A remarkable trio – Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes – is the best hike to feast your eyes on alpine terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Last updated: February 22, 2023
Hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photos Included)
It was pouring with rain. The water kept accumulating in large puddles by a road curb. Next, without loosing any time, it streamed along the road until plunging into gutters scattered around Bear Lake parking lot.
It was still pretty early in the morning. Roshan and I didn’t rush outside like some other hikers, including families with kids. Bundled up in waterproof clothes and raincoats, these travelers headed in the direction of Bear Lake.
Roshan was eager to join their ranks. I hesitated. We planned for a relatively easy day: a hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes and an adventure to Bierstadt Lake. Some room was left for unexpected discoveries along the way, which we certainly had.
Although we would walk nearly 10 miles that day, our destinations were clustered close to each other. We would certainly have enough time even if we had to wait in a car for the rain to stop until noon.
Rocky Mountain National Park, however, had different plans for us. By 7:40 a.m., the rain stopped, and Roshan hurried me outside. We had to complete at least the main hike, the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail, before the sky would begin to cry again.
Introduction to Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Hike
On the other hand, the heavy rain did us a huge favor. Scaring most of the hikers away, it kept Rocky Mountain National Park relatively empty that early morning. Even the popular Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail looked deserted, inviting for a hike only the most daredevil adventurers.
The gloomy sky wasn’t in a rush to clear up, though. The fog, however, lingered mostly near the peaks of the mountains. The conditions for the hike to all three (Nymph, Dream, and Emerald) lakes were still far from perfect. On top of that, it looked like it could rain any time again. We took our chance anyway.
A paved at the trailhead path that ran to Nymph, then Dream, and finally Emerald Lake was still wet. Starting as a walk uphill, it made the hike in this conditions more challenging than normally. Small puddles filled uneven surface of the trail as soon as it turned into a hard-packed hiking path that was slowly but surely approaching the first lake.
TIP: Good hiking shoes with excellent traction came in handy at this section of the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes hike.
One-Lake or Tree-Lake Hike
Before we knew it, Nymph Lake stretched out its grey waters with withered lily pads in front of us. For beginner hikers, this place is usually the first and final destination along the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail. The path becomes steeper after this point, seducing the least prepared travelers to turn back and hike to the trailhead, which they gladly do.
The majority of the Rocky Mountain’s guests, however, persevere and hike from Nymph to Dream and eventually Emerald Lakes. Thus, although each lake offers incredible views and can be an excellent hike on its own, in most cases, all three alpine jewels make for a long, but absolutely gorgeous mountain adventure.
But let’ start the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes hike with walking to one lake at a time.
NYMPH LAKE HIKE
- Distance: 0.5-mile, one-way hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead
- Elevation gain: 225 feet
- Difficulty: Fairly easy
- Time: 20 minutes
Nymph Lake Hike Overview
The Nymph Lake hike is the first section of the longer Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail. The path starts near the Bear Lake Trailhead, right behind Bear Lake ranger station. Easy to spot thanks to clearly marked trail signs, the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail veers to the right at a trail junction right at the trailhead. From the very start, it runs uphill, not too abruptly, but steeply enough to make you shed some sweat.
The Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail meets the first member of the trio in 0.5 mile from the start of the hike. The smallest of three mountain ponds, Nymph Lake stands out from the rest with the abundant lily pads.
The water flowers festoon the lake during summer months, making it one of the highlights of the hike. By fall, the lilies wither. Their lifeless pads linger on the surface of the lake for much longer, adding a peculiar vibe to the alpine surroundings.
Regardless of the season, though, Nymph Lake allures with astonishing views of Hallett Peak and Longs Peak from its northern shore. Early in the morning, the giant mountains reflect in the water, offering some of the incredible photo opportunities along the entire trail.
If you feel like you’ve had enough of hiking at this point, walk around Nymph Lake and return to the trailhead. Otherwise, hike along the northern shore of Nymph Lake to an opening in the forest and proceed farther toward Dream and Emerald Lakes.
DREAM LAKE HIKE
- Distance: 1.1-mile, one-way hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead
- Elevation gain: 425 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Time: 30-40 minutes
Dream Lake Hike Overview
From Nymph Lake, the trail deepens into the woods, speedily gaining elevation. The hike becomes seemingly more difficult and compelling. Large boulders scatter along and around the path, adding an interesting contract to the easy walk uphill up to this point.
A series of footbridges appear at this section of the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes hike. Offering a dry crossing over narrow creeks, they adorn the surroundings in the most charming way possible.
The misty mountains seem to step closed to the second section of the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail. Their peaks enveloped by the morning fog grab your attention, for a moment making you forget about Dream and Emerald Lakes ahead.
A few sets of forest stairs built with the large boulders and rocks residing in this area ease the uphill hike. While you try to catch your breath and admire the impeccable surroundings as an excuse to walk slower here, Dream Lake emerges unexpectedly.
Meet the Lake
The second destination of the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes hike is the larges of them all. And it looks just like a dream. Its rocky shores on one side offer a pleasant spot to take a short break before hiking farther up. In summer, you can even take a dip in its refreshing water. The opposite side of the lake is dotted with evergreen trees, forming a dense forest that descends all the way to the less popular shore.
The lake of such size and natural opulence is a photographer’s dream destination. Boasting a profusion of engrossing vantage points, Dream Lake allows you to take pictures that amuse even locals.
Again, stay at Dream Lake, looking for unique spots and hidden coves before heading back to the trailhead, passing by Nymph Lake on your way back, or hike farther up to Emerald Lake. The latter is mere 0.7 mile away from here.
EMERALD LAKE HIKE
- Distance: 1.8-mile, one-way hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead
- Elevation gain: 605 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Time: 1-2 hours to complete the entire hike
Emerald Lake Hike Overview
The last section of the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes hike is the steepest. More natural staircases appear along the trail in this area, forcing you to walk slower and take more breaks. The surroundings, however, doesn’t get affected by the tedious ascent. Quite the opposite, it keeps its charm and dreamy character intact.
On the bright side, this part of the trail diversifies the almost perpetual incline with a few sporadic sections where you hike on the flat or downhill surface. Overall, the path never feels utterly exhausting. Soon the trail comes to a final climb at the bottom of which nestles Emerald Lake.
Meet Emerald Lake
Interesting to Know: Similar to Dream Lake, a peculiar natural feature, namely the emerald color of the water, is responsible for the name of Emerald Lake. In mid-October, when we saw it, the alpine lake, however, lost its signature coloration, turning almost black. The dreamy surroundings, however, remained as alluring as ever.
Unlike Nymph and Dream Lakes, Emerald Lake is impossible to hike around. The water fills a deep basin carved by Tyndall Glacier from the eastern wing of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. Closely embarking the waterbody, the rocky walls immerse into the lake, leaving little to no space to walk around. At the same time, these same “guards” provide for the wondrous surroundings and jaw-dropping views of the lake.
Photography Tip: Be sure to bring a wide-angle lens as there is no space to walk away from the lake to take a picture of the whole area. The wide-angle lens normally allows you to capture the entire place even from those few vantage points available along the rocky shore.
Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Hike: Location
The Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail is located in the Bear Lake area along the scenic Bear Lake Road. The best way to get to the area is by taking US-36 W from Estes Park. Upon entering Rocky Mountain National Park, continue on along the highway for 0.2 mile. At an intersection, veer to the left onto the Bear Lake Road. Drive for roughly 10 miles toward the Bear Lake parking lot.
Map: Direction from Estes Park
The Best Time to Hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes
The Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail is open all year round. The well-trodden path is well maintained and can be walked along whether it’s raining outside or the sun is shining brightly.
Snowy conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park, however, are to blame for a rather difficult hike to Nymph, Dream, and especially Emerald Lake in winter. The hikers may want to get snowshoes before heading into the wildness at this time.
Tips for Better Experiences during the Hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes
No Pets on the Trail. There are might be some exceptions for service dogs. Be sure to reach out to Rocky Mountain’s staff for further information.
Bring along Hiking Poles. The hiking poles may come in handy on the steepest sections and the rocky staircases along the last part of the trail.
No Off-Trail Walking. Protect the fragile environment and stick to the official trail while hiking to the alpine lakes.
Hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Early in the Morning. Fewer people hit the trail at this time. Furthermore, the mountains reflecting in the lakes are best to be photographed before the afternoon wind disturbs the calm waters.
Safety around Animals. Elk, squirrels, and chipmunks can be spotted along the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail. Be sure to keep a safe distance from all wild animals regardless of their sizes. Furthermore, never feed the wildlife. A fed animal is often a dead animal.
Use Park Shuttle. Finding parking in the Bear Lake area can get difficult, especially during the summer season. This shouldn’t stop you from embarking on a hike to the lake trio. Instead, use the park shuttles that run between different areas of Rocky Mountain National Park from late May through mid-October.
Timed Entry Permit. As of the summer season of 2021, an admission pass and a timed entry permit are required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park and hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes from late May through early October.
Other Hikes to Go on Near Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail
Bear Lake Loop
The Bear Lake Trail is the most popular hike in the area. It’s short, easy, wheelchair accessible, and primarily flat.
Lake Haiyaha Hike
You can do this walk separately or add it to your Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes hike. The Lake Haiyaha Trail follows the lake trio’s path for almost a mile before streaming uphill at a trail junction.
Alberta Falls Hike
Similar to the Lake Haiyaha hike, you can explore Alberta Falls after completing the lake trio hike or plan a separate adventure. The trailhead to the waterfall sits at the trail junction, right behind the Bear Lake ranger station.
Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Hike Photo Gallery
A picture is worth a thousand words. So I’ve included this short photo gallery to give you a visual summary of the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lake Trail.
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