Probably one of the most popular Rocky Mountain winter hikes, the Dream/Emerald/Haiyaha Lakes hike has easy winter access via a maintained road, a short distance with little relative elevation gain, and big views. All of the lake hikes begin from the Bear Lake parking area at the end of Bear Lake Rd, which is plowed all winter long! This hike requires passing through the main gates to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, so you gotta pay up or have a national parks pass!
You might think the winters in Rocky Mountain National Park are pretty quiet. And they are… compared to the totally bonkers summer season. However, if you’d like to do any winter hikes starting from the Bear Lake parking area on a weekend in winter, you better get your butt out of bed and drive to that parking area early! We did several hikes out of the Bear Lake area during our stay in Estes Park, and one on a Saturday. By the time we arrived back in the parking lot at ~1pm on that Saturday afternoon, the lot was COMPLETELY FULL, with a line perhaps ~10 cars deep waiting for spots to open up! It pays to be a morning person, y’all!
Anyway… back to our regularly scheduled program. We arrived at the Bear Lake parking area around 8:30am and began our hike. There are many, many trails around the Bear Lake area and we had plans to hit Dream and Emerald Lakes, with added mileage if we felt like it. The hike to Emerald is only ~1.5 miles one way with ~700 feet of elevation gain.
The combination of very popular trail + low snow year meant that the trail was exceedingly easy to walk on. Snowshoes were certainly not necessary, and microspikes were a nice added benefit but not 100% necessary either.
The first lake you hit on your way to Emerald Lake is Nymph Lake, which is honestly not terribly exciting. We were wondering if this whole day of lakes wasn’t going to be rather disappointing. But fear not! Trek on, and you will be rewarded.
We soon hit Dream Lake, which was 100% more scenic and 100% more windy. It was another blustery day in Rocky Mountain! We put on our puffy down jackets and continued on. We also saw lots of people in rather inappropriate winter attire (cough jeans cough). After not much effort we reached the end of the trail, which was Emerald Lake. Emerald provides a commanding view of the headwall leading to Flattop mountain (which, spoiler alert, we would attempt another day and turn back due to the wind chill, womp womp). The lake was frozen so we walked across it for funzies, getting blaster by the wind all the while.
It was still quite early in the day, so we decided to continue our day-o-lakes and hit Lake Haiyaha as well, which is located ~1.5 miles and several hundred feet above Dream Lake. From Dream Lake, you head rather steeply up a chilly hillside and turn the corner into the sun and excellent views of Longs Peak. This trail was obviously less traveled than the main Emerald Lake trail, but was still packed down enough that snowshoes were not necessary.
Not knowing exactly what we’d find for our extra expended effort, we were pleasantly surprised by the grand view at Lake Haiyaha, which was arguably our best view all day, and also considerably less crowded (we were the only ones there!). We snapped lots of pictures, followed a snowshoer’s tracks out of the lake area back to the main trail (MISTAKE) and retraced our steps back to the Bear Lake area. Great success!
Afterwards, we drove up Trail Ridge Road to the winter closure area, and saw a s***ton of elk. DOUBLE GREAT SUCCESS!