Winter Trek at Rocky Mountain National Park

Last updated at January 23, 2023

Known to be one of the most popular destinations at Rocky Mountain National Park, Emerald Lake Trail of Estes Park is usually congested with families and tourists in the summertime. This beautiful hike will let you explore 4 unique lakes, along with some awesome views of the Rockies.

In the winter, the trail becomes a menacing obstacle, making it near impossible to hike. Inclines of snow, icy trail paths, and buried trail markers stand between you and the esteemed view of Emerald Lake. However, with the right preparation, the climb is very feasible.

Why Hike in the Winter?

There’s a reason why people in Colorado are at the ski lifts and not climbing mountains in the winter. But there are plenty of reasons why you should hike the trails in the offseason:

  • Easy parking - parking always seems to be a hassle at every mountain hike I try in the summer. The lot is always full and we’d have to try an overpriced alternative miles away from the trailhead. In the winter, a dozen cars were cooped up in the corner of a gigantic parking lot when we got to the entrance.
  • Complete serenity - my friends and I were on the mountain during normal peak hours on an afternoon weekend. What would’ve been the nonsense chatter of crowds at popular stopping points along the trail were instead replaced with whispers of the wind breathing through the evergreens. On the hike up, we met only a handful of fellow hikers and had complete privacy of all the lakes and views. It really was magical and something that never would’ve happened in the summer.
  • A different type of beauty - sure the summertime does offer some beautiful colors, but the sheer awe of taking in the towering snow covered peaks felt unreal. It was nice to take in a completely new perspective of what we saw online.
trail hike bear lake loop
Thoreau-approved serenity amongst the trees on a quiet trail

Estes Park Mountain Shop

For high quality equipment and advice from professionals, Estes Park Mountain shop should be the first destination on your list before visiting any parks. Besides being one of the kindest business staff I’ve ever visited, my 5-star customer service experience was because of their expertise and knowledge. They informed my party of the state of trails nearby and the most optimal equipment for each one. For our hike to Emerald Lake, the staff highly recommended microspikes over snowshoes, which we initially wanted to rent out as per recommendations online. During the hike, we were very surprised how efficient the microspikes were on the compact snow and ice, and ease of movement made our hike more comfortable than if we were to have chosen snowshoes.

Estes Mountain Shop
The microspikes and poles package deal is great bang for your buck

All the rental equipment at this store was extremely affordable. My friends and I were able to pick up a package of microspikes and poles that cost us a cheap fee of 11$ for the whole day. They offer equipment and package deals suitable for every possible winter activity in the park, which makes this place the perfect one-stop-and-shop if you plan on making your route efficient. Besides rentals, you can look into buying hand/toe warmers as well as peruse some of the retail that they have on markdown.

Preparation tips

The terrain on the Emerald Lake hike is way more difficult with snow and ice, making an already physically difficult task even more challenging. This makes preparation even more important so that you can have the safest and best experience possible:

  • Dress in layers. Temperatures started off pretty warm at the beginning of the hike but quickly became cold after the first mile. Also if you plan on hiking in the afternoon, the temperature drops even more when the sun starts to set. It is best to hike in the morning if you want consistent sun and better control over the temperature variability.
  • Don’t underestimate the altitude. Altitude sickness does not feel good to have. I was unfortunately a victim and it felt like undergoing a terrible hangover. The best way to avoid it is to take your hike slowly and to watch your breathing.
  • Load up on carbs. Eating high carb foods is a great way to avoid altitude sickness! Pack a sandwich for lunch with a lot of bread. Also treating yourself to a beer was a great remedy to recover after the hike (knowledge from experience XD).
  • Check the weather and sunset. Low temperatures are inevitable in the winter, but I highly recommend making sure you are going on a clear sunny day and that you allocate enough time to finish the hike before sunset. Nothing is worse than having a beautiful view spoiled by dense clouds and fog.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help! Everyone on the trail was overwhelmingly friendly and helped us during the ascent. Feel free to ask anyone for time estimates and pathing decisions.
  • Bring a thermos! Your water will FREEZE unless you have a vacuum insulated water bottle. After Dream Lake, it started to get noticeably colder. The water in my plastic bottle started freezing and I remembered dreading not having something lukewarm to drink.

Emerald Lake Hike

Prep your microspikes and pull out your poles! You will be needing your equipment right from the get-go when you enter the snow-covered trails coming from the parking lot.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake Loop Trailhead
Bear Lake Loop Trailhead

After the first couple minutes from the trailhead you’ll meet a fork where the Bear Lake will be off towards the right and the Emerald Lake hike on the left. If you have the time, I highly suggest trying out the hike to Bear Lake. This is a relatively easy ascent and you’ll see that this lake is relatively popular for pictures. You’ll see a lot of people congregating over the frozen lake trying to get a picture of the peaks in the distance.

Bear Lake
The scene on the edge of Bear Lake

Nymph Lake

The hike to Nymph lake was relatively steep but also scenic. You’ll be on a trail that parts the dense evergreens, the sun leaking through the pine leaves as you ascend this magical winter wonderland. As you approach Nymph Lake, be able to catch a glimpse of the mountain peaks peering over the trees in the distance.

Nymph Lake
Nymph Lake surrounded by evergreens

Dream Lake

After Nymph Lake, you’ll continue to ascend up steeper slopes and will eventually come to this ridge that offers a breathtaking view of the mountains. You should be able to also see Nymph Lake from the ledge, so it’s a great place to stop and catch a breath and take in all the great progress you’ve made.

ledge mountaintop
Beautiful mountaintop scenery on the ledge

The hike upwards will have a noticeable increase in difficulty; the altitude starts to become really thin and it’ll be much easier to get tired. Again, I’d recommend to take breaks frequently and to make sure that your oxygen intake is healthy to avoid altitude sickness.

When you finally get to Dream Lake, you’ll get hit with the drop in temperatures. This was where my group broke out all our hand warmers as we braced the wind chill; continuing on the path over the outstretched frozen lake.

Emai Freezing Hair
Emai's hair freezing in the cold

Emerald Lake

Once you get to the opposite shore on Dream Lake, the hike to Emerald will be extremely steep but short. Our microspikes and poles were extremely helpful here as they helped our tiring legs on this last push. You’ll eventually get to some stone steps which will ultimately take you to the crown jewel of Emerald Lake.

Emerald Lake
The crown jewel of our hike - Emerald Lake

Our image in no way justifies how big these cliffs were. We spent a couple minutes gazing at the sheer magnificence of nature.


If you come well prepared (microspikes and poles) you’ll find your descent to be very fast and pleasant. The amount of traction and grip from the spikes will be a confidence booster descending the steep slopes of compact snow and ice. Expect to take a quarter of time descending compared to your climb up if you made the necessary preparations.