Rocky Mountain National Park – Bear Lake to Emerald Lake

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Colorado is the true sunshine state, seeing more sunny days a year than Florida, and the day Eric and I traveled north from Denver to Estes Park was no exception. Weaving our way past Boulder and up through a tight canyon to Estes Park, we arrived ready for the first National Park of our week long trip out west.

 

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While checking out the visitor center and filling up on water, we sought the trusted advice of a seasoned park ranger as to what trail to take for a longer day hike. Rocky Mountain is a massive park and even in April there was still a 70+ inch base of snow on most trails so we needed to know what we could actually hike without snowshoes. His advice:

Bear Lake to Emerald Lake – a moderate 3.6 mile out and back trail with 615 feet of elevation gain taking you to three lakes: Nymph Lake (9,705 ft), Dream Lake (9,912 feet), and finally Emerald Lake (10,090 ft).

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(Montaine Park along the way to Bear Lake)

The road south to Bear Lake gave us a taste of how quickly things can change in the mountains. We slowly saw our car’s thermometer steadily decline from 55 degrees and sunny to a mere 19 and sideways snowing at the Bear Lake trailhead.

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Sideways snow, 70 inches of packed snow still on the trail, and 19 degrees.
I was wearing jeans, a hoodie with the hood feature in use, a softshell jacket, gloves, an alpaca hat, and my New Balance WT110s (your typical lightweight, mesh, trail-running shoes). Our hike was stellar and when moving we were warm, but next time I’ll wear more than skinny jeans.

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Entering into the towering and snowy pines, brought back pleasant memories of times spent snowboarding through the glades of Park City, Utah. Feeling small among the stillness of the trees weighed white with snow is a rare experience for an East Coast native, but it’s one that brings the kind of nostalgic and awe-filled feelings of Christmas eve.

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We arrived at the first lake, Nymph Lake, to discover it was frozen over and covered in 4 feet of packed snow. Each subsequent lake was also in this state. Then suddenly, as quickly as the snow came, we hiked below deep blue skies, clear views, and the had urge to remove layers of clothing as our brows began to sweat. Following the first lake, we climbed a small rock overlook on the right which provided some great views of other nearby peaks. Perhaps you could see Longs Peak (the highest in the park) on a clear day from this vantage. This overlook provided my first incredible view within the park of the Rockies in all their frosted glory.

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Further along the trail, Eric experienced some difficulties sliding in his boots, but we decided that if some middle aged people had made it all the way to the top in basic, white tennis shoes you’d probably use for power-walking malls, then it was worth risking Eric sliding down the mountainside or trudging through deeper snow on the side of the trail for stability. My trail running shoes did surprisingly well, and that is the power of soles with deep treads, my friends.

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Our arrival to the second lake, Dream Lake, brought us back to the blowing snow and bitter wilderness. It seemed many of the people we began hiking behind turned back at this point. Our lonesomeness only made us more ambitious and adventurous in continuing our ascent. The trail was a little tricky to follow, but after conferring with a group of snowshoers about our location (“Emerald Lake, it’s still up ahead. Dream Lake? You’re standing on it!”) we carried on.

blowingsnow(Sudden snow and wind from the glacier pass in the distance. Eric seeks shelter.)

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dreamlake(on top of Dream Lake)

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After some steep climbs, we walked down and across the vast open space that was Emerald Lake. Enclosed on three sides by jagged crags, Emerald Lake sits between Hallett Peak (12,713 ft) to the south and Flattop Mountain (12,324 ft) to the north. Appropriately, between these two peaks rests the Tyndall Glacier, one of five active glaciers in the park and the glacier responsible for carving out Emerald Lake.

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peaks(Note the small avalanche caused by the tiny dot of a skier just right of center)

Because you can walk directly upon the lake and therefore toward and on the glacier, I would highly recommend visiting this trail in late winter or early spring. The panoramic confinement and views of the two peaks and glacier are worth experiencing from the center of a frozen Emerald Lake. I think what often makes for an amazing hike is the ability to interact with what is around you and experience it as though being swallowed up in it; completely within it and a part of it. This hike in early spring certainly allows for that kind of interaction. Additionally, hiking this trail in the early spring season provides less crowds, especially in the afternoon — besides one Norwegian couple and the backcountry skiers who were traversing high upon the glacier, we had the lake to ourselves.

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Trail Tips:
1) Prepare for the rapid weather changes that the mountains are known for. At almost 266,000 acres, this is a vast park and genuinely includes varying climates.
2) Do your best to hydrate beyond what seems reasonable. This is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of altitude sickness. We arrived in the park with slight headaches from the altitude, but downing a ton of water alleviated the issue and we had no problems while hiking at a quick pace at 10,000 feet.
3) Take many panoramic photos. Not only are the views worth it, but if you are only hiking with one other person and no one is around you can simply start a panoramic with one person, then have that person carefully switch out with the photographer, and finish with including the photographer in one photo. We used this trick and it started a trend for the trip!
4) Don’t hesitate to talk to park rangers. They often hike these trails daily and if you are a first time visitor, asking for a hike that meets your needs is bound to get a great response.

Thanks to the park ranger’s recommendation, we had an idyllic wintery hike and a stellar time at Rocky Mountain National Park. When we get back out west, I will certainly account for more time spent in RMNP, regardless of the season; I would love to do some summer backpacking here in the future. What hikes or backpacking routes are your favorites at RMNP?

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