The Emerald Lake Trail is one of the most popular day hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), located just a short distance from the town of Estes Park, Colorado.
It’s a nice, family friendly hike that features a total of three different scenic lakes on the main trail — Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake — plus two more optional lakes you can visit with side trails (Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha).
Wildlife sightings are also common on the way to Emerald Lake, and it’s a good starter trail for acclimating to the higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains.
This guide will explain how to do the Emerald Lake Colorado hike, how to get permits and parking, where to find the trailhead in the Rocky Mountain National Park, and everything else you need to know before you go!
Where To Stay In Estes Park
- Distance: 3.2 miles (5.2 km) round trip
- Elevation Gain: 650 feet (200 m)
- Start Elevation: 9,450 feet (2,880 m)
- End Elevation: 10,100 feet (3,080 m)
- Duration: 2 – 3 hours round trip
- Difficulty: Easy
*These stats are for the roundtrip hike to Emerald Lake without doing the optional side trails for Bear Lake or Lake Haiyaha
Emerald Lake Trail: What To Expect
The Emerald Lake Colorado hike takes you to three different alpine lakes, with an option to do two more lakes if you have time.
It’s a relatively short and easy hike to Emerald Lake, and should be manageable for all ages and ability levels. The elevation might make you feel a little out of breath at first, but it’s good for building up to some of the harder hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
One of the great things about this hike is that you can turn around at any point on the trail, and even if you don’t go all the way to Emerald Lake, you’ll still see plenty of good scenery on the way there.
Wildlife sightings are another great thing about the Emerald Lake Trail. The most common animals to see here are elk, but it’s also possible to see black bears, moose, deer, and other kinds of animals. Pets aren’t allowed, and you’ll want to keep small kids within sight.
This hike is extremely popular and often very busy, so it’s a good idea to start early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and you’ll also need to get access permits for Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ll explain that process in more detail later in this travel guide.
The sections below will explain each part of the Emerald Lake Colorado hike and what to expect. It’s a great starter trail in RMNP!
• Trailhead To Nymph Lake (Part 1 of 3)
Distance: 0.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 250 feet
Time: 20-30 minutes
The Emerald Lake Trail starts with a brief ascent up to Nymph Lake, which is the smallest of the three lakes on the main trail. It’s a paved path at first, but quickly turns into dirt and rocks.
Near the trailhead, you’ll come to a junction where you can turn right for Bear Lake, or left for the Nymph / Dream / Emerald Lakes. You can come back here later and see Bear Lake on the way out, if you want. It’s right by the trailhead, so it can wait.
After about 20-30 minutes of hiking, you’ll reach Nymph Lake, which is filled with lily pads. There’s a nice bench where you can sit and take a break from the trail.
In the early morning, we encountered a group of elk walking right across the hiking path! It seems to be common at this lake.
Nymph is nice, but it’s more of a pond than a lake. It’s not as good as Dream Lake or Emerald Lake. It’s more like a preview of what’s to come next.
• Nymph Lake to Dream Lake (Part 2 of 3)
Distance: 0.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Time: 20-30 minutes
The short climb from Nymph Lake to Dream Lake starts out a little steep, but soon becomes flatter.
This part of the hike is when things start to become scenic, and you get an amazing glimpse of Rocky Mountain National Park, with views all the way out to Longs Peak.
After about 20-30 minutes of hiking from Nymph Lake, you’ll reach a junction with a sign to turn left for Lake Haiyaha, or turn right for Dream Lake and Emerald Lake.
Shortly after passing the sign, you’ll arrive at Dream Lake, which is bigger and better than Nymph, and you can start to see Hallett Peak in the background.
• Dream Lake to Emerald Lake Colorado (Part 3 of 3)
Distance: 0.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Time: 20-30 minutes
Last, but not least, you have a brief hike from Dream Lake to Emerald Lake, which is the third and final lake on the main trail.
This final part of the trail isn’t really any longer or steeper than the first parts, but it may seem a little tougher because you can start to feel the altitude setting in and making it a bit harder to catch your breath.
At this point, you’ll pass through some peaceful green meadows with pine trees and friendly chipmunks.
After about 20-30 minutes of hiking from Dream Lake, you’ll arrive at Emerald Lake Colorado, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful lakes in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Like its name indicates, the water is a clear emerald color, and if you arrive early in the morning (before the wind picks up), you can see some amazing reflections on the surface of the lake.
This lake seems almost as clear as glass, and the impressive Hallett Peak sits directly behind it!
Dream Lake To Lake Haiyaha (Optional)
Distance: 0.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 325 feet
Time: 30-40 minutes
After visiting Emerald Lake, if you want to extend your hike, you can retrace your steps to Dream Lake and take the side trail to Lake Haiyaha. It’s marked with a clear wooden sign.
You should know that the trail to Lake Haiyaha is a bit longer and harder than any of the other three lakes you’ve already done. It’s uphill both ways.
In spite of the challenge, Haiyaha is still a nice lake and it’s well worth a visit if you have extra energy and time to spare.
The trail to Haiyaha is less crowded than the other lakes, but it still has a fair number of people. Along the way, you’ll pass some nice panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lake Haiyaha is a bright blue color, and it’s surrounded by huge car-sized boulders that are tricky to navigate. You’ll have to work your way through this boulder field if you want a close up view of the lake.
When you’re finished at Lake Haiyaha, you’ll have to retrace your steps to Dream Lake, and then back to the Bear Lake trailhead.
Bear Lake Loop (Optional)
Distance: 0.7 miles (roundtrip)
Elevation Gain: 50 feet (roundtrip)
Time: 20-30 minutes (roundtrip)
When you’re finished at Emerald Lake, don’t forget to visit Bear Lake, which is located right by the trailhead! You can snap some pictures of this lake without doing any hiking.
In order to do a complete loop around Bear Lake, you’ll need about 20-30 minutes of walking. The path is mostly flat, and perfect for kids, older folks, or people with mobility issues.
Bear Lake Loop is one of the shortest and easiest hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, but there are lots of nice photo ops along the way. In the early morning, you can see some great reflections on the lake!
For most months of the year, you need a national park pass AND a timed entry permit to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, which also applies to the Emerald Lake trail since it’s part of RMNP.
The national park pass is easy to get and you can buy it online or in person. We normally get the annual pass and visit several U.S. parks in a year, but they also have daily passes. More information and current fees can be found on the RMNP website.
A timed entry permit is also required to do the Emerald Lake Trail. This one is a bit annoying, but it’s intended to manage crowds at RMNP. There are some exceptions to this rule if you arrive very early in the morning, or very late in the afternoon.
You can read more about the timed entry permit and how to get it on the RMNP website.
Emerald Lake Trailhead: How To Get There
The Emerald Lake hike starts from the Bear Lake trailhead, which is located at the end of Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Here are the GPS coordinates: 40.312007745083704, -105.64600936235149
You can also use the Google map below to navigate you directly to the parking area, which is a 45 minute drive from the town of Estes Park, or 2 hours from Denver Colorado.
On maps, it’s called the Bear Lake Trailhead, but you can rest assured that the Emerald Lake Trail also starts from this same location.
The road is paved and in good condition all the way from Estes Park to the Bear Lake trailhead, so you don’t need high clearance or anything special to reach it.
When you first turn into Bear Lake Road, there’s a booth with friendly rangers from the National Park Service checking entry permits. At the trailhead, there are some information signs, vault toilets, trash bins, a water bottle filling station, and a trail map.
The trailhead has a huge parking lot with more than 200 car parking spaces, but because of the crazy popularity of this hike nowadays, the parking fills up very quickly. If the parking lot is full, you can use the Park & Ride shuttle bus service provided by NPS.
U.S. National Park Regulations
The Emerald Lake trail is part of Rocky Mountain National Park, so the usual U.S. national park regulations apply.
As always, please remember to keep the trail clean, be considerate of other hikers, and leave no trace. Thanks and happy travels!
Estes Park Hotels
Best Time To Visit
The Emerald Lake Colorado hike is nice at any time of day, but I think it’s definitely best to go in the early morning.
It’s very hard to get parking for this hike because of its extreme popularity, and by going in the morning you also avoid a bit of the crowds and heat. It’s good for photography, too, because you can see reflections on the lakes.
The Emerald Lake hike is open all year, but the best months to visit are from May to October, when there isn’t snow or ice on the trail. You can check current trail conditions on the RMNP website before you go.
More Colorado Hiking Guides
Thanks for looking! I hope you enjoyed this guide for the Emerald Lake Colorado trail in Estes Park (Rocky Mountain National Park).
Don’t forget to check out my other Colorado hiking guides before you go!