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Length: 4.4 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Why we love it: Postcard-worthy scenery every step of the way takes you to one of Rocky’s most resplendent alpine gems.
When to go: May through October for stunning weather; lesser crowds in shoulder seasons
Pre-hike fuel: Feast on hearty, locally sourced grub at Notchtop Bakery & Café in Estes Park, like the Lumpy Ridge omelette (a combo of spinach, provolone, turkey bacon, and mushrooms that tastes much better than its name sounds).
Post-hike buzz: Raise a toast to your impressive trek with a Big Sippin’ sour and a burger stacked with onion rings at The Wapiti Pub.
Dogs: Not allowed
Emerald Lake rests in a 12,000-foot cradle of the Continental Divide surrounded on all sides by raw Rocky Mountain beauty (think: jagged peaks, aisles of aspen blanketing the hillside, and an impressive view of Tyndall Glacier). Not surprisingly, that makes it a very popular place, but don’t let the multitudes deter you—this is a bucket-list hike not to be missed.
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Start from the Bear Lake trailhead; this easygoing 0.6-mile paved trail skirts its namesake lake through a forest of pines scattered among the aspen in fiery autumn dress. From here, follow the Emerald Lake Trail on a gradual climb to the shores of cozy Nymph Lake, replete with pond lilies, resident waterfowl, and an early reveal of square-jawed Hallett Peak.
Steal a few glances to the south as you continue on the trail for intermittent views of Longs Peak. At mile 1.6, the path crosses Tyndall Creek and traces the northern shore of Dream Lake, where you’ll spot reflections of Hallet, Flattop Mountain, and aspen accents on its surface. At the end of the lake, climb a short, steep flight of stairs along Tyndall’s cascades to glistening Emerald Lake and the Hallett Peak massif. Ogle, reflect, and rejoice before heading back down the way you came.
Getting there: From Denver, head northwest to Lyons via U.S. 36 or I-25 north to CO 66 west. From Lyons, follow U.S. 36 west for 24 miles to the park entrance. Warning: You’ll need patience for this portion, as there’s almost always a line. Bear Lake Road is less than a mile from the entrance on your left. Follow it 8.7 miles to the trailhead.
Entry to Rocky Mountain National Park and Bear Lake Road, specifically, require a timed reservation. These slots open up at 5 p.m. the day before. Any prayer of parking at the Bear Lake trailhead means arriving well before sunrise (like 4 a.m.). Don’t want a nocturnal wake-up call? Catch the all-day shuttle, which leaves from the park-and-ride off Bear Lake Road.