Alpine lake hikes are a dime a dozen in Colorado, but there’s only place where you can hit seven of them in one glorious day. Get thee to Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour north of Boulder, for the ultimate alpine lakes tour.
From Bear Lake Trailhead, you can explore six incredible lakes – Bear, Nymph, Dream, Emerald, Haiyaha, Mills, and the Loch. You’ll probably have a favorite, but each has its own merit. This 13-mile hike will take a few hours, but it’s well worth it. Elevation gain is moderate and most of the hike is more of a meander than a grueling climb.
Want to do more? Want to do less? No problem. You easily can tack on additional lakes. And if you’re short on time, you can hike the first four lakes in a mere 3.6 miles round trip.
Read on for everything you need to know about this unforgettable Rocky Mountain hike.
Please note that pets are not permitted on the trails at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Take US-36 into Estes Park and follow signs for Rocky Mountain National Park. Once you enter the park, turn left onto Bear Lake Road and follow it for 9 miles to Bear Lake Trailhead.
Rocky Mountain National Park is extremely busy in the summer and on fall weekends. Plan your visit for a weekday if possible or plan to arrive very early. The park also offers a free shuttle bus that is highly recommended during peak times.
When hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, be prepared for all possible weather, bring a map of the area, and consult the website for trail conditions and possible closures.
Have you arrived at the trailhead? Well then, congratulations – you’ve already scored your first alpine lake of the day! As the name suggests, Bear Lake Trailhead is adjacent to Bear Lake. You can explore the 0.6-mile trail surrounding the lake or just enjoy it from the main trail before you move on to the others.
After Bear, your next order of business is Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes (in that order). Hike west from Bear Lake on the pleasantly rolling, well-marked trail. Dream Lake is the real stunner of the group, but all three feature beautiful vistas and ample opportunity for picnicking and taking photos. At 1.8 miles and 600 feet of elevation gain, you’ll reach the end of the line with Emerald.
Return the way you came for 0.7 miles to the junction for Lake Haiyaha, just past Dream. Head south for ¾ of a mile, following the signs, and turn right onto the short out-and-back trail toward the lake. Enjoy peaceful Lake Haiyaha and then backtrack to the main trail.
Continue south for 2.1 miles to the junction for both Mills Lake and The Loch. The Loch is a dramatic and fitting end to your expedition, so start with Mills. Proceed for 0.6 miles to Mills Lake. Keep your eyes open for a very unique, often photographed twisted pine tree on the left. Savor the views at Mills and then get ready for the finale.
Return to the junction for Mills and The Loch. Now take the 0.9-mile trail to The Loch. While most of this lake tour rolls along rather gently, the trail to the Loch features a short but steep stretch through some breathtaking terrain. And at this point in the day, you’ll be feeling it. Take heart in knowing that it’s 100% worth it. This becomes apparent when you top out and the Loch finally comes into view. Take a well-earned break and soak in the incredible panorama. (Now is also a good time for those “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe we actually live here! We are the luckiest people alive!” warm and fuzzies.)
To get back to where you started, head down the 0.9-mile Loch trail to the junction with Mills. Hike north for 2.1 miles while following signs for Dream Lake. Back at the east end of Dream, turn right to return to Bear Lake Trailhead.
Wow! You just bagged six amazing alpine lakes in one gorgeous day. This hike is just under 13 miles with approximately 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Now what flavor ice cream will you get in Estes Park on your way home?
Do more OR less
There are countless variations to this hike. It can be easily adjusted to include more lakes or it can be shortened for beginners and anyone strapped for time.
Want to do more? From the Loch, continue another 1.5 miles and you’ll be able to enjoy the Lake of Glass and Sky Pond. End at Sky Pond and return the way you came. You might also opt to continue past Mill Lake just a few steps to include Jewel Lake.
Want to do less? The first four lakes (Bear, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald) make for an enjoyable 3.6-mile out-and-back that is suitable for nearly all fitness levels. Kids and out-of-towners will be amazed at the incredible payout in return for a modest effort.
Happy trails, Boulderites!
Featured Image Credit at Top of Post: Nam Lang