Anyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during the summer should reserve at least a half-day for hiking in the Bear Lake area. This hike will probably be a highlight of your entire vacation — at least, it was for me. During one moderately easy hike, you can see four lakes and an impressive waterfall, all of which are surrounded by the park’s beautiful mountain peaks.
The adventure starts at Bear Lake Trailhead, which is at the end of Bear Lake Road on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, south of US 36 (use the Beaver Meadows entrance). At the trailhead, you have the choice to go left or right. Taking the trail to the right is easiest…
… and in just a few hundred feet, you’re standing at the shore of the trail’s namesake, Bear Lake. There’s a partially handicapped-accessible trail that circles the lake (though there are some steep grades and steps on the far side). You’ll likely find the best views at the beginning of the loop (especially if it’s before noon, and the sun is still in the eastern sky).
While Bear Lake is nice, you probably won’t be satisfied with it — and that’s okay, since several more lakes are just a short distance away. Head back down to the main trail, then head towards Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake.
In moments, you’ll pass this split in the trail. I’ll tell you all about Alberta Falls on the next page. For now, continue towards…
Nymph Lake is the first of the three lakes that you’ll pass along the trail. At first, I didn’t think it was very impressive…
… but at least the ducks liked it.
But after a little more hiking, the trail came around to another viewpoint.
From this side, Nymph Lake is spectacular. The glassy surface gave me a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains…
… including the focal point of this hike, the distinctively-shaped Hallett Peak (elevation 12,713 feet/3,875 meters).
After leaving Nymph Lake, the trail requires some climbing.
But, a gain in altitude is a good thing, because it reveals a nice view of the mountains and a glacier-carved valley to the south. I’m not certain, but I think this is the Glacier Gorge area, which is home to another worthwhile hike (to Mills Lake, and beyond, if you have the time).
Just below a small pond, there’s a nice waterfall that’s a perfect place to pose for photos.
I’m fairly certain this is not Dream Lake — it’s just an unnamed small pond — but is certainly is dreamy. Here, I found another perfect reflection, ideal for picture-taking. I also started to encounter some snow. It was June 10th, but wintertime lasts late into the spring in these parts.
From this point on, the trail was about 50% covered in snow. Even the creek was partially covered, but some holes had begun to open up.
I’m certain this is Dream Lake. Hallett Peak is getting closer, and once again provides a great backdrop for the cool, clear water.
This is a good place to take a break!
Since Dream Lake is long and narrow, the trail provides many different viewpoints. Eventually…
… the path separates from Dream Lake’s shoreline, and climbs a hill…
… while passing by a nice waterfall.
There’s another pond at the top of that staircase, with another cascade at its upper end.
At this point, there’s more snow on the ground, and the jagged peaks that surround the final lake, Emerald Lake, are coming into view.
For the final half-mile or so, the trail was almost completely covered in hard-packed snow. But the reward for careful hiking over slippery ground is great:
There it is, Emerald Lake. During my visit, it was still covered (mostly) with a thin sheet of ice. If I had visited a week later, the ice likely would have been gone. Climb over a few rocks and find a nice perch, then unpack a snack and enjoy this spot for a while.
On the slope below Hallett Peak, you’ll see several small waterfalls, carrying the runoff from melting snow.
On the north side of the trail, a few jagged peaks were separated by valleys filled with snow. To my amazement…
… there were people up there, skiing! I’m not sure how they got there, but I’m certain they had a fun ride down.
Here’s one more look at Hallett Peak, from a slightly different viewpoint.
Since the trail to Emerald Lake is an out-and-back trail, you’ll have to return on the same trail. In case you get bored…
… you can take the side trail to Lake Haiyaha. This trail breaks off from the main path near Dream Lake. I saw a few people successfully hiking it, so I decided to give it a try. But I didn’t get very far. The snow was still too deep, and it seemed like it would be a difficult slog to get there. During summer, though, I think it would be a worthwhile addition to the hike. The trail is 1.2 miles, one way.
I continued hiking back towards the trailhead, but just before I got there, I took a detour, out to Alberta Falls.
Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive from Estes Park to the Bear Lake trailhead, then back to Estes Park via Sprague Lake: