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Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park

June 30th, 2008

3.6 miles
740 vertical feet
Total Time: 3:58

Starting elevation
9475 feet
Max elevation
10156 feet

Rating: 7/10

Directions: From Estes Park, take Highway 36 into the park. Turn left onto Bear Lake road. Follow it all the way to the end to reach the Bear Lake trailhead. Alternatively, park in the Park and Ride and take the shuttle bus up.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

The Bear Lake trailhead (the start of this hike) has a huge parking lot, but it's often full. A sign at the Park and Ride down the road tells you if it's full. The Park and Ride lot is massive for a park, so you shouldn't have any problems finding a space there. We parked and took the shuttle bus (which runs every 10 or 15 minutes). Note that the Moraine Park shuttle bus also stops here, but goes in the opposite direction (to the campground, and runs every half hour).

The shuttle bus went up the road, stopping at the Bierstadt Lake trailhead and then the Alberta Falls trailhead before stopping at the top, the Bear Lake trailhead. The entire trip only takes about 15 minutes. When we got there, we saw that the parking lot was 99% full. I think I saw one empty parking space.

Giant trailhead parking lot

We crossed the bridge at the start and turned left, then took the right fork to head up the trail (the left fork goes to Alberta Falls, which we'd visit via a slightly different route the next day). The trail starts climbing immediately, and we witnessed several groups of hikers head uphill for a minute or two before thinking better of it and turning around. This is a very busy trailhead and you'll see lots of people who aren't used to hiking.

Supposedly Nymph Lake is a half mile from the trailhead, but it seemed even closer. We reached it quickly and took a short five minute break to enjoy the views of lily pads in the small lake. It's surrounded on most sides by forest, but there's a small clearing near the far end. The sun played hide and seek behind the clouds while we watched a steady stream of hikers pass in each direction.

Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake

Hiking up the trail past Nymph Lake

We then continued along the trail, heading up past the lake. Here we started to see patches of snow (at around 9600 feet elevation). By the time we reached larger Dream Lake, about 0.6 miles later, there were large swaths of snow, some of which we had to walk over. It was all pretty slushy and melting fast.

View of the mountains past Nymph Lake

Dream Lake

There were too many people at the near end of the lake, so we walked a little further up the trail and found a nice rocky area next to the lake and settled down for lunch. There are great views here of the mountains to the west of the lake. It's a beautiful setting, with trees and rocks rimming the lake and snow-covered mountains (Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain) behind it. The lake also seems to be popular with fly fishermen, as we saw at least a couple standing in the water, casting.

Dream Lake

Dream Lake

After a long lunch stop we decided to continue along the trail, which traces the northern shore of the lake and then shortly reaches Emerald Lake. This lake is larger than Nymph Lake as well, and probably a bit smaller than Dream Lake. In my mind, it's not as pretty a setting as Dream Lake, as it is backed up against the mountains and most of its sides are steep, loose gravel. On the other hand, it was much more peaceful here. While dozens of people enjoyed Dream Lake, we only saw a half dozen people at once at Emerald Lake, and for a few minutes we had the entire lake to ourselves. Unfortunately, the geography of the lake means that any people you do share Emerald Lake with will all be next to you, whereas you can find a relatively private spot at Dream Lake, even if there are dozens of people there.

Emerald Lake

Tree at Emerald Lake

While we were there the clouds started to move in and it started to sprinkle. We heard distant thunder and quickly packed up and started our return trip. Afternoon thunderstorms are apparently very common in Colorado, as we witnessed one almost every day of our trip. We quickly hiked downhill back past the lakes, but the rain eventually stopped and never got to be more than a light drizzle.

Elk foraging next to the trail

On our way back we passed close by a female elk, with hikers gathered around taking pictures. When we finally reached the trailhead, instead of ending our hike, we walked the couple hundred feet to the left to reach Bear Lake, which is larger than any of the other lakes we had visited today. There's a wheelchair accessible trail to a wooden viewing platform at Bear Lake. Since it's right next to the trailhead, it's probably not someplace you'd want to visit for a picnic. There's also a 0.5 mile trail that circles the lake. We didn't take that trail this time, however, opting to turn around and head back to the trailhead, where a shuttle bus was waiting to take us back down to the Park and Ride.

Bear Lake

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