Emerald Lake is one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Emerald Lake Trail is popular amongst visitors due to its “bang for your buck.” You get three pristine alpine lakes, each with its own character, rugged peaks jutting around every corner, and views that’ll leave you breathless – all for the price of one 3-mile hike.
The Emerald Lake Trail is short, rated as moderate, and jam-packed with back-to-back iconic sights, making it the perfect hike for every type of adventurer or casual traveler.
What I love about the Emerald Lake Trail is that you can create your own adventure. It’s an out & back so you can hike as shallow or deep as you’d like into the trail. Since there are unique alpine lakes every half to one mile, you are guaranteed to see something beautiful, no matter how far into the trail you decide to venture.
In this detailed trail guide, I’ll share everything you need to know to hike Emerald Lake in the Rockies including how to get there, what permits you need, what to expect, and a step-by-step guide to hiking the Emerald Lake Trail from start to finish.
Emerald Lake Trail Guide
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Emerald Lake Trail Stats
The Emerald Lake hike is in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park is located in north central Colorado.
Drive into the Beaver Meadows entrance and follow the windy path to Bear Lake Road.
If you’re flying, your best bet would be to fly into Denver, which is about 60 miles southeast of the park.
You can arrive at the trailhead by one of two options:
From May 24 – October 20, 2024, all personal vehicles must have a timed-entry reservation to park at Bear Lake (the trailhead for Emerald Lake). Make sure to reserve the permit that states “includes Bear Lake Road corridor.”
NOTE: If you arrive before 5 AM or after 6 PM, you do NOT need a timed-entry reservation to access the trailhead. These are the prime times to visit anyway, in my opinion!
Due to the trail’s popularity and many other intersecting trails branching off from this trailhead, you are not guaranteed a parking spot even with a timed-entry reservation.
If you arrive later than 7:00 AM, chances are high that you will not snag a coveted parking spot, even in the oversized parking lot. In this case, you would need to drive to Park & Ride and take the free shuttle to the trailhead. Find more info on the park shuttle here.
→ Read my 2024 US National Parks Visitor’s Guide before you plan your trip to the Rockies!
When to Go
You can hike the Emerald Lake Trail any time of the year, but snowshoes may be required from October through May.
To enjoy a (mostly) snow-free trail experience, visit June through September. But be mindful that this is also high season in the Rockies, so crowds will be thicker.
The Emerald Lake Trail starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Emerald Lake is open year-round, but since the trail sits at a very high elevation, snow is possible from October through May.
Bring your snowshoes if you want to hike the trail in the winter!
A 7-Day Vehicle Pass costs $35 and can be purchased at any of the entrance stations.
Save money by investing in the annual National Parks pass, especially if you will be adding all of the other Colorado National Parks to your road trip.
The trailhead is at the top of the Bear Lake parking lot, located beyond the pit toilets and behind the ranger station.
Criss-crossed trailhead signs will greet you at the mouth of the woods, indicating exactly where you should go.
If you want to hike to Bear Lake first (which is a popular choice and definitely worth the short hike), follow the signs for Bear Lake. If not, proceed to the Emerald Lake Trail; you can always stop at Bear Lake on the way back!
Since the trails begin at the same trailhead, Bear Lake can be added to the beginning or end of your Emerald Lake hike.
Bear Lake Trail is an easy, wheelchair-accessible 0.6-mile loop that circles a beautiful alpine lake. It features numerous log benches and viewpoints from many points around the lake, making it a great place to take a scenic, leisurely stroll to warm up before or wind down after your Emerald Lake hike.
The hike to Nymph Lake (the first lake on the trail) is about 0.6 miles from the trailhead, and while it’s mostly uphill, it’s not too strenuous.
Nymph Lake is the smallest of all of the lakes on this trail, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. Its surface is smattered with lilypads and lined with piles of driftwood while rolling hills and a prominent peak jut out from behind it.
From Nymph Lake, you’ll have to walk 0.5 miles to reach Dream Lake. (That’s what I love about this trail – there are scenic lakes frequently, so it really breaks up the trail and gives you something new to look forward to instead of focusing on the elevation).
INSIDER TIP: On this route, keep an eye out for the best view of Nymph Lake, which is about 0.2 miles from Nymph to Dream. You’ll get a birds-eye view of Nymph Lake with views of the surrounding craggy mountain peaks and tall trees.
Though the journey from Nymph to Dream is only 0.5 miles, it’s a bit steeper than the trek from the trailhead to Nymph.
But it’s worth it! Dream Lake is my favorite lake on this trail. And many even proclaim it to be one of the prettiest lakes in the Rockies. The craggy peaks looming behind the water stand in stark contrast to the pristine sapphire blue of the lake.
Take the time to scout the different viewpoints on Dream Lake. As you meander around the perimeter, the color of the water alters from blue to green to clear, and the angle of the trees and mountain peaks transform the look of the lake.
INSIDER TIP: This is the best lake to enjoy a snack/meal at. There is an abundance of boulders to choose from and no shortage of privacy around this mammoth lake.
From Dream Lake, the trail gets steeper. Sensing a trend? As you get closer and closer to Emerald Lake, the elevation continues to climb, making the trail more difficult and your breathing more laborious, especially if you’re not yet acclimated.
You will hike past 10,000 feet at this point on the trail, which can steal your breath. I remember feeling accomplished by this section; it’s a real feat to pass 10,000 feet, especially if you’ve never done it before.
Emerald Lake marks the finish line of this trail. Unlike some of the other lakes, there aren’t many viewpoints or places to relax, sit, or eat at Emerald. We climbed one of the bigger boulders (off to the left of the trail) up to the top but found there were already other people up there, so our visit to this lake was short-lived.
Nonetheless, Emerald Lake is stunning, and it’s worth the trek.
I found that Dream Lake made for the best stop on the trail in terms of views and pitstop privacy, but it was still worth it to see the beautiful emerald color of the lake backdropped by snow-dusted peaks.
Other Things to Do in the Park
Once you’ve completed the Emerald Lake Trail, you’ll be craving more jaw-dropping views, glossy alpine lakes, and high-elevated hiking trails!
Here are some other things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park:
Discover Your Next Adventure
After you hike this quintessential trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll be itching for another adventure.
Here are some of my guides for nearby recreation!
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