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Trails I've Hiked: A Trio Of Watery Jewels At Rocky Mountain National Park

Emerald Lake with Hallett Peak. A great summer day's hike. Kurt Repanshek photo.

While Bear Lake is a potent draw at Rocky Mountain National Park, and justifiably so, there lies a trio of watery delights beyond this attraction that are more than worthy of your attention...before visiting Bear Lake.

The trailheads are clustered together, so it's not like you have to detour away from Bear Lake to enjoy these three jewels. Rather, at the main entrance to Bear Lake you veer slightly to your left while those seeking Bear Lake can stride perhaps 100 feet straight ahead and be on its shores.

True, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes require a longer sojourn, one that's steeper, as well. But the rewards are sublime: A wooden bench on a lakeshore to enjoy the peace, quiet, water, and mountains; the possibility of encountering wildlife; a gorgeous alpine lake framed by rock and trees.

Getting There

The Bear Lake area and its immediate surroundings very likely, if not certainly, are the greatest visitor magnets in the park. Along with Bear Lake and its nature trail, you have the trails that lead to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes, a connector to Lake Haiyaha that leads deeper into the backcountry, and a trail to Alberta Falls that also leads further into the mountains.

On the way to the Bear Lake parking area you also pass the parking lot for the hike to Bierstadt Lake, the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop, and the turnoff to Sprague Lake with its picnic area.

Now, over the years steady flows of traffic to these areas have taken a toll on the road to Bear Lake. As a result, part of it was rebuilt in 2012, and the summer of 2013 has brought another season of road cones and road crews to the corridor.

On weekdays, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., you're required to take a shuttle bus to Bear Lake. If you're early enough, you can park at the Moraine Park Visitor Center (which is closed this year due to sequestration cuts) and board a shuttle there. If you're really early enough, you can drive to Bear Lake before 9 a.m. and hope to find a parking spot there.

On weekends there is no construction, so you can drive to the Bear Lake area any time of day. The problem, of course, is landing one of the 255 parking spots (244 automobile, 5 handicap, and 6 government vehicles). Rangers at the entrance to the Bear Lake Parking Area closely monitor things and hold up traffic until spots open; encountering a lengthy delay is a pretty good reason for parking at Moraine Park, or perhaps even the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, and riding the shuttles.

Yet another parking option is the Park and Ride lot near Glacier Basin on the road to Bear Lake. This lot has been closed due to the road work, but will reopen on July 20 and be able to offer 334 more parking spaces. Until July 20, the parking lot at the Moraine Park Visitor Center, which has been closed due to the budget sequestration, will continue to serve as the Park and Ride lot.

The Hike

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Nymph Lake. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Hiking to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes is a joy, more so if you rise early enough to beat the crowds. I left my lodging in late June at roughly 6:15 a.m. to make the drive, and arrived within a half-hour to find a dozen or so cars in the parking lot. The sky overhead was cerulean and without a cloud, the air still cool, and a few other hardy souls were lacing their boots and hefting their packs.

Veering left at the trailhead towards the trio of lakes, I had the path to myself. The walk was easy, outside of the frequent stops to pull my camera from my pack to take shots of the mountainous setting. I could hear, but not see, Alberta Falls somewhere off to my left. Also somewhere out of sight to my right Bear Lake, at an elevation of 9,475 feet, seemingly was shrinking as I ascended towards my final destination, Emerald Lake, at 10,090 feet.

The hike is not complicated. Roundtrip it runs 3.6 miles. The tricky part is the altitude. I passed one gray-haired woman who was taking it very easy, pausing frequently, as she came to the national park from an elevation of roughly 4,000 feet, and that extra mile of thinning atmosphere was not being bashful of showing itself.

Nymph Lake is your first destination, and it comes relatively soon, just a half-mile into your walk. It's something of a pocket lake, surrounded by forest and dotted by lily pads. Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) reflects on the lake surface, another reason to head up early before the day's rising winds ruffle the surface and distort the reflection. A small bench -- a log halved length-wise and supported by two whole log sections -- offers you both a resting and a reflective place.

The trail winds around the north shore of the lake towards Dream Lake, another six-tenths of a mile ahead. It was while walking along this section that I happened upon an elk cow and her calf, which minutes earlier had been sipping from the water on the eastern side of Nymph Lake. She obviously had become somewhat habituated to hikers, giving me little more than a glance before heading off to browse some breakfast with her calf, still nursing, in tow.

One of your indications that Dream Lake is very near is a series of steps that carries the trail upwards while a parallel stream leaps and jumps downhill, a cool flush of water tempting on hot days. A small bridge takes you across this outlet of Dream Lake and over to the eastern shore.

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Dream Lake. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The lake, not much bigger than Nymph Lake, is studded on the eastern end with granite outcrops and stunted conifers that resemble over-sized bonsai trees. You can linger at Dream Lake, but the closeness of Hallett Peak likely will hasten your pace to Emerald Lake. The trail runs seven-tenths of a mile further to this sparkling beauty. Along the way watch for rivulets nourishing small hanging gardens on the north side of the trail.

At Emerald Lake, the scenery envelopes your view: the lake in the foreground, steeply rising scree slopes in the background that give way to solid rock walls and, eventually, Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet).

On this late June day snowfields still swept down the flanks of Flattop, and two backcountry skiers -- tiny dots from where I stood -- were slowly working their way towards the top. Sitting on a granite boulder in the shade, snacking on trail mix, while watching the skiers made me glad that, on this day at least, I was hiking.

If You Go

Bear Lake To Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes

Trailhead: Bear Lake Parking Area

Distance: 3.6 miles roundtrip, out and back.

Difficulty: Easy if you're acclimated to the altitude, moderate otherwise.

Maps: The park's Bear Lake Area Hiking brochure, available at the ranger station at the Bear Lake parking area.

Don't forget plenty of water, hiking sticks to make the descent easier on your knees, snacks, and your camera.

The hike reportedly can be tackled year-round, and, with enough snowfall, is suitable for snowshoes or skis in winter.


Instead of tracking back after reaching Emerald Lake I'd suggest to do a anti-clockwise loop including Lake Haiyaha and Alberta Falls before returning to the Bear Lake parking area. We did this in July 2011 and experienced splendid solitude even in the middle of the day as soon as you get away from the Emerald Lake trail. The trail between Dream Lake and Alberta Falls is a bit more on the wild side but very scenic (fantastic vistas down to Sprague Lake and up to Taylor Glacier). You have, however, climb then back up to the parking lot which after 3 to 4 hours on the hike may be a bit hard, but I got over it. And had one of the best hikes ever in a NP.

First off, thanks to Kurt for producing such a fine online magazine as National Parks Traveler. Having just arrived home after hiking the Emerald Lake trail and then up to Lake Haiyaha, I only wish we'd followed Gila Monster's advice and looped around to Alberta Falls. Thunderstorms moved in early on July 1, so getting down off exposed slopes seemed more prudent at 11:30. Let me also put in a plug for the Calypso Cascade and Ouzel Falls route on the way to Bluebird Lake from Wild Basin trailhead off Hwy 7. If you want to an easy 7-mile hike along spectacular water, with great views of Long's Peak and Mt. Meeker, this is a beauty!

Thanks for the kudos, atwillw. We've got some plans in the works to make the Traveler even better and give you and other readers a better format for offering your own suggestions regarding the parks. We think you'll all like it...

I'm enjoying your articles on a few of the trails in RMNP. Haven't been there since I was a child and don't remember much. We plan a trip in August with a photographer friend who used to live in Colorado and she put the hike to Dream Lake at dawn on the top of her list of places we must go!

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