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Finding radiance in Rocky Mountain National Park is not a hard thing to do. After all, it’s a part of the most beautiful mountain range in the world. But, having not been there since I was a kid, I was determined to find the most beautiful part of Rocky Mountain National Park that I could. And I think I did a pretty good job (and by I, I mean Madison, because she did all of the research and drove me there). That place? Emerald Lake Trail.

Arriving in Rocky Mountain National Park

We wanted to get as early of a start as possible in order to beat the crowds, but since it was summer and Rocky Mountain National Park was a good two hour drive from Littleton we didn’t exactly meet that goal. Although we got there early enough (around 9:30, if I remember correctly), there was already a huge line for the shuttle to the trailhead. Like, snaking out of the designated space for the line long.

So we pissed and moaned but got into the line and stood for the next half hour to forty five minutes. Right next to a family with about ten screaming children. Exactly the way you want to start off a relaxing mountain hike, am I right?

Eventually, though, we managed to actually snag seats for the fifteen minute bus ride to the trailhead. And once we were there, we jetted off to get in front of everyone else.

Hiking the Emerald Lake Trail

Thankfully, many of our fellow shuttle riders made a beeline for the paved Bear Lake Loop. Which made sense, considering many of them were also traveling with strollers (like the aforementioned family of ten screaming children). We, on the other hand, had a different goal in mind: hiking the Emerald Lake Trail. And so, off we went.

Nymph Lake

Although Emerald Lake is the ultimate goal of the Emerald Lake Trail (who would have guessed it from the name), you have to pass a few other beautiful alpine lakes before you get there. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. They are beautiful alpine lakes.

Nymph Lake Rocky Mountain National Park
Nymph Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

We found the first of these beautiful alpine lakes perhaps only five minutes after we had started hiking. The next five minutes were spent taking pictures of the lake. Madison had already done this hike once before, but we were both still pretty obsessed. Little did I know, Nymph Lake was only a warm up.

Nymph Lake Rocky Mountain National Park
Nymph Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

The Way to Dream Lake

From Nymph Lake, we forged ahead (and by ahead I mean about 1000 meters STRAIGHT UP) towards Dream Lake. It was totally worth the ascent in altitude, though, because on the way we were met with sweeping mountain vistas, roaring alpine waterfalls, and our first glimpses of snow.

Mountain Vista Addie Rocky Mountain National Park
River Rocky Mountain National Park

All in a day’s work for a regular ol’ Coloradan like Madison. But for the naive little Midwesterner (aka me), that first sign of snow was a rude awakening. Why? Because, of course, I thought that it was summertime and that the weather would therefore be warm, so I wore shorts. *facepalm*

The cold was totally worth it, though, because twenty minutes later we were at Dream Lake. And once again, the view blew me away. They don’t make sh*t like this in Illinois, let me tell you.

Dream Lake Rocky Mountain National Park
Dream Lake Addie Rocky Mountain National Park

During our short break at Dream Lake, we met a seriously lovely family (with a SERIOUS trooper of a three year old – I wouldn’t have done this hike when I was a kid, let me tell you that much) who was so much fun to talk to and fend the overfed squirrels off with. Shoutout to the mom, who saw us taking pictures of each other (because we’re #basic) and offered to take one of us together. You’re the real MVP.

Addie Madison Dream Lake Addie Rocky Mountain National Park

And On to Emerald Lake

After saying goodbye to our new friends, we skirted around the edge of Dream Lake and trudged our way up through the snow. We nearly fell to our deaths a couple of times. But in order to see this sight it was SO worth it:

Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Of course, everyone and their mother were looking at the same view as us, but that was totally fine. We clambered up to a free space on top of some rocks to eat our lunch of sandwiches, apple slices, and hummus. The wind was blowing and my entire body was made out of goosebumps. But the parts of me that weren’t goosebumps couldn’t have cared less. It was just too darn beautiful.

Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park
Mountain Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Once we felt sufficiently serene, we stopped for a few more photos (because, as I said before, we’re #basic). Then, we turned around to head back to the car. We didn’t want to miss our tour of the Stanley Hotel, after all. But more on that later 😉

Madison iPhone Mountain Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park
Mountain Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

If You Go

The Emerald Lake Trail is one of the most popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. Be sure to get there as early as possible to get a head start – especially if you’re there in the summer.

The trail is 3.6 miles round trip. It’s .5 miles from the trailhead to Nymph Lake, .6 miles more to Dream Lake, and a final .7 miles to Emerald Lake. The lakes provide great resting points along the way. Pack some food for a picnic lunch once you reach your goal. Don’t forget that you have to go all the way back as well!

Although I saw plenty of people hiking in their tennis shoes, I would definitely recommend wearing waterproof hiking boots if you have them (I love my Ahnu Women’s Sugarpine Boots). If you really don’t want to slip and fall in the snow (of which there is plenty, even in the summer), you might even consider some more heavy duty hiking gear like hiking poles or crampons (though crampons might be a little bit extreme).

See this post from Day Hikes Near Denver for more information about the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Read Next: Why the Stanley Hotel Ghost Tour is #legit

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The Emerald Lake Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. See beautiful alpine lakes (Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake), mountain vistas, roaring waterfalls, and of course, snow. It's a must do during your time in Rocky Mountain National Park or Estes Park, Colorado | Where to Go in Colorado | What to do in Rocky Mountain National Park | Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park | Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes | What to do in Estes Park | Where to go in Colorado | What to do in Colorado

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something from one of these links I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you which will allow me to feed my travel addiction.


Addie Gray is a recent college grad and a passionate solo female traveler. Having traveled to more than 20 countries, she now shares her knowledge on budget travel, solo female travel, and travel photography.


  1. Wow, this hike looks absolutely stunning! I can’t get over how beautiful all of the scenery is. Those lakes are just dreamy. I’d love to visit one day, thanks for sharing!

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