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Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses some of the most beautiful landscape in Colorado. People from around the country and world flock to the area to see the rugged peaks, peaceful forests, and wide array of wildlife. Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular hikes in the area for good reason. The two lakes that you pass on the way to Emerald Lake are stunning, the hike isn’t difficult, and the views along the entire trail are breathtaking.
Why go to Emerald Lake During Winter?
Because of its popularity, we have found hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park to be less enjoyable and sometimes a huge pain in the summer. If you want to hike to Emerald Lake in the summer, you have to get there early to guarantee a parking spot at the trailhead. Just getting to Estes Park can be frustrating with the traffic. If you don’t get a spot at the trailhead, there is a shuttle that takes you and all of the other visitors to the start of the hike.
The trail can be loud and busy in the summer. We prefer our views without a ton of people. Don’t get us wrong, the hike to Emerald Lake and many other hikes in the area are beautiful in the summer, and there are hikes that can be done to avoid crowds. But, we find the area to be much more peaceful in the winter.
If the above reasons aren’t enough to convince you to take a winter hike to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, then keep reading. The frozen lakes, frosted trees, and fluffy snowbanks bring a whole other perspective to the area. Since the park is less crowded and more quiet, you are more likely to see wildlife, including deer, elk, squirrels, and various birds. Overall, we think that hiking to Emerald Lake in the winter offers a different experience that you don’t want to miss.
The Hike to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
When entering the park, you will have to stop at the fee station to pay for entrance. Below are the options for passes, some of which can be bought online or at the fee station. We have an annual National Parks Pass since we hit various parks and monuments around the country, making it very worth it for us.
- Day Pass – per vehicle: $30
- Day Pass – per person: $15 (this covers individuals entering by foot or bicycle)
- 7-Day Pass – per vehicle: $35 (this covers entrance for seven consecutive days)
- 7-Day Pass – per person: $20 (this covers individuals entering by foot or bicycle)
- Annual Rocky Mountain National Park Pass: $70 (unlimited entry to RMNP in a 365-day period)
- Annual National Park Pass: $80 (unlimited entry to national parks and select monuments in a 365-day period)
In recent years Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a timed entry permit requirement. If you visit in the summer between May and October, you need a reservation to visit the park. For more information, click here.
Ask for a map when entering the park and check with the official about road conditions to make sure that the road to the trail is open. You can also check the website for conditions and alerts before heading to the park. The hike starts at Bear Lake Trailhead, which is also the access point for various other hikes. The hike is fairly easy and provides views of three beautiful lakes. Note that pets are not allowed.
- Total Distance to Emerald Lake: 1.8 miles/2.9 kilometers
- Distance from Trailhead to Nymph Lake (1st Lake): 0.5 miles/0.8 kilometers
- Distance from Trailhead to Dream Lake (2nd Lake): 1.1 miles/1.8 kilometers (+0.6 miles from Nymph)
- Altitude Gain: 605 feet/184 meters
- Total Time: 2-3 hours round trip
Preparing to Hike to Emerald Lake in the Winter
The weather in Rocky Mountain National Park can change within a matter of minutes. The first time we hiked to Emerald Lake in the winter, we were there in a complete blizzard and couldn’t see a thing. Other times it has been sunnier and fairly warm (for a Colorado winter day anyway). You’ll enjoy the hike a lot more if you come prepared!
For recent snows, snowshoes can be helpful. A fair number of people do hike this trail in the winter, so the path is generally packed down. With this, it can be pretty icy, especially along the steep parts, so Yaktrax, Kahtoola spikes, or other similar trekking gear can help prevent falling on the ice. We use Kahtoola spikes for extra traction on slick surfaces. Also, don’t forget layers and plenty of water.
Hiking to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is a perfect activity for a winter day. Other than avoiding the throngs of people there in the summer, the winter views are spectacular, making this a must-do hike.