In the heart of the most-hiked area of Rocky Mountain National Park are three lakes, each more stunning than the last, and all reachable by an easy hike. Starting at the Bear Lake Trailhead, the very busy trail climbs to Nymph Lake in a half-mile. The trail skirts the north side of this small lake and arrives at Dream Lake, one of the most-photographed in the park. The cliffs of Hallett Peak rise dramatically in the distance. Crowds thin out here as many hikers continue south on a loop trail. Stay north of the lake and follow the good trail another mile to reach Emerald Lake, high in the glacial Tyndall Gorge. The trail ends at Emerald Lake, a pristine alpine gem. Take some pictures and return the way you came or, if you have time, follow the loop trail south and then east past Alberta Falls to return to the trailhead.
I set out on snowshoes the first time I visited the lake, as part of a ranger-guided hike. What is normally a 20-minute walk in summer took an hour, and when we reached Dream Lake it was snowing so hard you couldn’t make out the peaks in the distance or even the lake. Oh well. At least there weren’t any crowds.
- This is an extremely popular area, with a parking lot that fills, despite its massive size. Arrive early to beat the crowds and get good morning light photos of the lakes. If you arrive later during the summer, consider taking the free shuttle bus to ease parking woes.
- Visit Dream Lake in winter with your snowshoes, which takes on a whole different look when the snow is deep and the crowds are gone.
- If the 1.8-mile hike to Emerald Lake hasn’t worn you out, return to Dream Lake and follow the loop trail south, with a short side trip to The Loch, another lake that has to be seen to be believed.
Recommended season(s): Summer to late fall, winter for snowshoeing.
–R. Scott Rappold