Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the Map
Image Credit: Michael Restivo
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s most treasured landscapes, covering almost 250,000 acres of forested hills, icy peaks, and pristine alpine lakes. Bear, moose, and elk spread across this wilderness, making a majority of Colorado’s Front Range. The Rockies are beloved among hikers and mountaineers, featuring some of America’s most well-known peaks, trails, and scenery. When first entering the park, the ice-glazed walls rising over the pine-covered forests appear intimidating, but what makes Rocky Mountain National Park special is that its most iconic views are so easily accessible.
The trail that leads from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake is one of the easiest yet scenic walks in the park. The path follows a series of alpine lakes surrounded by glaciated walls, towering peaks, and lush verdant forests. Just off Highway 36, the trail starts in a fir and aspen wooded forest, following a well-maintained path which opens to Bear Lake, just under a tenth of a mile into the hike. Surrounded by forests and mud-colored stone, the lake is especially spectacular in the early morning or evening, when the light filtering through the trees shimmers off the calm waters.
After making a loop to the right of Bear, the trail begins an ascent up a tree-lined ridge, and as it winds around the corner, the forest suddenly drops below, and hikers are rewarded with a mesmerizing vista of jagged Longs Peak and pyramidal Hallett’s Peak, two iconic Rocky Mountain summits. The trail loops around the smaller Nymph Lake, and keeps climbing through the forest before coming to the shores of Dream Lake, set in a breathtaking granite bowl under the dramatic point of Hallett’s Peak. In the winter, the entire lake freezes over just enough to walk into the center of the ice and revel in the quietness of a Rocky Mountain winter. In the early morning, the sun shines through from the valley behind and bathes the granite walls in a delicate golden sheen. For the best views, get here at sunrise or early evening and watch for bear, elk, and moose who frequently come down to graze on the shore.
Image Credit: Mike Restivo
Looping around the east shore of Dream Lake, the trail loses its definition, as it ascends through boulder-strewn fields, dense woodlands and rocky cliffs, which begin an ascent above the tree line. Hiking turns to scrambling and Longs Peak rises menacingly in the distance, as the trail begins to feel like an alpine wonderland of ice-covered walls, soaring, sharp architecture, and an eerie winter silence. While in the summer, the trail crowds with hikers, under the snow it feels remote and secluded, with rushing streams of melting snow, thin patches of ice, and a trail that has hikers clawing through the trees and post-holing through fresh powder.
Entering the basin of Emerald Lake reveals the fortress-like Flattop Mountain on the left, with Hallett’s summit rising just behind. In the late spring, as the Tyndall Glacier begins to melt, several waterfalls rush down the face. In the winter, the ice provides opportunities for some of Colorado’s most classic alpine climbing.
Image Credit: Michael Restivo
While it’s a beloved Rocky Mountain trail, Bear Lake to Emerald lake takes on two distinctly different atmospheres in the summer and winter. In the summer, it’s a warm, green trail with enticing cool lakes, spectacular views across the valley, and sun-kissed paths. In the winter, it takes on a calm, almost meditative like environment of cold wind filtering through the mountains, ice-covered lakes, and walls of cascading glaciers. While it is a classic and beloved trail, it’s also not one that’s loved to death. Nonetheless, it provides a little something for everyone.