Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Updated: Feb 25

Rocky Mountain National Park offers over 350 miles (560+ kilometers) of hiking trails. Given that, it's no secret that this is one of the US National Park system's most popular destinations for outdoor lovers.


Planning on visiting Rocky Mountain? This post will help answer many of the most common questions when planning a hike to Emerald Lake.


Not only is the final destination of this hike stunning, but along the way you'll also have the option to stop at three other beautiful Rocky Mountain Lakes!


Have a specific question about visiting Emerald Lake? Jump ahead using the table of contents below:


Don't forget that Rocky Mountain National Park is now on the timed entry reservation system during peak season (end of May through early October).


If you don't have a reservation be sure to head over to Recreation.gov to lock that in!


Dream Lake Colorado
Massive mountains tower over Emerald Lake

If you aren't familiar with that system - do not fear! I've put together a post highlighting how to get through the reservation process along with other useful tips. Check out my National Park Timed Entry Guide here!


Once you're finished reading this guide, be sure to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide I put together over on my YouTube channel. It includes tons of great footage I shot during my visit throughout the park.


You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!

 

Where is Emerald Lake Located?


Emerald Lake is best accessed from the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park via the Beaver Meadows entrance station. Without traffic the drive from Estes Park to the Bear Lake trailhead Parking lot should take you between 30 and 45 minutes.


Most of the drive time occurs after entering Rocky Mountain which means you'll be able to take in the parks beautiful scenery along the way!



Keep in mind that if you're entering Rocky Mountain from the west, near Grand Lake, you'll have to drive across the entire park to reach the Bear Lake trailhead which can take nearly two hours.


Considering many of the parks best hikes and sights are located along the Bear Lake Corridor, it's not a surprise that most people suggest staying in Estes Park over Grand Lake.


If you're visiting Emerald Lake be sure to hit Bear Lake first! Bear Lake is located right by the main parking lot and there's a nature walk that loops around it. If you haven't already, you can learn more about this stop by reading my post on Bear Lake here!


Hallett's Peak in Colorado Rocky Mountains
Views of Hallett's Peak as seen from Bear Lake

As you hike on from Bear Lake towards Emerald Lake there are two other detours worth hitting. The first is Nymph Lake. Nymph Lake is located roughly halfway between Bear and Dream Lakes. It's a great spot to pull over and take a quick break. I put together a full post on what to expect when visiting Nymph Lake. Be sure to add that stop to your Rocky Mountain itinerary!


Dream Lake Rocky Mountain
Dream Lake takes the cake for most spectacular views along this hiking path

Once you've had your fill of views at Nymph Lake continue on towards Dream Lake. A nice thing about this hike is that you're rewarded with points of interest every half mile (about 1 km) or so. The trek from Nymph Lake to Dream Lake will be roughly of this duration. Even though Emerald Lake is our final destination along this hike, the views at Dream Lake were my favorite. It's one of the most stunning places in all of Rocky Mountain so be sure to budget some time to hang out. Pack a lunch and eat sitting along the lakes rocky shores! If you have questions specific to visiting Dream Lake I have a whole post dedicated to this location as well.

 

What to Expect When Hiking to Emerald Lake?


Collectively I would rate the hike to Emerald Lake as moderately difficult. The 3.2 mile (about 5 kilometer) roundtrip distance is one that most visitors should feel comfortable with. According to AllTrails the hike to Emerald Lake has about 700 feet (213 meters) of elevation gain. The trail is well maintained and the other lake stops along the way make for great resting spots.


In fact the only reason I don't rate this trail as easy is due to the elevation. Since you are hiking at around 10,000 feet (3,000+ meters) the air will be thin. This can make what looks like an easy hike on paper a bit more challenging. If you've spent some time in the surrounding areas to help acclimate to the elevation, or take extra time to pace yourself, it shouldn't be an issue.


Man wearing orange shirt at Emerald Lake Colorado
Crowds of visitors continue to thin out as you hike towards Emerald Lake and move further from Bear Lake

Depending on how long you plan to spend at each stop along the way, you could easily spend around four hours from start to finish on this activity. Be sure to bring essentials like water, sunscreen and light snacks. There is moderate tree cover along the way which helps cut back on the amount of total sun exposure you'll receive along the way.

 

Emerald Lake Parking


Unfortunately like many other popular National Park destinations the parking situation for Emerald Lake is pretty brutal since it utilizes the popular Bear Lake trailhead and parking lot.


When I visited Rocky Mountain in late July we had a 9am timed entry slot which included Bear Lake Corridor access.


Photo of Marmot
A curious Marmot we spotted near Emerald Lake

We entered the park around 9:30am and reached the Bear Lake parking lot around 10am. At this time rangers were directing traffic. Most cars were being turned away and told to park at an overflow lot (with shuttle access) down the road.


Looking for tips to save on airfare? Check out a full post I wrote on the subject here!

Some way, some how, we were the last car they allowed to park here before the main parking lot was shut down again.


Be sure to check out a few other photos I took along the trail to Emerald Lake below! If you're lucky you'll encounter wildlife along the way. For us the only encounter was a curious marmot that was hanging out near some rocks at Emerald Lake.


Scenery around Emerald Lake Colorado
The landscapes surrounding Emerald Lake are also beautiful

Unless you're arriving very early you should probably just plan on parking at the overflow lot and taking the shuttle service to the Bear Lake trailhead. Shuttles are plentiful so you shouldn't need to wait long for one.

 

Other Things to Know About Emerald Lake


Is There Cell Phone Service at Emerald Lake?


Cell phone service throughout most of Rocky Mountain National Park is minimal. You may get intermittent cell phone service around Emerald Lake but don't count on it. The higher points of the park (towards the Alpine Visitor Center) will offer better opportunities to get a signal.


How Much Does Emerald Lake Entry Cost?


There isn't a fee specific to accessing Emerald Lake. The Rocky Mountain National Park entry pass and timed entry reservation are all you need to access Emerald Lake. You can check out current rates at the National Park Service's website.


How Long Does it Take to Visit Emerald Lake?


Start off by budgeting 30-45 minutes of driving time from Estes Park. From there let's assume you park at the overflow lot and need to wait 10 minutes each way on the shuttle for pick up so you'll need to budget about one hour for logistics.


The trail itself isn't too long but assuming you make stops at Bear, Nymph and Dream Lakes along the way, your whole adventure could end up taking around four hours.


Are Pets Allowed at Emerald Lake?


Sadly, pets are not allowed at Emerald Lake. While your pet is welcome to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, don't expect to take them with you at Emerald Lake or any of the other trails. Pets are only welcome around parking lots and certain campgrounds.


Are there Bathrooms at Emerald Lake?


There are bathrooms at the Bear Lake trailhead parking lot. There are no other facilities along the trail.



Should I Bring any Special Hiking Gear for Emerald Lake?


Hiking gear isn't necessary for Emerald Lake. Hiking boots never hurt, but the trail is well kept and the distance is relatively short. Just be sure to pack essentials like water, snacks and sunscreen!


What is the Best Time of Day to Visit Emerald Lake?


Given the moderate duration I would recommend starting this hike in the early morning. Keep in mind that during the summer months Rocky Mountain National Park often experiences afternoon thunderstorms.


Arriving early in the day can improve your prospects at parking in the main lot and cut down on crowds around the lake.


Also - don't forget to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide over on my YouTube channel if you haven't already!

 

Looking for hiking gear recommendations?


Chances are if you're visiting Rocky Mountain National Park you'll be doing some hiking. If you're doing some hiking you'll want to have the right gear in order to have the best experience possible.


Finding gear that's functional, not overpriced, that also looks good can be a challenge.


For your convenience I've laid out some of my favorite hiking apparel below. All of the gear I link to below are items I personally own and have tested out on the trails. Quick disclaimer, I am an affiliate of several referral programs and I may earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.


  • Hiking day pack - If you're in the market for a hiking day pack I'd suggest browsing REI's selection. If you've never owned one before you can go into a retail store and they'll ensure you find one that fits properly with any of the bells and whistles you may require!

  • Water reservoir - I have reservoirs from Platypus and Gregory that I really like. While these come in a variety of sizes I wouldn't bother with those smaller than 3L. You can always just fill up the larger ones part way if you're concerned about weight since they collapse to the same size.

  • Moisture wicking t-shirts - Patagonia makes really great hiking t-shirts that keep you dry all day long. They also perform well under multiple layers of clothing.

  • Hiking socks - I absolutely love the FEIDEER brand of hiking socks. I've tried some other hiking sock brands, but I think these take the cake! They make great socks for women and men.


There's nothing worse than missing out on a great hike because you didn't come prepared, don't be that person!

 

Check Out Our Timed Entry Reservation Guide


There's one mistake you cannot afford to make when visiting US National Parks. Showing up without a timed entry reservation is a surefire way to blow up what should be an otherwise stress free day exploring some of Americas most beautiful destinations. If the park you're visiting requires timed entry be sure to check out this guide.


Fortunately - we have put together a guide walking you through that process. We also provide useful tips on how to get the best time slots and what to do if you find yourself without a reservation.


You can access our Timed Entry Reservation Guide here!