The Emerald Lake Trail is one of the best short hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. In this guide we’re sharing how to hike the Emerald Lake Trail, plus how to add Lake Haiyaha to your route for even more beautiful scenery!
During our first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in July 2017, we only had one day to explore the park, which is a daunting task at a park that offers as much as Rocky Mountain National Park.
But after a little bit of research we quickly learned that Emerald Lake was one of the “must-do” hikes in the park, so we added it to our itinerary for the day, along with a couple other hikes, and had the best day in the park seeing some of its most iconic scenery.
Fast forward to 2021, we were back at the park again and even had some special visitors join us for a few days…Kathryn’s brothers! Since they were coming from Texas, we decided to take them on this hike to show them some of the best scenery that the park has to offer, without putting their lungs to work too much. But this time, we added on an extra lake as well, to make the experience even more beautiful.
Both of our experiences hiking the Emerald Lake Trail have been nothing short of breathtaking and we believe that this is one of the best bang for your buck hikes in the park! And in this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike the Emerald Lake Trail, including the timed reservation system (and what to do without a reservation), how to add on Lake Haiyaha, and more!
Looking For More Things To Do In Colorado? Check out our other guides:
- The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
- How to hike to Sky Pond at Rocky Mountain National Park (Our favorite hike in the park!)
- 4 Days in Colorado Itinerary: Denver, Boulder, RMNP, & Colorado Springs
- A Complete Guide to visiting Mesa Verde National Park
- Things to do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- 12 Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
- All of our Colorado Vlogs
- All of our Colorado Guides
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About the Emerald Lake Trail
If you search Google Images for “Rocky Mountain National Park,” you have likely seen a photo (or many!) of Emerald Lake, as it’s often the first photo to pop up. Located in the Bear Lake Road Corridor, this hike combines our two favorite things to experience on a trail: alpine lakes (3+!) and epic mountain views.
It’s a quintessential Rocky Mountain National Park hike and with its short mileage and relatively gentle elevation gain, it’s definitely the most popular (it has over 7,600 reviews on AllTrails)! But if it’s your first visit to the park, this hike is an absolute must and worth fighting some crowds for.
To learn more about Rocky Mountain National Park and other hikes in the park, check out our guide with the best things to do at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Please treat Rocky Mountain National Park with Respect
Before going any further into this hike, one thing we really want to stress is to PLEASE treat Rocky Mountain National Park with respect and follow Leave No Trace principles so that others can enjoy these places for many years to come!
Beyond the 7 LNT principles, please take a minute to read the Rocky Pledge and remember it when you visit Rocky Mountain National Park and amazing places like it. The park is full of fragile terrain, including alpine tundra areas, and also is home to tons of wildlife, so please follow all rules when exploring the park.
There have been many people caught on camera going up to wildlife (including animals like elk that WILL hurt you!) and we even saw people walking off trail in the fragile tundra areas, including with their dogs, which are prohibited. We love getting to share these beautiful places and help you explore them and we hope that you will treat them with the respect they deserve.
Emerald Lake Trail Stats (+ Add ons!)
Miles (roundtrip): 3.2
Elevation gain: 698 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
Emerald Lake is accessed via the Bear Lake Trail in the Bear Lake Road Corridor area of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is an area home to many other amazing trails. But it’s hard to find a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park that packs as much scenery into such low mileage and elevation gain. The effort to reward ratio is HUGE!
The trail starts out by winding you through aspen and ponderosa pines, with views of various peaks in the park. And while the Emerald Lake Trail might end at its namesake, Emerald Lake, it isn’t the only lake you’ll see along the way! Before reaching Emerald Lake you’ll come across Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, which are also beautiful lakes with a mountain backdrop.
We would consider the Emerald Lake Trail to be easy, especially compared to some other hikes in the park, like Sky Pond, although if you’re not acclimated to the elevation, it may feel somewhat difficult.
On our most recent visit, it only took us about 35 minutes or so to get to Emerald Lake, but we were hiking pretty fast and didn’t stop for long at the other lakes on the way, so 45 minutes is probably a safer bet. This entire route usually takes people under 2 hours total, but we decided to add on another lake to make this hike extra beautiful, Lake Haiyaha.
Add on Lake Haiyaha
Miles (roundtrip): 4.9
Elevation gain: 1,092 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
If you have some extra time and don’t mind some extra mileage and elevation gain, we highly recommend adding on Lake Haiyaha to the Emerald Lake Trail! As we mentioned, the Emerald Lake Trail is a very popular hike in the park, so it can get pretty busy, but Lake Haiyaha tends to be less busy.
The turnoff for Lake Haiyaha is right at Dream Lake, the second lake along the trail, and you can either add on Lake Haiyaha before you go to Emerald Lake or afterwards. We would suggest doing it after Emerald Lake, on your way back to the trailhead, that way you can visit the more popular lake first and hopefully enjoy some solitude there, before visiting Lake Haiyaha.
Compared to the Emerald Lake Trail, the trail to Lake Haiyaha is definitely steeper and we’d consider it to be moderate. We found ourselves breathing a bit heavier on this stretch, but overall it wasn’t too bad.
In total, the hike to Emerald Lake plus Lake Haiyaha took us about 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a snack break at Emerald Lake and some time soaking up the views at Lake Haiyaha.
Add on Bear Lake
Miles (roundtrip): 3.8
Elevation gain: 734 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
While the hike to Emerald Lake starts on the Bear Lake Trail, you won’t actually see the lake unless you turn right almost immediately after the trail starts and complete part or all of the loop around the lake. This is a flat, partially paved trail (it can be wheelchair accessible) that gives you great views of Bear Lake and a couple mountain views as well.
This only adds 0.6 miles to the Emerald Lake Trail and very little additional elevation, so it’s definitely worth checking out! We’d suggest doing this portion after finishing Emerald Lake, so that way you can hopefully beat some crowds to Emerald Lake. Although, expect to see others at Bear Lake due to its easiness and accessibility.
You can also combine Bear Lake with the Emerald Lake + Lake Haiyaha route above for around 1.6 additional miles.
If you’re looking for something a bit longer and with quite possibly even better mountain views, check out our guide to hiking to Sky Pond!
How to get to the Bear Lake Trailhead
As we mentioned above, to get to Emerald Lake you will start at the Bear Lake Trailhead, which is at the end of Bear Lake Road in the Bear Lake Road Corridor, the most popular area of the park. There is a very large parking lot at this trailhead, but it does fill up. Even when we arrived just before 5 AM in the morning, there was a steady flow of cars parking. Although, by the time we finished around 8 AM, there were still some spots left.
If it is full, you have the option to take the park shuttle, which we will explain below.
One VERY important thing to know about this trailhead and the entire Bear Lake Road Corridor is that you must have a timed entry reservation between May 27 and October 10, in addition to your national park entrance fee. Below is some more information on this reservation, how to get one, and what to do if you don’t have one.
Timed entry reservation
The timed entry reservations are the park’s way to help manage the high visitation levels within the park. And while on paper it sounds frustrating to have to get these reservations (and they can be hard to get), we personally loved it, as we felt that it helped reduce crowds.
There are two types of timed entry reservations. One is for the Bear Lake Road Corridor (where this hike is), which also includes the rest of the park, and the other is just for the areas outside of the Bear Lake Road Corridor and does NOT include access to the Bear Lake Road Corridor. These ones are much easier to get and we share more information about when you need them in our Rocky Mountain National Park Guide.
The Bear Lake Road Corridor timed entry reservations, as mentioned above, are only needed between May 28 and October 11 during the hours of 5 AM (MDT) to 6 PM (MDT). However, if you have a campsite within the specific region of the park you’re trying to visit, this covers as your entrance pass, so you will not need one.
How to get a reservation
These reservations are technically free, but have a $2 processing fee that is nonrefundable. And you can obtain your timed entry reservation on recreation.gov during an open period for reservations.
75% of the reservations will become available at 10 AM Mountain Time on the first day of the month for the following month. For example, if you want to visit the park on a specific day in the month of July, you will need to make your reservation on June 1. Reservations need to be made for each day you plan to visit the park.
Additionally, if you plan last minute or missed a reservation when they went on sale originally, 25% of reservations will be reserved and be made available for purchase the day prior at 5 PM Mountain Time.
We suggest getting the earliest reservation possible, as the park only gets busier as the day goes on. But if you do not get a reservation, you do have other options!
What to do if you do NOT have a timed entry reservation
Getting one of the Bear Lake Road Corridor reservations is tough! These are the most coveted reservation of the two, as this area has some of the best hikes in the park for all skill levels. We were unable to get Bear Lake Road Corridor reservations, but there is a way around them and to be honest, we recommend this method whether you have one or not.
Enter the park before 5 AM Mountain Time. You only need the reservation after 5 AM Mountain Time or before 6 PM Mountain Time. So you can enter before or after these times without one. In our opinion, starting before 5 AM is a great idea regardless of whether you have a reservation or not, as this area gets very busy and this will help you beat the crowds (and afternoon thunderstorms!).
The booth to check reservations for the Bear Lake Road Corridor is located right about here, so as long as you’re past this point before 5 AM, you’ll be good to go without a reservation! However, this means that if you leave this area after the hike, you will not be able to get back in without a Bear Lake Road Corridor reservation until after 6 PM.
But you can go explore other areas of the park after this hike without a reservation, as you’ll already be past the entrance gate! We did find that afternoon reservations for the rest of the park were pretty easy to get though.
Take the shuttle
As we mentioned before, the parking lot is pretty large, but it can fill up. So depending on when you start this hike, you may have to take the free park shuttle from Bear Lake Road to the trailhead. You must have a Bear Lake Road Corridor reservation to do this, as the shuttles start running at 6:30 AM, which is when reservations are required to get down the road.
NOTE: There is a hiker shuttle that can take you from the Beaver Meadow Visitor Center to the Bear Lake Road Corridor, where you’ll then transfer to the Bear Lake Road shuttle for the rest of the way, but it was not operating during our visit. To see its status, check this page. If it is running, you could take this shuttle and visit the park during the reservation hours without a reservation, although you will still have to pay your entrance fee.
When to hike the Emerald Lake Trail
Rocky Mountain National Park is open to visit everyday of the year, however your experience will vary depending on the seasons and time of day.
What to expect in different seasons
In our opinion the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, if you want to have access to the most hikes and scenic drives, is from June to September. This is the busiest time of the year, but if you can handle getting up extra early to beat crowds, you will have access to mostly snow free trails and be able to drive Trail Ridge Road, which we share more about in our Rocky Mountain National Park Guide.
On this most recent trip to the park we did the Emerald Lake Trail in early July, but we have also visited mid July, and during both visits, we didn’t encounter any snow on the trail.
If you’re willing to deal with some snow and some closures, May and October will be a good time to beat crowds and will most likely have pretty decent weather, but things can change quickly, so be prepared for anything.
You can also snowshoe to Emerald Lake in the winter! This is a popular activity, so expect some crowds, but it would be very magical and doesn’t require a timed entry reservation. However, make sure to bring lots of layers and gear for the snow, plus read up on avalanche safety, as avalanches are a threat when hiking in snowy conditions.
Hike early and on a weekday!
This hike is BUSY. Because of its easiness compared to other trails in the park, it’s great for kids and most hiking abilities, which is awesome, but that also means that it brings a LOT more people. However, there are some ways to have some solitude.
We suggest starting the trail before sunrise any time of the year. And if you can swing it, you’ll have less crowds if you can go midweek rather than the weekend.
During our most recent visit, we did this hike on a weekday in July and started right around 5 AM (in the dark) and to our surprise, we did not see ANYONE at Emerald Lake. We did see a handful of people at Dream Lake, but for some reason, no one else was at Emerald Lake during the 15-20 minutes we stopped there. We also didn’t encounter many people on the trail to Lake Haiyaha and only saw a handful of groups at the lake.
On the hike back we saw tons of people though, so if you want to enjoy this hike without feeling like you’re at Disney World, we highly recommend starting super early. While the hike back may be crazy, at least you’ll have had some solitude on the hike to the lakes and at the lakes.
What to bring to hike to Emerald Lake
To see everything we recommend packing for hikes, check out our hiking gear, where we share everything we bring with us when we hike, including the 10 essentials. But for this specific hike, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
If you plan on getting an early start you’ll want headlamps to guide your way. We use these headlamps and they have been great!
Make sure to pack layers! It was cold when we started our hike in the dark (even in the summer) and chillier at the lakes, so having a jacket, plus some lighter layers underneath for when we got sweaty, worked perfectly.
Depending on how early or late in the season you hike, you might encounter snow or ice on the trail. Our Kahtoola MICROspikes are so helpful when the trail is slick!
No matter what time of year you visit, the park will likely be busy with crowded trails and busy parking lots. Remember everyone is there to enjoy the parks just like you!
Things to know before hiking to Emerald Lake
Before sharing more about our experience on the trail, here are a few more things to be aware of before hiking to Emerald Lake.
Afternoon thunderstorms are common during the summer months in Colorado. Much of the park is at very high elevations and being on hill tops, above the treeline, or in exposed areas increases your risk of being struck by lightning. Here is a helpful article with tips on what to do if you find yourself on a trail during a storm.
This trail doesn’t have too many heavily exposed areas, but we’d still suggest hiking early to beat storms. Beyond thunderstorms, the weather can change quickly in the mountains, so be prepared for any season!
Acclimate to the altitude
Although this hike isn’t super strenuous, it does start at over 9,400 feet above sea level, so if you’re coming from lower elevations, you run the risk of suffering from altitude sickness.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, lack of hunger or thirst, difficulty breathing, confusion, and vomiting. If you start to notice these symptoms, it is best to stop where you’re at and begin descending to lower elevation. The only way to treat altitude sickness is to get to lower elevation, drink lots of water, eat something, and get rest. Ignoring altitude sickness can lead to more dangerous side effects.
It costs $25 per vehicle ($25 for motorcycles) to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, which covers 7 days. But if you’re visiting more than one National Park on your trip (or within the year), we highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass which is $80 per year and will get you into any National Park, monument, or forest for free.
There are plenty of toilets in the trailhead parking lot, but none along the trail. If you decide to use the restroom on the trail, please pack out any toilet paper and make sure to use a trowel to dig a hole for human waste.
Dogs are not allowed!
Just like many other National Parks, dogs are not allowed outside of parking areas and campgrounds at Rocky Mountain National Park, so please leave them at home or have a safe place for them to be while you hike.
Learn what we do with Kona if she cannot join us during our travels.
Be aware of wildlife
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a variety of wildlife (we saw tons of elk and even some moose!), including bears and mountain lions. While we did not see either and they aren’t common to see, make sure you read what to do if you see one. We personally like to carry bear spray on most hikes, both for protection from animals and also any crazy humans, but it is not required in the park and most do not carry it.
Our Experience hiking the Emerald Lake Trail
Since we have now done this hike twice, we’re going to share photos from both times we did this hike, but mostly recap our experience on our most recent visit, as it’s fresher in our minds.
After spending a couple days exploring Rocky Mountain National Park on our own, we were so excited to have my (Kathryn) younger brothers join us for a couple days in Estes Park. Since we didn’t have a timed entry reservation for Bear Lake, we forced them to get up bright and early (thankfully they are early birds and were mentally on Central Time) to head into the park to hike to Emerald Lake.
When we arrived, it was starting to get lighter out, but the sun wasn’t up yet, so we put on some headlamps and hit the trail. Similar to what we recommended earlier, we skipped Bear Lake at the beginning and headed straight for Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes. As we made our way through the wooded portions and a bit higher in elevation, the sun started to rise and we got to witness a very gorgeous sunrise through a small little lookout in the trees, as well as some views of the mountains.
The trail is very straightforward and is a mix of just a standard trail, plus some steps to hike up at times. And despite my brothers being from Texas and not being huge hikers, they crushed this hike from the beginning and we honestly had to keep up with them! We were making very good time and got to Nymph Lake very quickly, which is the smallest of the lakes and isn’t as impressive as the others, but is still beautiful, especially with all of the lily pads.
We didn’t stay at Nymph Lake for long on the hike out, as we were wanting to keep our pace to hopefully stay ahead of the crowds. However, just after Nymph Lake, you have a bit of an incline and on the way to the top of it, there is a nice rocky overlook on your right side where you can get some great views of the Rocky Mountains.
Less than half a mile later we made it to Dream Lake. Dream Lake was relatively busy, with many people enjoying the various rocky areas around the lake to sit down and take photos. But the views here are some of the best of the hike, with the lake right in front of you and a backdrop of mountains, plus tons of green trees.
From the beginning of Dream Lake to Emerald Lake it’s about 0.7 miles, most of which is through some trees. But once exiting the trees and getting to Emerald Lake, you’re greeted by an incredible view of the peaks you saw from Dream Lake, but this time right in your face, as well as Emerald Lake at the base of them.
We climbed up to some rocks to sit and enjoy some snacks, while soaking up the view as the sun began to rise, illuminating the peaks. When we got to the lake, no one else was there, which was shocking considering how many people were at Dream Lake. We fully expected others to arrive, but no one did until we left about 15-20 minutes later.
On the way back, we decided to stop at Lake Haiyaha, which we shared more about above. We took the turnoff at Dream Lake and instantly could tell that this trail was steeper than the trail to Emerald Lake. We encountered a few people on the trail, but it definitely seemed less busy than the Emerald Lake Trail.
Once we got to Lake Haiyaha, we were treated to yet another gorgeous alpine lake with a mountain backdrop. Unlike Dream and Emerald Lakes, which have the same backdrop, you have different peaks behind the lake here, which makes this lake feel like a brand new experience, despite being close to the others.
There are tons of huge rocks you can climb over at the base of the lake to get more views of the lake and while we saw a few groups here, we mostly had solitude. We were SO glad we added this lake onto the hike…it’s totally worth it!
We headed back onto the main Emerald Lake Trail towards the parking lot and as we had mentioned before, it was a lot busier than on the hike out. We know we’re a broken record, but we cannot stress this enough: get to the park early. If we had encountered those crowds on the way to the lake as well, the hike wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.
Since we skipped Bear Lake on the way out, we stopped by quickly on our way back to the van. We didn’t hike around the entire lake because it was just too busy (although we did our first time hiking this trail and it’s a great, easy trail), but we saw some of the views before heading back to Estes Park for some much needed coffee and breakfast.
Overall, this is a gem of a hike and is a great introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park. We know we emphasized crowds and starting early about 100 times, which isn’t meant to steer you away from the hike, but rather to help you have the right expectations and have a positive, less crowded experience. We hope that this guide helps you feel more prepared for the hike and that you enjoy the views as much as we do!
Looking for more information about Rocky Mountain National Park including things to do and places to stay?
Check out our Rocky Mountain National Park guide for tons of information about where to stay, places to stay, things to do, and where to eat nearby!
Ready to hike the Emerald Lake Trail?
Pin this guide to hiking the Emerald Lake Trail to help plan your trip!