While Bear Lake is a potent draw at Rocky Mountain National Park, and justifiably so, there lies a trio of watery delights beyond this attraction that are more than worthy of your attention...before visiting Bear Lake.
The trailheads are clustered together, so it's not like you have to detour away from Bear Lake to enjoy these three jewels. Rather, at the main entrance to Bear Lake you veer slightly to your left while those seeking Bear Lake can stride perhaps 100 feet straight ahead and be on its shores.
True, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes require a longer sojourn, one that's steeper, as well. But the rewards are sublime: A wooden bench on a lakeshore to enjoy the peace, quiet, water, and mountains; the possibility of encountering wildlife; a gorgeous alpine lake framed by rock and trees.
The Bear Lake area and its immediate surroundings very likely, if not certainly, are the greatest visitor magnets in the park. Along with Bear Lake and its nature trail, you have the trails that lead to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes, a connector to Lake Haiyaha that leads deeper into the backcountry, and a trail to Alberta Falls that also leads further into the mountains.
On the way to the Bear Lake parking area you also pass the parking lot for the hike to Bierstadt Lake, the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop, and the turnoff to Sprague Lake with its picnic area.
Now, over the years steady flows of traffic to these areas have taken a toll on the road to Bear Lake. As a result, part of it was rebuilt in 2012, and the summer of 2013 has brought another season of road cones and road crews to the corridor.
On weekdays, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., you're required to take a shuttle bus to Bear Lake. If you're early enough, you can park at the Moraine Park Visitor Center (which is closed this year due to sequestration cuts) and board a shuttle there. If you're really early enough, you can drive to Bear Lake before 9 a.m. and hope to find a parking spot there.
On weekends there is no construction, so you can drive to the Bear Lake area any time of day. The problem, of course, is landing one of the 255 parking spots (244 automobile, 5 handicap, and 6 government vehicles). Rangers at the entrance to the Bear Lake Parking Area closely monitor things and hold up traffic until spots open; encountering a lengthy delay is a pretty good reason for parking at Moraine Park, or perhaps even the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, and riding the shuttles.
Yet another parking option is the Park and Ride lot near Glacier Basin on the road to Bear Lake. This lot has been closed due to the road work, but will reopen on July 20 and be able to offer 334 more parking spaces. Until July 20, the parking lot at the Moraine Park Visitor Center, which has been closed due to the budget sequestration, will continue to serve as the Park and Ride lot.
Hiking to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes is a joy, more so if you rise early enough to beat the crowds. I left my lodging in late June at roughly 6:15 a.m. to make the drive, and arrived within a half-hour to find a dozen or so cars in the parking lot. The sky overhead was cerulean and without a cloud, the air still cool, and a few other hardy souls were lacing their boots and hefting their packs.
Veering left at the trailhead towards the trio of lakes, I had the path to myself. The walk was easy, outside of the frequent stops to pull my camera from my pack to take shots of the mountainous setting. I could hear, but not see, Alberta Falls somewhere off to my left. Also somewhere out of sight to my right Bear Lake, at an elevation of 9,475 feet, seemingly was shrinking as I ascended towards my final destination, Emerald Lake, at 10,090 feet.
The hike is not complicated. Roundtrip it runs 3.6 miles. The tricky part is the altitude. I passed one gray-haired woman who was taking it very easy, pausing frequently, as she came to the national park from an elevation of roughly 4,000 feet, and that extra mile of thinning atmosphere was not being bashful of showing itself.
Nymph Lake is your first destination, and it comes relatively soon, just a half-mile into your walk. It's something of a pocket lake, surrounded by forest and dotted by lily pads. Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) reflects on the lake surface, another reason to head up early before the day's rising winds ruffle the surface and distort the reflection. A small bench -- a log halved length-wise and supported by two whole log sections -- offers you both a resting and a reflective place.
The trail winds around the north shore of the lake towards Dream Lake, another six-tenths of a mile ahead. It was while walking along this section that I happened upon an elk cow and her calf, which minutes earlier had been sipping from the water on the eastern side of Nymph Lake. She obviously had become somewhat habituated to hikers, giving me little more than a glance before heading off to browse some breakfast with her calf, still nursing, in tow.
One of your indications that Dream Lake is very near is a series of steps that carries the trail upwards while a parallel stream leaps and jumps downhill, a cool flush of water tempting on hot days. A small bridge takes you across this outlet of Dream Lake and over to the eastern shore.
The lake, not much bigger than Nymph Lake, is studded on the eastern end with granite outcrops and stunted conifers that resemble over-sized bonsai trees. You can linger at Dream Lake, but the closeness of Hallett Peak likely will hasten your pace to Emerald Lake. The trail runs seven-tenths of a mile further to this sparkling beauty. Along the way watch for rivulets nourishing small hanging gardens on the north side of the trail.
At Emerald Lake, the scenery envelopes your view: the lake in the foreground, steeply rising scree slopes in the background that give way to solid rock walls and, eventually, Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet).
On this late June day snowfields still swept down the flanks of Flattop, and two backcountry skiers -- tiny dots from where I stood -- were slowly working their way towards the top. Sitting on a granite boulder in the shade, snacking on trail mix, while watching the skiers made me glad that, on this day at least, I was hiking.
If You Go
Bear Lake To Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes
Trailhead: Bear Lake Parking Area
Distance: 3.6 miles roundtrip, out and back.
Difficulty: Easy if you're acclimated to the altitude, moderate otherwise.
Maps: The park's Bear Lake Area Hiking brochure, available at the ranger station at the Bear Lake parking area.
Don't forget plenty of water, hiking sticks to make the descent easier on your knees, snacks, and your camera.
The hike reportedly can be tackled year-round, and, with enough snowfall, is suitable for snowshoes or skis in winter.