Emerald Lake

This is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, as it provides you with quick and fairly easy access to two of the park’s most beautiful lakes. You will first pass Dream Lake and then continue up to Emerald Lake, which lies right below two awe-inspiring peaks that rise up dramatically from the edge of the lake.

The Stats

  • Distance RT: 2.2 miles
  • Difficulty Rating: 47
  • Hiking Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
  • Time to Go: anytime but it’s most beautiful in the morning
  • Season: June until first snow
  • Primary Ecosystem: subalpine
  • Views: Enjoy views over Glacier Basin and Glacier Gorge followed by a stunning mountain lake.
  • Possible Wildlife: forest animals
  • Trail Conditions: The trail is quite wide and smooth compared to most in RMNP. The first half is roughly paved.
  • Reminder: This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so it pays to visit very early or late in the day. The light is best in the morning.
  • Elevation Start: 9,475’
  • Highest Point: 9,921’
  • Total Elevation Gain: 503’
  • Trailhead: This hike starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead.

Hike Description

The trail begins next to the ranger station at the west end of the Bear Lake parking lot. From the ranger station begin walking west toward Bear Lake. Take the left turn just a few steps past the ranger station. In a couple hundred feet you'll pass a junction that leads down to the Glacier Gorge Trail. Keep to the right and head uphill. You’ll initially be going south, but slowly the trail will turn to the west. This section of trail is partially paved. This is a gentle climb up through the trees, but if you are not acclimatized or particularly fit, you may find it to be challenging. The key is to take it slow and steady, walking at a pace at which you can comfortably breathe. Remember to allow room for others to pass.

At 0.5 miles you’ll arrive at Nymph Lake, a small body of water surrounded by trees. Be sure to respect the Restoration Area signs and stay off of the vegetation around the edges of the lake. During the summer this little pond is filled with lily pads, often with big yellow flowers. As the trail moves toward the north side of the lake, look both to the west and south for great views. On the north side there is a small trail leading down to a bench beside the lake. This is a nice detour if you have time. It’s a great place to sit and take in an impressive view of Longs Peak.

The trail continues up the hill alongside a large rock outcropping and then at 0.7 miles it reaches a switchback that sends you hiking south up a section of stairs. This particular stretch can sometimes avalanche after heavy snows in the winter, so if the avalanche danger is high, you may want to go back to Nymph and find the winter trail. At the top of these stairs on your left side is a terrific overlook you shouldn’t miss. It looks out over Nymph Lake and into Glacier Gorge with Longs Peak standing high above it.

The trail continues up through aspen trees with beautiful views to the south. As you continue upward you'll begin to get views of Hallett Peak looking like the prow of a mighty ship up ahead of you. At the first switchback you may notice a small cascade at the end of a short detour trail. In the summer there are often flowers growing around this cascade.

From here the trail makes a couple of short switchbacks and then levels out, crossing a small bridge. Be sure to look out to your left as you cross the bridge to see Longs Peak perfectly framed.

At exactly one mile you’ll reach a junction for Lake Haiyaha. Stay to the right and cross a log bridge across the outlet stream. Just beyond the bridge you’ll climb a small rise and the main Dream Lake viewpoint will be on your left. When you get to the viewpoint look to the west and you’ll see the imposing summit of Hallett Peak, though what you are seeing is actually well below the summit. To the right you’ll see Flattop Mountain, which from this perspective looks anything but flat. This is a great place to spend some time enjoying this dramatic scene.

From Dream Lake continue westward toward the mountains. The trail follows the north shore of the lake. This section is fairly gentle and wide. As you head down the north side of Dream Lake notice the many twisted trees right by the lake, formed by the winds that howl here for much of the year.

At 1.2 miles you’ll cross a wooden boardwalk over a marshy area. The trail heads back toward the lake and soon will come right alongside the lake. Here you can look directly down into the water and you may even see trout swimming in the cool waters. I always enjoy looking back to the east from here, especially early in the morning when the sun is just rising.

At about 1.4 miles you’ll reach the end of Dream Lake and will hear the inlet stream coming down from Emerald Lake. The trail now starts to climb somewhat steeply. As you climb you’ll see a few small cascades and even a little waterfall. There are often many bluebells growing all around these cascades in the summer. As you make your way upward you’ll reach a very rocky area and here the trail will make a sharp turn to your right before continuing to climb again. Notice how Flattop Mountain peeks over the rock slab. Soon you’ll pass over an area where the trail is often muddy during the early summer.

After this the trail winds up an area of rock steps. At the top you are greeted by an imposing view of Hallett Peak, which seems to be looking right down on you. The trail here begins to level out, crossing an area of rock slab and then makes one last small climb before beginning its descent to the lake.

Emerald Morning

As you reach the lake you’ll find yourself at the foot of these giant peaks that tower over you. Once you adjust to the scene you’ll probably hear and then see a waterfall coming down from the side of Hallett Peak. There are large rock slabs and boulders all around the area where you can sit and enjoy the view. If you have binoculars with you, look up at Hallett Peak and you may be able to see climbers making their way up the sheer face to the top. This is a popular climbing route. Then to your right on Flattop Mountain have a look at those steep gullies. It’s hard to believe that these are skied during the winter by some of the more skilled backcountry skiers. These activities are best enjoyed vicariously.