The Bear Lake Area is one of the most popular starting points for hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. From here, you can take a variety of hikes. The Bear Lake Loop is an easy 0.7-mile trail that circles Bear Lake with phenomenal views. If you are looking for a more challenging hike, the Sky Pond Trail climbs over 1600 feet with rock scrambling over its 8.4-mile route.
As you may know, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular parks in the National Park system, receiving nearly 4.5 million visitors in 2017. Since the Bear Lake area is one of the most popular spots in the park, it can get quite crowded.
If you’re like us, you’ll be longing to find places to hike that are away from the crowds. The trail to Emerald Lake is notoriously crowded, as is the trail to Alberta Falls. However, if you connect the two with a trek to the out-of-the-way Lake Haiyaha, you’ll find the quiet that you were likely envisioning when you planned your trip to the mountains.
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD: BEAR LAKE
Bear Lake Parking area map, courtesy of the National Park Service
Parking for the Bear Lake Trailhead is approximately 13 miles from Estes Park, CO.
- Directions from Estes Park, CO to the Bear Lake Trailhead (this will take about 30 minutes without traffic, and you should plan on there being plenty of traffic in the summer months in particular).
- Directions from Grand Lake, CO to the Bear Lake Trailhead (this takes you across Trail Ridge Road and is only open in the summer and potentially early fall-it will take at least 90 minutes).
The parking lot at Bear Lake is quite large and accepts at least 200 cars. However, the lot fills up by 8:00 AM on a busy day (and is the worst on the weekends). You should plan on arriving well before 8 to guarantee a parking spot. If you can’t arrive early in the day, there is parking near Glacier Basin. There is also a free shuttle that runs to and from the Bear Lake parking area.
There are restrooms at the trailhead, but no restrooms on the trail.
EMERALD LAKE, LAKE HAIYAHA AND ALBERTA FALLS TRAIL: TRAIL SURFACE AND ACCESSIBILITY
- Trail surface. Like most trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, the trail surface is packed dirt. However, much of the trail is rocky, and you need to watch your step, so we really recommend wearing good hiking boots. The rock scrambling near Lake Haiyaha requires it, and there are spots on the trail that can be wet and muddy.
- Accessibility. The trail is not wheelchair accessible. Parts of the Bear Lake Trail are wheelchair accessible, but the grade does reach up to 16% in some places.
PREPARATION FOR HIKING THE EMERALD LAKE, LAKE HAIYAHA AND ALBERTA FALLS LOOP TRAIL
You need to plan on being on this hike for quite some time, as it is long. Plus, since the elevation starts at around 9,000 feet, you really need to be prepared for it to take a bit longer than it will take to hike a normal 8-mile hike. Here are some recommendations:
- Water. Aside from acclamation, water is the best thing you can do to prevent any type of altitude sickness. We recommend a hydration pack to help you out, so you can sip water as you go without any fear or running out.
- Sunblock. Most of the trail is protected, but the sun can be very intense at this altitude. A hat and sunblock are both recommended.
- First-aid Kit. On a hike this long, getting a scrape or two on you isn’t unheard of (especially if you have young children). A small, hiking first aid kit can come in handy.
- Map. We found that having a map was really useful to navigate the trails and also to see what’s around you. We like the Rocky Mountain National Park from National Geographic as it is durable and semi-waterproof.
- Bear Spray. While coming upon bears is rare, you need to be prepared. If you fly, you’ll want to make sure you pick it up after you land rather than try to bring it on the plane (you cannot!).
THE HIKE: NYMPH, DREAM AND EMERALD LAKES
Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha and Alberta Falls Loop Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The trailhead starts from the western end of the parking lot. Avoid the temptation to hike the Bear Lake Trail until after you return from the main hike you are trying to do. This will allow you to get a head start in front of the crowds and will make the hike a bit more special.
Starting off toward Nymph and Dream Lakes, the trail passes through an evergreen forest as it slowly climbs just over 220 feet. Along the way, you’ll have views of Longs Peak (one of the most distinctive peaks in the area). A portion of the trail to Nymph Lake is paved to help prevent erosion. After just under a half-mile, you’ll arrive at Nymph Lake. This lake offers nice views and good places for a picnic.
After passing Nymph Lake, the trail continues to climb (at a slightly faster rate) on the way up to Dream Lake. This area is known for having wildflowers, though we happened to be too early in the season to see them during our hike. At just over the 1-mile point (about 0.3 miles from Nymph Lake), you’ll arrive at Dream Lake.
For those wanting to continue to Emerald Lake, the hike has one last ascent to the turnaround point which is about 0.5 miles past Dream Lake. Emerald Lake has terrific views.
As the hike requires a bit of distance (1.6 miles from the parking lot) and some climbing (620 ft. total), not everyone who starts the trail ends up getting to this point, making for a slightly quieter experience than the other two lakes.
THE HIKE TO LAKE HAIYAHA AND ALBERTA FALLS
After arriving at Emerald Lake, the trail ends abruptly. Retrace your steps back just past Dream Lake, where you’ll see signs leading to Lake Haiyaha. You’ll take this trail for about 1.1 miles.
After crossing a river and a moderately steep climb, you’ll be rewarded with an easy hike alongside the mountain before once again heading back into the woods. Before you know it, you’ll be at Lake Haiyaha.
Lake Haiyaha is a great destination by itself, as it has a boulder field that you’ll have to climb over on your way to the lake shore. These large boulders are not too difficult to navigate and can be very enjoyable for kids. They also act as fantastic seats when you break for water or a snack and take in the views. The hike to Lake Haiyaha is not crowded at all, and the spot along the shore is very peaceful.
Leaving Lake Haiyaha, you’ll have to retrace your steps for about 0.2 miles before turning right (east) onto the Haiyaha Cutoff Trail. This (mostly) flat part of the loop crosses over streams while traversing through a mix of new and old-growth forest. This is by far the least traveled part of the hike. When we hiked it, we saw only two other hiking parties (and this was in mid-July!).
After about 2 miles, foot traffic will pickup slightly as you pass by hikers heading to The Loch or Sky Pond to the south. Finally, approximately 3.5 miles after leaving Lake Haiyaha, you’ll see plenty of people gathering around the overlook near Alberta Falls.
One of the most popular spots on the trail (and actually the only destination for many who hike the last part of this trail only), Alberta Falls cascades down 30 feet into Glacier Creek. Eventually, Glacier Creek makes its way to Bear Lake.
Alberta Falls is flowing during the warmer months, but it is most impressive to visit it in the late spring or early summer.
This part of the trail can get quite crowded, but it is still a great place to relax before making the final push back to the starting point of the hike.
THE RETURN TRIP
The trip back to the Bear Lake Parking area is about 1 mile. Keep in mind, the last ~0.3 miles are slightly uphill, which can be a bit more taxing than it normally might be, since at this point you’re passing the 8-mile point on the hike. To cut the trip short by about 0.5 miles, the shuttle bus does run from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead Parking Area back to the Bear Lake Parking area. However, this option may not be the fastest, as it is routinely quicker to walk and avoid the wait.
EMERALD LAKE, LAKE HAIYAHA AND ALBERTA FALLS TRAIL: TOP LIKES AND DISLIKES
- Great Variety. You’ll get up close and personal to several lakes, a waterfall and also have great mountain vistas along the way.
- Hiking through the Woods. We loved how in between lakes you hike through wooded trails-the forest here is wonderful.
- Loop Trail. We love loop trails, rather than out-and-back trails.
- Crowds. This area of the park is crowded for a reason-it’s beautiful. However, you’ll have to expect plenty of company on the trail. The crowds are especially heavy as you hike to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes, but really thin out as you get closer to Lake Haiyaha and beyond.
- Ending Uphill. Be advised that the hike does to up a bit at the end of the hike, which is sure to tire you out!
THINGS TO DO NEAR THE HIKE TO EMERALD LAKE, LAKE HAIYAHA AND ALBERTA FALLS TRAIL
As mentioned earlier, the Bear Lake area is a great place to spend the better part of the day. Some other tips on what to see in the area include:
- Hike the Bear Lake Trail. This is an easy 0.7-mile loop around Bear Lake. It is known for having great mountain views behind the beautiful lake.
- Go for a picnic lunch or dinner at nearby Sprague Lake. While there are trails from here, the picnicking sites are located right near the parking area.
- Take a hike on some of the other trails in the nearby Sprague Lake area or from the Hollowell Park Trailhead.
OTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK AND THE SURROUNDING AREA
- For some great images on Dream Lake and Emerald Lake (as well as other information on the area), check out Annah Meintzer’s blog.
- Colorado is full of great hiking, and Rocky Mountain National Park just has a taste of what you can experience here. Sage (from “Everyday Wanderer”) covers her recommendations in her article, 8 of the best day hikes in Colorado.
- For further information on the park, be sure to check out the article from Big Brave Nomad on What to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids.
- Of course, a great resource to rely on is the Rocky Mountain National Park website. You can also find great Rocky Mountain National Park maps, hiking trails and a map specifically for the Bear Lake and Moraine Park area.
INFORMATION ON ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- If you happen to like adventures, the Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is one to add to your itinerary when you are visiting the park. This daring drive has no guardrails and is something you’ll want to be sure and experience!
- Make sure to wear good hiking shoes or boots for this trail. You’ll need them for the boulder scrambling near Lake Haiyaha. Also, you want to do everything you can to avoid injury out here, as it is remote and a bit of a haul back to the parking area.
- Most of the trail is in the shade. While not as exposed as other hikes, sunblock is still recommended.
- The trail is at elevation, so make sure you bring plenty of water and plan on taking breaks.