Ultimate Guide to Emerald Lake: One of the Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Emerald Lake is considered by many to be the BEST hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the first one we ever did in the park and is a great way to introduce yourself to the beautiful alpine landscape and lakes of the Rocky Mountains! We loved it so much after hiking to Emerald Lake in December 2020 that we came back again in October 2021 to see it in a different season. We’re excited to hike there in summer and spring next!
People visit Colorado from all around the world to see Rocky Mountain National Park, and the views you get hiking the Emerald Lake trail are what they are all looking for! Trust us when we say that when it comes to picking the best hikes in the park, Emerald Lake is a must-do.
Emerald Lake is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park since it’s low-to-moderate difficulty and suitable for kids too! Plus, this one hike actually passes by four alpine lakes (called Bear, Nymph, Dream, and then Emerald at the end). We consider the Emerland Lake hike a medium-effort, huge reward trail that absolutely belongs on your Colorado Bucket List!
Emerald Lake Basic Trail Information
Do you need a permit to hike to Emerald Lake?
You do not need a permit to hike Emerald Lake per se. However, during the summer months, you DO need a timed-entry reservation (Option 1) from recreation.gov to enter the Bear Road portion of Rocky Mountain National Park between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. Permits are required beginning at the end of May until the end of October, with specific dates each year announced by the National Park Service.
We recommend booking your reservation as far in advance as you can since numbers are limited and spots do book up. If the date you wanted is already taken, you can simply arrive at the park before 5 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Alternatively, you may be able to obtain one of the late-release permits, which are reservable starting at 5 p.m. Mountain Time the night prior to the day you would like to visit.
When booking your reservation, be sure to choose Option 1: Park Access + Bear Lake Road Corridor, otherwise, you will not be able to reach the trailhead for Emerald Lake.
Please note, no matter what part of Rocky Mountain National park you wish to visit, if you plan to arrive between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., you need a reservation. If you aren’t planning to do any of the hikes or see any of the sites along Bear Lake Road, you can get a reservation for Option 2: Park Access, Does Not Include Bear Lake Road Corridor. Option 2 permits are usually more available than Option 1 because Bear Lake Road is one of the most popular sections of the park.
In order to hike the trail to Emerald Lake, you must have an Option 1 permit if you wish to enter the park between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Rocky Mountain National Park Hiker Shuttle
There is ONE other option if you aren’t able to get a timed entry permit for Bear Lake Road. Rocky Mountain National Park also offers a hikers shuttle that transports visitors from the Estes Park Visitors Center to the Park and Ride location. From there, you can transfer onto any of the other shuttles and routes throughout the park, including the hiking trail for Emerald Lake.
The hiker shuttle also requires a permit which you should get online in advance at recreation.gov. It is much easier to get than the Bear Lake Road timed entry permit since most people prefer the independence of self-driving through the park.
How long does it take to hike to Emerald Lake roundtrip?
The hike to Emerald Lake is 3.6 miles long, round trip, and takes an average of 1 hour and 39 minutes to complete via user-generated data on AllTrails.
If you aren’t familiar with AllTrails, it is a popular mobile app for finding information about area trails, including reviews and downloadable maps (with a paid plan). While not 100% accurate, AllTrails is helpful for us when researching how long a hike is and how much time it will take us.
Depending on your level of fitness or how often you stop during your hike, you may take more or less time than the average to complete the Emerald Lake hike. We usually add an hour to our hiking times because we like to stop to take a lot of photos (yes, yes, we really are THAT couple haha).
How difficult is the hike to Emerald Lake?
Emerald Lake trail is considered “moderately challenging”. It has some uneven and rocky terrain, so it’s important to have the right footwear for hiking! You can shop our hiking gear here.
The hike to Emerald Lake is mostly uphill, though generally gradual, as it gains 700 feet in elevation from the trailhead to the lake. You can think of this as about 50 stories or the height of the Republic Tower in Denver (Colorado’s tallest building!) or the Metropolitan Life Building in New York City.
A Note on Altitude Sickness
When it comes to hiking difficult at Emerald Lake, the biggest challenge for many people visiting from lower elevations will be adjusting to the altitude. Emerald Lake sits at over 10,000 feet above sea level!
Altitude sickness absolutely kicked my butt the first time I experienced it. We were in Peru getting ready to hike the Inca Trail and I was so dizzy and woozy, that I was bedridden for several days before the hike!
Altitude sickness impacts everyone differently, whether you’re a marathon athlete or a couch potato. There’s no great way to predict how your body will respond to being at higher elevations! In general, though, most people can expect to feel more easily out of breath during physical activity while at higher elevations like in the Rocky Mountains. Don’t be surprised if you also have a headache and extreme fatigue for the first few days at altitude while your body acclimatizes.
If you experience symptoms of altitude sickness, take your hike to Emerald Lake very slowly or postpone it a day or two. Drink a lot of water and eat nourishing foods, even if you lose your appetite, to keep your energy up!
Is the Emerald Lake trail suitable for kids?
Plenty of children hike the trail to Emerald Lake every day during the busy summer season when school is out! Since this hike is fairly short and not technical, with only 700 feet in elevation gain, many kids of a wide age range enjoy this hike! We have also seen caretakers and/or parents carrying younger children in hiking-specific baby carriers on this trail.
We don’t have human children ourselves (just our cat-daughter Mara!), so we’ll leave it to you to decide what your child can handle. Just know that yes, kids do this hike all the time!
Can you bring your pet to Emerald Lake?
Nope, fur children are not allowed on Emerald Lake trail or any of the hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. Unless your vehicle can stay cool enough to safely leave your pet behind, it’s best to keep pets at home or at a pet-friendly accommodation in or near the park.
Is swimming allowed at Emerald Lake?
While swimming is technically legal in Rocky Mountain National Park, we wouldn’t recommend it. If the cold doesn’t bother you, the leeches probably will.
Here’s what the Rocky Mountain National Park Service has to say about swimming in Bear Lake. They don’t say anything specific about Emerald Lake, however. We will update this blog post with more information about swimming in Emerald Lake if it becomes available!
What is there to see on the hike to Emerald Lake?
Bear Lake is right at the start of the Emerald Lake trail. You have to take a slight detour to our right to get to the lake, but it’s well worth it to get your first peek of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain looming behind the evergreen trees lining the lake.
Bear Lake is especially scenic early in the morning at sunrise when the light hits the peaks just so. Perfection!
Bear Lake is a great spot to have a pre-or-post-hike picnic. Just be sure to pack out all your rubbish!
Nymph Lake is the first lake you will come to on the trail itself, about a half-mile from the trailhead. On still mornings you may be lucky to see a mirror-like reflection on the lake! This is a popular spot for a family picnic and the lily pads are charming. That said, Nymph Lake, in our opinion, is the most lackluster of the lakes on the hike to Emerald Lake. It has less of a view of the mountains than the other lakes you will see and is quite small. If time is a concern during your hike, we think this is the one to spend the least amount of time at.
Dream Lake is the second lake you will come to, 1 mile from the trailhead. The view of Flattop Mountain is especially prominent at Dream Lake, making it one of our favorite places to take photos in Rocky Mountain National Park.
In winter, Dream Lake freezes over and you can actually bypass the trail and hike across the ice. Caution: you should ONLY do this when rangers say that the ice is thick enough for crossing to be safe. Additionally, we strongly recommend microspikes for walking on icy trails.
On the next stretch of the hike, you’ll climb some stone steps up to Emerald Lake, a little over a mile and a half from the trailhead where you began! From here, you will have your closest views of Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak. The area around the lake is rocky with large boulders you can climb to sit on and enjoy the view, a snack, or just the cool mountain breeze!
BONUS LOCAL TIP: Lake Haiyaha
Near Dream Lake, at roughly 1.1 miles from the trailhead, you’ll arrive at a fork in the trail. To continue on to Emerald Lake, you should stay to the right. However, if you are up for a 2-mile round-trip detour on your way to or from Emerald Lake, you can hike the trail to Lake Haiyaha. Far fewer visitors take this route so odds are good you’ll have a more serene experience here! Note that this will bring your total hike distance to 5.6 miles round trip to visit all 5 lakes (Bear, Nymph, Dream, Emerald, Haiyaha).
Guided Tours in Rocky Mountain National Park
Perhaps you’re feeling like exploring Rocky Mountain National Park and hiking on your own isn’t for you, and you’d like an expert to help you make the most of your experience. We got you! Here are some guided tour offerings you can choose from!
What should you pack to hike to Emerald Lake?
- Day Pack: Tim and I love Osprey for quality day packs. I’ve had the Osprey Skimmer 20 for Women for years and it’s held up on every adventure! And here’s the Osprey Talon 22 Pack for Men!
- Water Reservoir: If your day pack doesn’t have a water reservoir in it already, you can buy one separately to carry in your bag. These are so important for staying hydrated and comfortably carrying several liters of water with you for longer hikes! Here are our favorite 2-liter reservoir and 3-liter reservoir!
- Reusable Water Bottle: This REI Water Bottle comes in so many fun designs and you can clip the lid to your bag with a basic carabiner.
- Sun Protection: This is so important no matter the season! Sun Bum is our favorite sunscreen brand.
- Hiking Boots: I’m OBSESSED with these Columbia hiking boots and have them in multiple colors. You can’t beat the price for the quality, too. Tim loves his Foxelli boots and swears they are the best hiking boots he’s ever owned.
- Socks: I started wearing these double-layer Wrightsock brand socks when marathon training years ago and have never gotten a blister with them! These are the only hiking socks I wear because I love not worrying about blisters. In winter, I might mix it up with merino wool socks, too.
- Sunglasses: I love these wooden frame sunglasses, so they are my go-to.
- Hiking pants: These hiking leggings are my favorite in winter. In summer, I usually hike in biker shorts.
- Moisture-wicking layers: SmartWool is our favorite layering brand. I wear this pullover all the time and their wool t-shirts are great base layers. There are also SmartWool t-shirts for men!
- First Aid Kit: An ultralight first aid kit is a must-have whenever we hike!
- Camera: I always hike with my Sony a7iii. It’s a great full-frame camera for capturing all of our hiking memories!
- Snacks: Clif Energy Bars are our favorite hiking snack, for a good mix of carbs, fats, and protein to power us through our hikes!
- Trekking poles: Many people like hiking with trekking poles to offset the burden on the knees, especially going downhill. We don’t use ours often, but these Black Diamond Trail Back hiking poles are really popular!
Where to Stay in Estes Park
We recommend basing yourself in Estes Park when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are some well-rated hotel options in Estes Park, which is just a few miles from the Beaver Meadows entrance station to RMNP.
- The Historic Crag’s Lodge
- Silver Moon Hotel
- Best Western Plus Silver Saddle Inn
- 4 Seasons Inn on Fall River
- Hotel Estes
Click here to search for additional hotels in Estes Park or search below!
Final Thoughts on Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake is one of our favorite hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park! It’s hard to beat getting to see 4 beautiful lakes (5 if you include Lake Haiyaha) on this one trail!
Our last tip for you is to try to be early birds when it comes to Rocky Mountain National Park! Parking for the Emerald Lake trailhead at Bear Lake fills up early, so if visiting during peak season, your best bet is to get in before 9 a.m., so try to get a time-entry permit before then, or plan to arrive before 5 a.m.
Can’t get enough hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park? Check out our guides to Chasm Lake and Sky Pond! And don’t miss Trail Ridge Road, the prettiest drive in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, and the highest-elevation continuous paved road in the USA! We’ve also got a packing guide for Rocky Mountain National Park and you can even get a free printable PDF packing list by subscribing below!