As fires die down and more sections of Rocky Mountain National Park reopen, we returned to Bear Lake Trailhead. We opted for the popular 3.5 mile hike to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake.
Emerald Lake Trail Day Hike
A few cars speckled the Bear Lake parking lot at our 6:30AM arrival to obtain a sunrise shot on the west bank of Bear Lake. There were no clouds to speak of as the sky lightened, not ideal for hiking photography. Although certainly a good omen for our hiking trip today.
Bear Lake Trail | Elevation: 9,499 Feet
We were pleased to realize that ice coating Bear Lake was thick enough to support our weight and we were able to walk atop the lake and admire the alpen-glow. Dave set up the GoPro hero 9 for time-warp footage while he scouted the frozen Bear Lake for a suitable crack in the ice. As the lake was newly frozen, the tremendous cracks we marveled at last winter had not yet formed. We were sure to be careful around rock outcroppings and the banks of the lake, which is where the ice was the most dangerous.
The sun arched into the sky, and we skirted back around Bear Lake to the Emerald Lake Trailhead. In summer months the onset of this trail is paved, today it was covered in a mixture of snow and ice; we would be needing microspikes today. A few other hikers perused the trail ahead of us, and we relished in the familiar crunch of the traction in the snow. After 0.5 miles we had reached Nymph Lake.
Nymph Lake | Elevation: 9,710 Feet
When thawed, Nymph Lake is coated in lily pads, scientific name Nymphaea polysepala, to which the lake earns its name. On this morning however, Nymph Lake was completely frozen. After stopping for more footage and photography, we trekked across the lake and rejoined the trail leading to Dream Lake. While the lakes were solid enough to walk on, the connecting creek certainly was not. Cold water rushed through the snow and bridge crossings were greatly appreciated.
Dream Lake | Elevation: 9,910 Feet
Dream Lake is one of the most photographed lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s no mystery why visitors are drawn to this destination. This can be attributed to the exceptional payoff with little effort. Today was no exception as the high peaks of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain soar above. The thin swatch of Dream Lake was frozen solid, and again we walked out across the ice. During the summer months we missed the shortcuts that frozen lakes offered; trudging around a watery Loch Vale is much longer, for example, than beeline-ing straight across. The hike was not yet halfway over, and we were already making plans to return to Dream Lake for sunrise this season.
Emerald Lake | Elevation: 10,100 Feet
A 0.6 mile stretch separates Dream Lake from the third and final lake, Emerald Lake. At some point along this winding path, the wind began to pick up and we were introduced to its full force on the shores of Emerald Lake. Smaller than Dream Lake but still boasting magnificent views of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain, frozen Emerald Lake was quite chilly despite the warming sun.
Two other hikers intending to climb Hallett Peak hiked up behind us, but they were soon gone and we had the lake to ourselves for a quarter of an hour. At Emerald Lake, I could not help but think about my brother Ross. This was his very first hike in Colorado, two years ago on this exact date 11/22. We had zero gear and were slipping around in tennis shoes but we made it! I remember we watched two skiers bomb down the slopes that day; there was certainly not enough snow for that today!
Hiking Back to Bear Lake Trailhead
When we tired of the wind, we traced our steps back down to the trailhead. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to walk over Dream Lake and Nymph Lake again in all their frozen glory. This was not a good idea, as the day was becoming increasingly warm. As we crossed Nymph Lake, we could hear a large crack form across the surface upon which we stood and we could feel the vibrations through our boots, it was mildly terrifying. On the descent to the parking lot we were increasingly grateful of our traction as the trail composition switched from snow to ice.
As evidenced by the activity in the parking lot, Bear Lake and Emerald Lake trails are widely popular in Rocky Mountain National Park. I would suggest to any visitor interested in hiking to arrive for this one early to avoid crowds and nasty parking situations. The hike to Emerald Lake is a 3.5 mile out and back, with 700 feet of elevation gain. Though it took us longer to drive to and from Denver, we were thrilled to be back in a place we love, and can’t wait to dive back in to winter hiking.
Video of our Hike to Emerald Lake