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How to Hike the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

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(Last Updated On: August 12, 2022)

As Colorado locals, we’ve done many hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, but none are quite like the Emerald Lake Trail. Many people classify this as the top hike in Colorado, which is why it’s so popular!

What makes the hike to Emerald Lake so incredible is that it features tons of incredible lakes along the way. You start off with Bear Lake, and before long, you’re at Nymph Lake, and then Dream Lake, and then Emerald Lake! Seriously, there are views the entire way. Whether you’re visiting in fall or spring or any other season in between, you’re in for a treat.

This post is all about how to hike the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain.

Quick Facts About the Emerald Lake Trail

Yellowy lake near the mountains

The Emerald Lake Trail is located inside Rocky Mountain National Park outside of Estes Park, one of the best national parks with waterfalls. The trailhead is located at Bear Lake, one of the most popular spots for hiking in the park. Because of that, you’ll want to start early.

Depending on the time of year that you go to do this hike, you may also need to make a timed entry reservation. These are in place in the park normally between late May and mid-October, but exact dates do depend on the year.

As locals, we’ve found the best time to go out on the Emerald Lake Trail is in the early morning. We normally get there around 4:30 a.m. (which means a 2:30 a.m. wake-up in Denver), but it’s so worth it. It allows us to get a parking spot easily, watch the sunrise over Bear Lake, and then make it up to Emerald Lake by the time most people are just getting to the park.

By starting this early, a timed entry reservation is not required.

Overall, this is a moderate hike with fairly steady climbing the majority of the way up. It’s around 4 miles round trip with 750 feet of elevation gain. It’s an out-and-back trail, too, so you’ll see the same views going out and coming back.

What to Pack for the Emerald Lake Hike

Waterfall going down rocks in Rocky Mountain

There are a few items that you should absolutely pack when you do the Emerald Lake Trail. We are fairly avid hikers, so this is what we’d recommend!

Water Bottle (Obviously)

No matter when you are doing this hike, please bring water. For a hike of this length, it’s best to bring one if not two different water bottles for each person.

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Our favorite water bottle is our 32 oz Hydroflask. Yes, it’s more expensive than the average water bottle at around $45-50, but it’s so worth it because it keeps our water incredibly cold. It’s also a long-lasting bottle if you take care of it.

We also normally each pack a water bladder too, which fits perfectly in our backpacks. We each own a Camelbak one that we absolutely love, and it can fit a few times more water than our Hydroflask and also stays incredibly cool throughout the hike.

Backpack

Be sure to bring a backpack to put all of your items in on your trek. There are so many great hiking packs to choose from, so truly just find one that fits best for you.

If you want a recommendation, we use and love a backpack very similar to this 30L Eddie Bauer pack. Ours are different colors (I have a black one, and Jessie has a teal one) but it’s perfect.

Snacks

You’ll want to stay fueled during your hike! Too often, people don’t pack enough snacks for their hikes but trust me, you’ll get hungry along the trail. Bring foods like granola bars, trail mix, and even a sandwich or two. We weirdly love to pack Uncrustables on our hikes because they’re handheld and easy to grab.

Mountains rolling in the distance

Hiking Boots

Do not try to do this trail with regular sneakers. Is it doable? Yes. Is it comfortable and recommended? No.

Some parts of the trail are rocky so you’ll want to protect your ankles. Luckily, there are many spots in the Denver area where you can buy hiking boots if you don’t have any. For sales, head to the Denver Premium Outlets; there’s a North Face there as well as a few other shops where you can get good hiking boots like we did.

We use and love our North Face hiking boots, and they’ve sustained all types of weather! Here’s a pair very similar to the ones we have in women’s as well as men’s.

Bug Spray (in spring through fall)

Every time I do this hike, I regret not bringing bug spray. Pack a bottle because around the lakes, it can get really buggy. Just pick some up at a local convenience store!

Crampons (in winter)

Our first time hiking this trail, we did it in winter and just had our hiking boots… big mistake. This trail gets covered in ice and snow to the point where it doesn’t feel safe walking along the side of a mountain because you could just slip off!

I highly recommend investing in crampons if you’ll hike in winter. These can wrap around your shoes and make them a lot more sticky on the ice.

Things to Know about the Emerald Lake Trail

Whether it is your first time doing this hike or not, here are some things to know about the trail!

Parking

Parking at the Bear Lake Trailhead can fill up quickly, even in winter. Get there early to start your day if you want to make sure you can park right at the trailhead.

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If you get there later; don’t fret. Just park at the bus pickup spot along the way up to the trailhead. This bus will bring you to and from the Bear Lake starting point. Note that the bus only runs for certain months of the year, though!

Best Time to Visit

While the Emerald Lake Trail is truly beautiful any time of year, we’ve actually found it to be the most breathtaking in winter. The weather is cool, there’s a nice breeze, and there are never as many people on the same trail as us. (We’ve hiked it every season of the year!)

With that being said, it’s still great in the fall if you want to see foliage as well as in the spring. It’s great in the summer, too, but note that it can get super hot if you hike too late in the day.

Stop 1: Bear Lake

Blue lake under a blue sky

The trail begins right at Bear Lake trailhead, but many people will skip viewing this beautiful lake. Be sure to take the short detour to the right to check it out because it is breathtaking, especially with the mountains in the distance.

It’s up to you if you want to make the short walk around the lake or not, but truly, just stopping at one of the seats around the lake, snapping some photos, and beginning the hike is also a great idea!

If you do want to see this lake at all, be sure to see it before you start the hike. When you come back down, it’ll most likely be crazy busy because it’s one of the more accessible lakes in the entire park.

After seeing Bear Lake, you’ll quickly start to climb uphill. Truly, this is the most uphill that you’ll climb consecutively along the trail!

Stop 2: Nymph Lake

Serene lake under a pastel sky

As you continue along the trail, you’ll come across Nymph Lake first. This lake is super underrated but is incredibly pretty with all of its lily pads. If you visit early in the morning, you can snap a beautiful photo of the reflection of the mountains and trees against the water because it gets so still.

This lake also has beautiful spots along the outer edge where you can sit on tree trunk benches. There are quite a few of these benches, and it’s a great place to take a quick break before you continue along the trail.

The trail at this point will stay a bit flatter as you continue on.

Stop 3: Dream Lake

Trees reflecting on a lake

After seeing Nymph Lake, you’ll quickly come upon Dream Lake! They call it Dream Lake for a reason; it’s truly one of the most beautiful lakes that you can see in the park. It’s one of the larger lakes and is surrounded by trees that reflect beautifully against the water.

Tthis is also one of the more popular spots along the trail to spot animals like moose or elk, so be on the lookout while you’re here!

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While this lake doesn’t have any actual spots to sit, there are some well-placed rocks along the edge of the water where you can snap an Instagram-worthy photo before continuing along the trek to Emerald Lake.

Once you see this lake, the trail does start to quickly go uphill again as you make it to your final destination!

Stop 4: Emerald Lake

Peaceful lake by the mountains

At Emerald Lake, you’ll finally see what all the buzz is about! This is a truly serene and beautiful lake that will take your breath away. There aren’t any spots to sit and take in the view here, but there are some rocks that you can lean on if you really want to.

Usually, this is the perfect spot to stop and enjoy whatever snacks you brought before you go back down. Expect to spend around 30 minutes at least here because the view will truly take your breath away.

Note that this is definitely the busiest lake along the entire trail because most people will stay up here for a while!

Fun Additions to the Trail

Want to make your trail a bit longer? Here are some great add-ons!

Lake Haiyaha

If you don’t mind adding extra length to your trail, visit Lake Haiyaha. This is the most beautiful lake you’ll ever see in all of Rocky Mountain National Park; it’s a bright blue color and is extremely breathtaking.

The hike up to Lake Haiyaha can be found by going left at Dream Lake instead of right. The trek immediately goes straight uphill on dirt switchbacks and then you’ll find yourself on the side of the mountain with a steep drop. Continue along, and you’ll find yourself in the forest on a flat trail.

There’s a rock scramble at the very end before you get to the lake! This trail is way less visited than the Emerald Lake Trail, and you’ll usually find locals up there.

Alberta Falls

Another great side trek to add on is Alberta Falls. You will have to go back to the beginning of the trail and take a left instead of a right at the trailhead, but it’s not that bad of a hike to get to the waterfall.

This waterfall is magical no matter the time of year, but especially in winter. There are normally only a few other people sitting around the viewpoint where you can stop and grab a snack!

This post was all about the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park! Don’t forget to save this post and share it for later.

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