Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park Hike Guide

The Virtual Sherpa


Emerald Lake is a Colorado hike located in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a fantastic short out and back located at the extremely popular Bear Lake trailhead. This trail is perfect for year round hiking and the beginner hiker not looking to kill themselves getting to the top of the trail. The final destination of the hike is Emerald Lake but along the way there are plenty of beautiful views of neighboring Longs Peak and Dream Lake with views of Bear Lake at the very beginning of the hike.

Emerald Lake Colorado Quick Facts

Emerald Lake Rating :  ★★★★ (4/5 Stars)

Distance: 3.5 miles RT

Elevation Start: 9,475 ft

Summit: 10,110 ft

Total Elevation Gain: 700 ft

Estimated Time to Complete:  1.5-2.5 hours RT

Difficulty: Easy (Year Round rating)  What does this mean?

Class: Class 1

Season: Year Round – Will most likely need snowshoes for trail access November-May

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Directions to Emerald Lake Colorado

Trailhead: Bear Lake – RMNP

Getting There: Once you are into Rocky Mountain National Park (via Estes Park) take Bear Lake Road until it ends at the parking lot which provides access to the trailhead that brings you up to Emerald Lake. This can be entered into your favorite navigation app.

Parking: Parking for Emerald Lake is most commonly accessed from the Bear Lake lot. This lot is free with the caveat that you paid to get into the park. Due to crowds the Bear Lake lots fills up very quickly especially during summer months. The parking area does have several bathrooms and offers shuttle service from satellite lots if you can’t park directly at the TH.

Fee: Since Emerald Lake Colorado is located in Rocky Mountain National Park, you do need to pay a fee to enter. Read more about those fees here.


Dogs: Rocky Mountain National Park does allow pets, but when you read the fine print rules, they essentially do not. You can bring your dog into the park, but it can’t actually go on trails or be left in a car unattended. Its best to leave your fury friend at home for this one.

Camping: There are several camp sites available around Rocky Mountain National Park in addition to back country camping. This page is a great resource if you are looking to camp in Rocky.

Make it a Loop: Multiple loops can be made in the area around Emerald Lake. However, one of my favorites is starting your trip towards Alberta falls and following the trailhead up to Lake Haiyaha which eventually can bring you towards dream lake.

Mountain X Factors: Crowds

The Bear Lake parking lot is probably the most heavily used point of entry into RMNP. Regardless of the time of year, make sure you get here very early to avoid crowds. If you are lucky enough to avoid the heavy throngs of people, this area is extremely beautiful and scenic. If you are not, you will have to park in a satellite lot far away and wait for a shuttle to drop you off at the TH and then take you back to your car. #notfun

Hike Tip(s): If you are hiking Emerald Lake in the winter snowshoes are a great way to travel this trail in a slightly different fashion. Several places in Estes Park rent snowshoes at very inexpensive daily rates. This one is one of my favorites. Although snowshoes are fun, they are not usually necessary to have unless you are hiking after a big snow storm. Microspikes or Yaktraxs will usually suffice.

Best Views: Emerald Lake is one of my favorite areas of Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph. There are ample different views to take advantage of, including Long’s Peak which can be seen from a variety of different vantage points on the trail up to Emerald Lake. Get there early or later in the day to take advantage of the low light off the many beautiful landscapes. I would recommend bringing an easily transportable tripod for waterfall or lake still shots. 

Our Trip to Emerald Lake: March 2016

Emerald Lake is one of my favorite excuses to travel up to Rocky Mountain National Park. My most recent trip was with a friend visiting from out of town in what I would consider winter conditions. We arrived around 9:30 AM on a Sunday and the Bear Lake lot had a surprisingly large amount of people in it but not quite crowded. We decided to skip snowshoes on this trip because having been up to the lake about a month ago, I knew the trails would be quite packed in so they were not necessary.


The trail itself was fairly very easy to follow and travel even without snowshoes and we made it up to Dream Lake in about 35 minutes. After stopping to take several pictures on the still frozen lake, we moved along towards Emerald. Emerald Lake (as of mid-march) was still 100% snow covered and frozen, so if you plan on hiking this time of year, temper your expectations when it comes to photographing the lake itself. Several clouds were rolling over Hallett Peak (directly in front of Emerald Lake) which made for some nice photos. By the time we began our walk down to the parking lot we passed several groups of people and the snow began to soften a bit which made for slightly tougher conditions. Having said that, I still would not say that snowshoes were/are required for a winter trek to Emerald Lake unless you are visiting right after fresh snowfall.


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Virtual sherpa provides free trail guides to hikes in Colorado & beyond. Whether you are hiking a "14er," visiting a National Park or trying to plan your next winter trip to the mountains, I have you covered. From virtual trail guides to gear reviews to hiking tips, my website and YouTube channel has it all! Visit my website here: https://www.thevirtualsherpa.com/ Visit my YouTube Channel here: https://www.youtube.com/thevirtualsherpa

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