A couple of years ago if you’d asked me whether I was a beach or mountains kind of girl, I’d have said beach, hands down. After having visited the Scottish Highlands and now the Rockies, I’m not so sure the choice is as obvious anymore. I didn’t think anything could beat being by the ocean – crashing waves, seagulls calling, warm sun on bare legs – but fresh mountain air and the promise of unlimited new trails to hike may just do it.
While we were in Colorado, we spent a day hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and despite my body feeling otherwise, at the end of the day my mind and spirit were like, Yeah! Let’s do this again tomorrow! And were we not headed to Tennessee the next day, we definitely could have. There are over 355 miles of hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park alone, and who knows how many in the whole state. It must be really, really hard to make yourself go to work if you live in Colorado.
With so many great options, I’m glad it was my sister and brother-in-law who chose the trails we hiked on our day in Rocky Mountain National Park. We ended up taking the Three Lakes route to Emerald Lake and then tacking on an additional hike to Alberta Falls at the end. Were we not the type to stop and take pictures every few feet, we could have easily completed both trails in a couple hours’ time instead of taking nearly all day, but when you’re surrounded by scenery like this, how can you not?
We started our first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park at the Bear Lake trailhead along with like thirty other people. (This is a really popular trail!) Thankfully, the further along the path the more everyone disperses. Well-trodden dirt and asphalt make this section of the trail the easiest, and after only about a half mile of walking, we reached the first of the three lakes in the Three Lakes route – Nymph Lake. Smaller than the next two lakes we’d see, Nymph Lake was no less beautiful. With views of the snow-capped mountains behind, as pretty as this scene was in mid-June, I hear it’s even better in the fall when the aspens change color.
After Nymph Lake, if you’re up for scrambling over some rocks, there’s an area at the top of them with some pretty incredible views of the mountains and lakes below. Otherwise, there are a couple of other points along the path where gaps in the treeline allow for scenic viewpoints, but everyone else stops at these points, too, so it can get kind of crowded.
SOME WATERFALL I DON’T KNOW THE NAME OF
Just before we reached the second lake on the trail, we veered off the path a little to visit this small waterfall that I can’t remember the name of. Super helpful, right? This was one of my favorite spots we stopped at along the way, because not a single other person was here despite everywhere else on the trail staying pretty packed all day. And as a bonus, I got to make friends with this little guy. You know the creatures in the national park are used to humans when they let you get within hugging distance of them! I had my wide-angle lens on my camera, so the only way to take such a close-up shot was to get practically nose-to-nose with him and he was totally cool with it. (Unlike the marmot that ran full-speed at me when I tried to take his picture by Emerald Lake, but I don’t want to talk about that.)
About a half mile after Nymph Lake, we came to the second lake on our trail. Somebody knew what they were talking about when they called this one Dream Lake. This place is gorgeous. Quite a bit larger than Nymph Lake, Dream Lake seemed to stretch on forever while we were walking this part of the trail. From the side of the lake that we came to first on the trail, there was a perfect, unobstructed view of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain with the Tyndall Gorge in between them. As we kept walking the lake really opened up, and thanks to an increase in elevation, there were lots of opportunities for snowy alpine lake scene photo-ops here. The only downside was the wind. Even on a sunny and warm day like we had, without anything to block it, the wind really picked up at both Dream Lake and Emerald Lake. Luckily, we found a gigantic rock to hide behind where we could eat a snack and still enjoy the view without having to brace ourselves against the wind the whole time.
Two and a half hours after we started our hike, we reached our destination – Emerald Lake. (Actual walking distance was under two miles – I told you we stop a lot for photos!) At an elevation of 10,100 feet, the scenery looked quite a bit different at Emerald Lake than it did where we started. We went from picnic-weather by Nymph Lake to Narnia up here! Conditions on the trail got a bit more difficult as we neared the lake, too, since much of the path was still covered in snow. Because of how much foot traffic this trail sees, the snow we were walking through wasn’t the powdery kind you can sink into, but the packed, icy kind that makes slipping and falling a likely outcome. (Or maybe that’s just me.) All worth it in the end, though, because hello dramatic landscapes! Seeing Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain this close up was awesome, and Emerald Lake still being half-frozen over only added to the scene. We ate our lunch up here, admiring the view and watching a lone skier smoothly make his way down the side of the mountain. It’s moments like these that make me want to spend every day doing nothing but exactly this.
After we made it back down to the Bear Lake trailhead where we started our hike from, we decided to hike just one more trail before driving back to Fort Collins. This time we headed in the opposite direction towards Alberta Falls. With less mountain views and more forest, we made it to the falls in much quicker time than our previous hike. (Distance to Alberta Falls is about half that of the Three Lakes route.) The aspen trees grow thick along this trail, which makes it a perfect one to take in the fall. (I’m seriously considering a return visit to Rocky Mountain National Park when I come back to meet my new niece or nephew in a couple months!)
As for the falls themselves, you know you’re about to see a decent waterfall when you can hear it long before you actually come up on it, and that’s how it was for us on the day we visited. Thanks to the snowmelt run-off, Alberta Falls was particularly impressive when we visited, but can be less powerful or even frozen during other months of the year.
In all, we hiked close to six miles in Rocky Mountain National Park on these two trails, a mere 1.7% of the public hiking trails in the park. I take that to mean I have 349 reasons to come back. :)
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