Experienced Colorado hikers know this golden rule: It’s always better in winter. Colder? Yes. Tougher? Yes. Worth it? Oh yes. Winter is the “slow season” for fair weather hikers, which means it’s “go season” for the rest of us.
Nowhere is this truer than in Rocky Mountain National Park. The crowds of summer and fall disappear as winter descends and the park is transformed by snow. Even the most popular trails are suddenly quieter, calmer, and relatively empty.
The hike to Emerald Lake is probably the most popular hike in the entire park. In the warmer months, it’s overwhelmed by throngs of both tourists and locals. But in winter, parking is ample. The trail feels spacious. There is peace and quiet to be found. And now, more than ever, you can really appreciate the beauty of this classic alpine lake hike.
Note: Weather and trail conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park can be drastically different from those in Boulder. Be sure to check weather reports and current conditions for both roads and trails before heading out.
To snowshoe or not to snowshoe? If the Bear Lake area received significant snowfall prior to your hike, snowshoes may be needed. If not, a good pair of boots and traction will usually suffice. The trail is well traveled and gets packed down quickly. The National Park Service maintains a very helpful page solely for Bear Lake conditions.
The hike to Emerald Lake begins at Bear Lake Trailhead (9, 475 feet). From the town of Estes Park, take US 36 to the park entrance. Just past the entrance, continue for 0.2 miles then turn left onto Bear Lake Road. Follow Bear Lake Road for 8.5 miles to the trailhead.
The hike to Emerald Lake is 3 miles round trip with 605 feet of elevation gain. (Please note this is the winter distance. In summer, the trails vary slightly and the hike is 3.6 miles round trip.)
While this is a relatively short hike, do give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it. This is the type of hike to linger on. You’ll want to take photos and explore the shores of each lake. Come prepared to spend some time here and savor all the hike has to offer.
Begin at Bear Lake Trailhead. Bear Lake is to the right and it’s worth a quick stop before or after your trip to Emerald. The trail that takes you to Emerald is to the left.
After a flat and easy going half mile, you’ll arrive at the diminutive but beautiful Nymph Lake.
Assuming it’s frozen (which it usually is this time of year), feel free to walk into the center and enjoy the views. In summer, this lake is full of lily pads and dense vegetation along the edges. In winter, it’s a stark but gorgeous white canvas. On the opposite side of the lake, you’ll see the trail continuing.
From here, the trail begins a slight climb. In 0.3 miles, you’ll arrive at breathtaking Dream Lake. This is one of the most photographed spots in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The sharp lines of Hallett Peak frame the lake so beautifully – it’s hard to believe it’s real. Often the lake is completely frozen, but be careful if you choose to venture out there and keep your eyes open for cracks or thin ice.
The trail continues alongside Dream and then climbs more steadily to your final destination, at 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Emerald Lake is a beauty any time of year, but it’s especially magical in winter.
Enjoy the grand views of Hallett, Flattop, and Notchtop Mountains. Have fun exploring the rocky outcrops along the shoreline. Perhaps find a sheltered spot to stop for a snack.
After you’ve had your fill of Emerald, you’ll return the way you came and you’ll be able to enjoy Dream and Nymph one more time. And be sure to come back to Bear Lake Trailhead in the summer or fall (crowds be damned) to see Emerald’s namesake turquoise blue water.
Happy trails, Boulderites!