Length: 2.2 miles, out-and-back
Why we love it: The absolutely stunning views found throughout the entire hike.
When to go: Anytime, but wintertime offers exceptional views of a snow-capped Hallett Peak, and a welcome solitude on one of the park’s busiest warm-weather trails. For winter trekking, crampons are a must!
Pre-or post-hike buzz: The nearby town of Estes Park is brimming with charming wineries, a handful of craft breweries and some delicious restaurants serving that filling pub grub you crave after a good hike. But if you truly want an authentic Estes Park experience, head to the historic Stanley Hotel and order a handcrafted cocktail from the Cascades Restaurant & Lounge to enjoy, along with unbeatable views of Longs Peak from the hotel’s cozy front porch.
Restrooms: You’ll find very clean and well-maintained restrooms at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center located just inside of the Beaver Meadows entrance, and there are also a handful of more “rustic” restrooms at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Dogs: No dogs allowed
Aptly named, the views found at the water’s edge of Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park are quite magical. In the summertime, the short hike to this lake is extremely popular, and you’ll most likely encounter a full parking lot at the trailhead if you’re not there early. But in the winter, this trail is slightly less traveled and leads to one of the most beautiful snow-capped scenes in the park.
Starting at the Bear Lake trailhead, follow the well-marked trail signage to the left where you’ll begin your journey to Dream Lake. The first stretch of the trail is rather wide, and very accommodating, and steadily rises in elevation for just over a half-mile until it spills out at the edge of the frozen waters of Nymph Lake. The small lake is enclosed by trees, and it’s an excellent place to pause, catch your breath, and take a water break. At over 9,000 feet in elevation, this hike is certainly one for staying hydrated.
In the dead of the winter, many hikers make their way straight across the iced-over lake and continue the hike up to Dream Lake, but if it eases your mind, take a right and follow the lake’s edge until you reconnect with the trail.
It’s all uphill from here! The remaining roughly half-mile hike to Dream Lake is fairly steep along a narrow trail which you’ll be sharing with snowshoers and other hikers in the midst of their descent. Along this stretch of trail, you’ll find a handful of overlooks that provide exceptional views of Longs Peak and a breathtakingly expansive snow-covered mountain terrain that is certainly photo-worthy.
Continue up until your reach the southern edge of Dream Lake. The frozen lake is walkable for much of winter and sparkles brilliantly under the sun. At the north end of the lake, you’ll find otherworldly views of a jagged snow-capped Hallett Peak, which at 12,713 feet, commands all of the attention of the mountainous ridgeline. When you arrive at the lake, you’ll find a little rocky area just to your left, which typically offers up a dry, semi-comfortable seat for you to enjoy a hard-earned lunch and a few more chugs of water before making your descent.
While the snowpack along the sides of trail is rather high, snowshoes aren’t necessary on the trail, but will be useful if you choose to wear them. If you opt to not sport snowshoes, but sure to come fully prepared for this hike with waterproof hiking boots and crampons. Sections of this trail are iced over and extremely difficult to traverse if you’re not properly prepared. The wind in the section of the park can also be pretty intense, so be sure to layer up properly, and keep a hardy hardshell jacket on hand, along with warm headwear and gloves.
The hike to Dream Lake can be overwhelmed with hikers in the warm weather months, it is certainly quieter in the wintertime. But keep in mind, the same weekend principles apply. This hike offers more solitude on a weekday, but is most quiet, and most enjoyable, early on in the morning during weekends.
Getting there: From Denver, take I-25 north to exit 217A and take Highway 36 through Boulder, which you’ll continue on until you reach the town of Estes Park. Head west through the town, following clearly marked signage to the Beaver Meadows entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. From there, you’ll travel roughly 11 miles to the Bear Lake Trailhead. Total distance from Denver: Roughly 78 miles.