Trail Length: 4 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,475 ft -10,140 ft
Elevation gain: 665 ft with and additional 185 ft.
Difficulty: Easy to slightly harder for novices
Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes
Dogs: Not allowed, National Park
No winter season should go by without a quick jaunt up to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This snowshoe has everything a winter aficionado needs; wind swept trees, frozen lakes, towering peaks, and sometimes life-sucking chill.
The winter trails in Rocky Mountain National Park are different from the summer trails and sometimes finding the trailhead can be tricky, particularly when there is a lot of fresh snow. The winter trails map put out by the Park Service can help but some back tracking may be necessary if this is your first time and the trail is untrodden.
The trail starts at Bear Lake, and unlike the summer, the parking lot is never full. After a short stroll through the trees near the lake, the trail begins to climb steeply which in some places can be quite steep and very deep. I have seen novices or couch potatoes bite the dust quickly here. Anyone with a modicum of fitness however, can easily scale these humps to the shelf above.
(Left: Tracks across Dream Lake) The first milestone is Dream Lake (see it in the fall), which is austere, windblown and bordered by twisted, claw-like pine trees. Here, sculptures carved in ice, rock, and wood are a delight to the photographer. Dress warmly though. Dream Lake might just convince you that hell is actually a frozen wasteland. After a half hour or so of staring through a lens you might consider committing a few mortal sins if it meant immediate transport to warmer nether realms.
Crossing Dream Lake may seem dangerous but it is usually quite safe despite the numerous cracks in the ice. Look for the well-worn path in the ice and decide for yourself. Going around the lake can me much harder.
(On the right: Sunlight graces the crags around Emerald Lake)
Emerald Lake is a half-mile beyond Dream Lake and is achieved after another short accent that winds through the trees. It sits below Hallett Peak, which can be gray and dreary, shrouded in clouds like an Ansel Adams portrait or graced by a halo of sunshine and blue skies. I have never crossed Emerald Lake but have certainly seen enough people on the far side.
This snowshoe is short and windy but has the advantage of being close in for us front rangers and without avalanche danger. A longer excursion could include an additional side trip to Alberta Falls, whose normal torrent of water is stunningly frozen in winter. Did I mention it gets cold here? The falls can be reached by either the side trail that descends from Bear Lake or from the newly improved Glacier Gorge parking area.