbs, but it’s worth it. Dream Lake is one of the prettiest lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail between Lakes

As you hike to Dream Lake, keep a lookout for the view out over Nymph Lake and to Long’s Peak (it’s about 0.2 miles from Nymph Lake).

Overlooking Nymph Lake

View of Longs Peak

Long’s Peak

Once you make it to Dream Lake, there are several different viewpoints of the lake. The trail to Emerald Lake continues along the right side of Dream Lake, past these viewpoints. So, even if you don’t plan to hike all of the way to Emerald Lake, I recommend walking along Dream Lake for these views.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Approaching Dream Lake

 Dream Lake

Dream Lake

 

Trail Around Dream Lake

Trail around Dream Lake

Emerald Lake

Once past Dream Lake, it’s a steeper uphill hike to get to Emerald Lake. This is the hardest section of the hike, with steep uphill climbs and stairs in some places. Plus, you will hike past 10,000 feet, which can really take your breath away, especially if this is one of your first days in the Rockies.

Stairs to Emerald Lake

The trail ends at Emerald Lake. Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain form the spectacular backdrop of Emerald Lake. The lake is fed by Tyndall Glacier, one of the last glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park. The water flows from Emerald Lake to Dream Lake before heading into Glacier Gorge.

Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake

 

Kara at Emerald Lake

Bonus: Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha

Turn this hike into a four or five-lake hike by adding on Bear Lake and/or Lake Haiyaha. Here’s how to do it.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a super easy addition to this hike. And a stroll around Bear Lake is a must-do while in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The trail around Bear Lake starts just a few steps from the Bear Lake Trailhead. You can add on Bear Lake to the beginning or the end of the Emerald Lake hike.

The trail around Bear Lake is 0.6 miles long, has a few short hills, and is wheelchair accessible. There are numerous split-log benches and viewpoints and this makes a wonderful, easy addition to the hike to Emerald Lake.

Bear Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake

Lake Haiyaha

Turn this into a five-lake hike by adding on Lake Haiyaha. The trail to Lake Haiyaha starts on the Emerald Lake Trail, between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake.

It is a mostly uphill walk to Lake Haiyaha, but what you get is another spectacular lake with fewer crowds, since many people skip this lake.

Adding Lake Haiyaha adds 2 miles round trip with another 350 feet of elevation gain.

Trail to Lake Haiyaha

Kara on Log Bridge

Lake Haiyaha

 

Hiking Stats for All 5 Lakes (Bear, Nymph, Dream, Emerald & Haiyaha)

Total Distance: 6.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1000 feet
Length of Time: 4 to 5 hours

Tips to Have the Best Experience

Start the hike early, ideally by 8 am. During the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms are common, typically occurring by 2 pm. To avoid the storms, return to the parking lot by 2 pm.

Leave no trace. When you are in the park, practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace. This includes packing out what you bring into the park, be considerate of other hikers, stay on the trail, and do not remove anything from the park.

Do not expect your cell phone to work. On 95% of the hike we had zero cellular service (this also goes for the entire drive down Bear Lake Road). There were a few spots in clearings or at higher elevations where we got a few bars of LTE or 3G, just enough to send a text message. But don’t depend on your phone to call for help, talk to friends, or send photos to friends and family.

Be prepared to turn around early. If weather conditions change and you see approaching thunderstorms, be prepared to end your hike before you reach Emerald Lake.

What to Bring on the Hike

Hiking shoes or a good pair of walking shoes. As long as there is not snow on the ground, a good pair of walking shoes or running shoes are sufficient. The trail is rocky and uneven but hiking shoes are not necessary for this hike.

Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. For portions of the hike you will be in and out of the shade of the trees.

Camera. Even a smartphone will do. For great photos of the lakes, use the panorama feature of your smartphone.


If you have any questions about hiking the Emerald Lake trail, let us know in the comment section below. Happy Hiking!!

More Information for Your Trip to Colorado:

If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Destination Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.

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Rocky Mountain National Park Hike

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Comments 2

  1. We did this hike in August 2018. It was my first time ever being in the mountains. I will never forget that day — it was truly magical. Your photos are beautiful! Highly recommend adding on the hike Lake Haiyaha!

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