The 1.8 mi. (one-way) hike to Emerald Lake is a Rocky Mountain NP classic: excellent mountain views, wildflowers, and flowing rapids, interrupted only by the serenity of three high-altitude lakes (four, if you include Bear). The final leg, from Dream to Emerald Lakes, is particularly spectacular. The downside, of course, is that the relative ease of the hike, and its location in the bustling Bear Lake area, means the trail can be swimming with visitors, akin to Alberta Falls on a Saturday afternoon. As always, start early in the morning (or after 5 in the evening) to avoid the crowds.
Ignoring my own advice, we journeyed to Emerald Lake precisely on a Saturday afternoon, but a fizzling thunderstorm appeared to be enough to discourage many fellow wanderers. A cold shiver from the brief rain quickly gave way to warmth and sweat as the incline grew and the sun came out.
Unless looking for extra credit as part of the Lake Haiyaha loop (which I describe here), your short trek to Emerald Lake will likely begin and end at the busy Bear Lake parking area. Just steps from the parking lot, the sign denoting the route to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes (to the left) is hard to miss.
The wide, asphalt path (though not handicapped-accessible) begins to climb immediately through the trees. On the day of our hike, we were fortunate enough to see wildlife just 500 feet up the trail—a good-sized bull (male elk) that was by no means afraid of humans…
Forested most of the way, the trail climbs 225 feet to the first glimpse of Nymph Lake (really resembling more of a pond).
Besides the decent views of Hallett Peak (12,713′) and Flattop Mountain (12,324′) (from one angle) and Longs Peak (14,259′) and Thatchtop (12,668′) (from a viewing point 1/10 mile farther), the main attraction of Nymph Lake is the abundance of lily pads. In its own way, the lake’s greenery combined with the raindrops was a pleasant (and artsy) sight on the day of our hike.
Following a brief, level section skirting Nymph Lake, the trail to Dream Lake continues its ascent. Losing the asphalt, the trail turns rockier and steeper in some places. A gradual thinning in the number of trees exposes beautiful views of Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge across the valley.
One-half mile and 200 feet elevation gain past Nymph, the trail briefly crosses Tyndall Creek just before the junction with the Lake Haiyaha trail, which quickly disappears into the trees off to the left.
From here it is only 1/10 mile to the eastern edge of Dream Lake, a very popular fishing destination. The lake is surrounded on all sides by tall but thin conifers, and the shallow waters bordering the trail make it quite easy to spot foot-long rainbow trout.
The trail follows the northern shore of Dream Lake for more than ¼ mile before finally veering off slightly again to the right.
Leaving Dream Lake behind, the trail again begins to climb—but the trickling cascades of Tyndall Creek keep the hiker distracted.
The spires of Flattop Mountain (12,324’) (not so flat-looking here) appear above, signaling to travelers that the final destination—Emerald Lake—is near.
About 0.4 mile from the end of Dream Lake, a prompt break in the trees appears, revealing the blue-green waters of Emerald Lake to the west. At the end of the trail, scramble 30-50 feet over some small rocks to the left for the best views.
Unlike Bear, Nymph, or Dream, Emerald Lake almost directly abuts the steep slopes of Flattop Mountain, and ambitious travelers can scramble farther up Tyndall Gorge to the south and west for what are sure to be excellent vistas of Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide.
After resting, exploring, or snacking at the lake, head back the way you came, 1.8 downhill miles back to the Bear Lake parking areas. Allot a minimum of two hours for the entire round trip; more if you hope to delve further into Tyndall Gorge or attempt to catch some trout.