ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK - The late May snow that added an extra 40 inches to Rocky Mountain National Park is finally starting to melt and reveal the trails that connect visitors to the most beautiful locations within this treasured place.
If you have friends and family in town over Fourth of July weekend the Emerald Lake Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park will give them a look at one of the most stunning locations in the state.
The hike itself is about 3.6 miles and has a total elevation gain of about 650 feet.
Editors Note: Since this hike is in Rocky Mountain National Park, your dogs must stay at home. Pets may accompany you in developed areas such as campgrounds, parking areas and picnic sites but are not permitted on trails or away from roads or parking areas.
Park your car (carpool if you can), and then ride the shuttles within the park to the Bear Lake Trailhead. This is the most central location within the park that can be accessed by car or bus.
Your first stop is just feet away from the parking lot. Bear Lake gives you a look at the beauty that is waiting for you along this trail.
This will not be a hike where you get to enjoy the solitude of the Colorado backcountry. Be prepared for crowds as many rank this trail as one of the best out of more than a hundred in all of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Returning to the main path you can start your trip towards three lakes all less than two miles from the parking lot.
The first lake, Nymph Lake, is just about a half-mile up the trail. You will climb about 230 feet to this location. It's a good warm up and a chance to see if everyone in your group is good with the altitude in the park since Nymph Lake is 9,700 feet above sea level. (Make sure you bring plenty of water!)
As you approach the lake you will hear more voices and your senses will tell you there is something drawing people to stop just ahead of the trees and the trail.
That's where a storybook comes to life - with a small lake filled with lily pads.
The name Nymph Lake comes from the term nymph, a mythological spirit of nature that lives in the woods, along rivers or lakes.
There are trails along the lake to give you a look at the water and the mountains that surround it. Take a moment to enjoy the lake from several different spots.
At the end of the lake you will see the trail starting to rise and visitors making their way to the next lake. Dreams are waiting just up ahead.
The trail will become steep for a short time, but hikers are rewarded with breathtaking views of the nearby peaks above and wildflowers on the ground below.
The flowers may get a late start in 2017 with the extra spring snow. Stop and enjoy this stretch of the trail, as there are many things to see and experience along this half mile of the route.
When you see a log bridge, get your camera out. It's a great location for a truly Colorado photo. Keep those cameras out, though, because there is another magical place just around the next corner.
The next time I'm on this trail or in this area of the park I want to ask a ranger who was the first to name it Dream Lake. Before visiting I wondered if this lake could possibly live up to the description of a place only imaginable in a blissful moment of deep sleep.
Photos online are what drew me to this spot, but I questioned whether I would have the same experience as so many others had written about.
My first glimpse at Dream Lake was not at the peak moment of a sunrise, beaming colors onto the peaks towering over the lake. It was as clouds passed overhead and a cool breeze blew through the trees and across the water.
Still, this was as magical a place as I have ever seen in my life. Small trees line a shore of rocky boulders. There is water so clear you can see fish swimming at least a hundred feet from shore, capturing your attention until your gaze meets the mountains surrounding you.
This is nature.
This is a place that can make you feel infinitely small in a great big world. Yet, at the same time, it can make you feel empowered and ready to climb every peak in the park in the hopes that what you see next will be as beautiful as where you currently stand.
Bring a snack, take a moment, grab your water, grab a book, grab your camera and savor the setting. Watch the fish swim, listen to the birds around you, laugh at the kids who find small new playmates in the curious chipmunks that scamper around the shore.
This can be the end of your hike, although much more still awaits you if you're ready.
Dream Lake sits just below 10,000 feet in elevation.
It's about another half-mile from the end of the lake to the next stop, taking you 150 to 200 feet higher. The trail is incredibly well maintained.
A dirt path and log steps help you make the brief climb through the rocks. The steps show the great care that goes into protecting this national park.
It should also serve as a reminder to keep this place in the pristine condition that it is in. Tremendous effort goes in to making it easy for people to see these places while keeping it as natural as possible.
The third in this chain of lakes is Emerald Lake. The trail ends at the shore of this lake which is fed from the glaciers above it.
Towering on the other end of the lake is Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain. Dark green, gemstone-colored water stretches out in front of you.
High above you on Flattop Mountain there are hikers making the trek to its summit and the view down below to Emerald Lake.
For now, enjoy the view from this spot.
If you're interested, the Flattop Mountain Trail starts back at Bear Lake. However, that is another adventure for another time.
Once you are ready to return back down the trail, see how your group is doing. It will be about 1.8 miles back to the trailhead.
You can proceed and get a second look at the places you have been. The sun and clouds may be different and offer a chance to see those spots with fresh eyes and from a new perspective.
If you want to extend your hike though, just beyond Dream Lake is a split in the trail that goes to Lake Haiyaha.
It's a more difficult hike, with a steep climb and a few rocks to scramble over. The views though are a bonus and it's a more isolated area just 1.2 miles off the beaten path of the more popular Emerald Lake trail.
It's a mile at this point back to Bear Lake. If you choose to go Lake Hiayaha, keep in mind it is 1.2 miles there, 1.2 miles back to this spot and another one mile to Bear Lake.
The bonus, though, will be spectacular views of a fifth lake on this hike.
The sun finally came out as I made it to this lake. I could see people fishing here, while others were basking in the warm sunshine. The extra effort was well worth it to see this lake.
While the trail is crowded during the summer, this is one spot in the entire state that everyone should see at least once. If you make the trip, you'll likely end up thinking how soon you can return to see it all again.
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