We arrived at the Bear Lake trailhead about 4:00 pm and started off. We had tried two other times to hike up to Emerald Lake but never made it past Dream Lake because of snow. So we were really hoping to actually see Emerald Lake today, July 3.
The trail is about 1.8 miles each way and it’s rated “moderate” with a elevation gain of 708 feet. The elevation at the trailhead is at 9402 feet above sea level. None of the trail rating systems match up with each other so I would describe the trail like this: There are a lot of steps/stairs and steep areas. There are a couple drop offs, so I would never let a small child run wild but would use a backpack for them. The high elevation makes it so much harder than it would be if it were at sea level. I have seen a lot of reviews saying “It’s an easy trail! Bring the whole family!” but if you have someone with arthritis or lung problems this is definitely not the trail for them.
So essentially you hike up this high-altitude drainage past two lakes to get to Emerald Lake. The first part of the trail up to Nymph Lake is pretty steep and part of it is paved. You will meet chipmunks and ground squirrels along the way. Do not feed them no matter how stinkin’ cute they are. Same goes for birds, not supposed to feed them either even if they land on you.
So anyway, this part of the trail is hard and you will likely have to stop and catch your breath (pretend you are just stopping for water, that’s what I do). Then you get to Nymph Lake, and are amazed.
I like the lily pads because I just never expect to see them that high up, but several of RMNP’s high lakes have lily pads. Anyway you stop and rest a minute, take pictures, then continue on.
After Nymph Lake we crossed a river (there is a bridge), climbed more hills, encountered more chipmunks. In early June there was still a lot of really slippery snow but that has now melted. There are a lot of stairs to climb. As you get close to Dream Lake you come to this fancy bridge.
Then there was a great big pile of melting, slippery snow that you have to cross. I don’t know if it ever melts all the way. The fact that so many people have walked across it, slipped on it, etc makes it really slick. I don’t think any shoe would keep you from sliding on it. We made it across that and then we were at Dream Lake, which I think is the prettiest of the three lakes.
Dream Lake is really long and skinny. You can see Cutthroat Trout swimming in it if you watch for them. A Clark’s Nutcracker was flying around and squawking at us, either because it was hungry or maybe it wanted us to leave. As we left we crossed a long boardwalk over the marshy area and that was cool. Then we started climbing a whole bunch of stairs. There were stairs before this point but not nearly as many at a time, so I guess this is where the most elevation gain occurs. It’s really pretty and you walk past waterfalls on some of the stairs. I am putting a bunch of stair photos in one gallery but some of them are from earlier in the hike.
We encountered quite a bit more snow after Dream Lake. I don’t see how you could follow the trail if there was a bunch more snow up here, like in late May. The waterfalls are pretty but not huge.
We finally made it to Emerald Lake! It was about 5:45 pm by the time we got there. For most of the hike we were walking towards the sun, and most of the views were looking into the sun. This made it so a lot of my photos have lens flare and they were probably the worst at Emerald Lake. There were also quite a few people up there and so it was hard to get a photo without people in it. It’s ok though, we were just happy we made it up there finally. It’s a beautiful lake of course and we felt like we earned the view from all the stairs and hills! Some kid dove in off a rock and I can tell you that water was literally ice water.
The way back down was much faster. As I was walking through a snow patch I thought “I can’t believe I haven’t fallen down!” which of course was the cue for me to fall down with a loud “oooof!”. This was apparently really hilarious because my daughter was still laughing two days later. Anyway when I landed I got snow on my lens and didn’t realize it so the rest of my photos have water drops on them. The best part about falling in the snow is that you don’t get scraped up at all, ha ha.
We passed squirrels and chipmunks and another Clark’s Nuthatch (or the same one?) at Dream Lake. They sound so much like crows. They are corvids, so I guess it makes sense. Funny, this is the least amount of wildlife we ever saw on a hike at Rocky Mountain National Park, probably because of the steep terrain and all the people. Usually we see marmots, elk, moose, etc.
My overall opinion of this trail is that I love it, it’s beautiful, the lakes are awesome, and it’s challenging but not overwhelming. It’s crowded but given that it’s the most popular trail in the third most visited National Park I guess that should be expected. It’s worth it and I will do it again.
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This is a beautiful trail. Unfortunately it's also a very crowded trail which is why I only gave it 4 stars.
I love this hike.