I wasn’t here for a long time but I was here for a GOOD time. I visited Rocky Mountain National Park by way of Estes Park by way of Boulder for the hike to Emerald Lake. I didn’t really understand the difference between Estes Park and RMNP. I thought Estes was another park when in reality it was just the town right outside of RMNP? Why does no one talk about this? And perhaps this is obvious and perhaps you already knew this, but for the 1% out there- I gotchu.
What to expect when entering Rocky Mountain National Park
For a one day pass to the park it is $25 and for a 7 day pass it is $35. As always, I recommend making a stop at the visitors center to acclimate to the park and ask any questions you might have. Once you’re in the park, the ranger collecting the fees will let you know the parking situation. Since Bear Lake Trailhead (where the hike to Emerald Lake begins) is so popular amongst all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts, parking is often not available.
The parking situation isn’t ideal but the park tries their best to make it as seamless as possible. As you can imagine, heaps of people flock here daily which makes parking at the trailheads quite difficult at times. There are a few main lots running shuttles to the trailheads, if you’re anything like me you want to just get to the trailhead and power up the mountain on your own schedule. Well this is where we practice * patience *. You will most likely make a few stops before getting to your desired trailhead and if you’re heading to Bear Lake Trailhead you will DEFINITELY make a few stops. It’s a quick ride and the shuttle runs every 10 minutes or so. I saw a few people try their luck trying to get a spot directly at the trailhead but they didn’t have any luck. Just park at the shuttle lot people.
Bear Lake to Nymph Lake
Once you get to Bear Lake Trailhead there are facilities, use them, as they are the only ones and there aren’t any along the trail. Before hitting Dream Lake trail, I highly recommend taking a walk around Bear Lake. The subalpine lake is surrounded by a forest of spruce, fir, lodgepole pine and aspen and it is more of a nature walk with a bit of incline. After you finish your walk around Bear Lake the quest to Emerald Lake begins.
You will have the opportunity to visit three lakes along this trail – I like to call it the most bang for your buck 😉
A half mile in, after some incline, you’ll reach Nymph Lake. When the water is still you can see a beautiful reflection of Hallett Peak. As you continue, between Nymph Lake and the second lake, Dream Lake, the incline becomes steeper but there are views of Longs Peak, Hallett Peak and panoramic views of the Rockies in general.
Nymph Lake to Dream Lake
Around 1.1 miles from the trailhead you will reach a fork in the road, head right on the trail to continue your approach to Dream Lake. It’s just a short distance to the shores of this beauty of a lake. From the east shore you will see breathtaking, and I MEAN BREATHTAKING, views of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain.
Dream Lake to Emerald Lake
Continue alongside Dream Lake for another two thirds of a mile for the final push on the hike to Emerald Lake. Once passed Dream Lake you’ll enter a beautiful pine tree filled forest where you’ll see Tyndall Creek creating this waterfall-like flow down rocks. Seriously beautiful and where the fairies live. You’ll gain some serious incline on this last push to Emerald Lake up some steps and on the rocky trail. After the 1.8ish mile hike, you’ve reached Emerald Lake and an elevation of 10,110 feet. Here, Hallett Peak is unobstructed, standing tall in front of you at 12,713 feet. To the right, the jagged spires of 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain.
All in all, the hike is easy for those that remain active in their daily life. Once we finished the hike, I said: “when I move here this will be the hike I take everyone that visits on.” It’s easy enough, not a huge elevation gain, and has facilities nearby. For the amount of effort it takes to reach Emerald Lake you wouldn’t expect it to be as beautiful as it is. Truly a jewel in the heart of RMNP. For more of my Colorado adventures, read my guide to road tripping Colorado in the summer.
Tips for the hike to Emerald Lake
- This should be obvious, wear hiking boots to protect your ankles. There are some pretty rocky parts on this trail and while I saw people hiking in sandals and heeled booties, I do not recommend.
- Pack bug spray, bear spray, sun screen, bandana and trail snacks.
- Pack a poncho, showers are common at elevation.
- Reach Emerald Lake before 12 as that’s when the storms roll in.
- Wear layers as the temperature changes through the climb.
- Use facilities before heading on the trail.
- Park in the suggested lot the ranger tells you to upon entering Rocky Mountain National Park.
- Have a late lunch in Estes Park.
- Check the weather and forecast before heading to RMNP.