Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is high on our list of national parks we have visited so far (possibly even our favorite). We have been here countless times and have completed numerous hikes, yet every time we return, we continue to find ourselves in awe of the beauty of this particular national park.

RMNP is also special to use for personal reasons. Tom grew up visiting the park on family vacations in Estes Park, and he took Kate with his family on her first visit to Colorado in 2016. The following summer, Tom proposed at Bear Lake in July of 2017! After moving from Iowa to Colorado, we took countless trips to RMNP during the six years that we lived there. Now that we’re living in the van, we still find ourselves going to Rocky quite often with family, friends, and photo shoots with couples.

One of our favorite aspects of adventuring at Rocky Mountain National Park is exploring all of the different alpine lakes. Here, we have compiled a list of some of our favorite alpine lake hikes in Rocky to help inspire and inform your next trip to RMNP! They are listed in no particular order – we love them all and would recommend each for different reasons.

1. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, & Emerald Lake
  • Length: 3.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 702 ft
  • Route Type: Out & back
  • Level: Easy/Moderate
  • Note: Hike begins at Bear Lake trailhead

The hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes is one of our favorites that we do with our family almost every summer. We enjoy how this hike allows you to see 3 stunning alpine lakes in 1 hike! Plus, it is a pretty easy/moderate level hike that will get your heart rate up a bit but never gets too difficult. We always like to eat a snack at Emerald Lake and admire the view of rock climbers from far away.

Optional extension – Once you’re done at Emerald Lake and headed back down to Dream Lake, go right instead of straight to take the trail from Dream Lake to Lake Haiyaha. It is less than a mile to get there, but is a little steep (another 300 feet of elevation gain). This would put your grand total for this hike at 5 miles with 1,085 feet of elevation gain. The color of the water at this lake temporarily changed to a milky blue in 2022 due to a rock slide. We believe the color of the water is still a little more blue than usual in 2023!

2. Sky Pond
  • Length: 8.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,771 ft
  • Route type: Out & back
  • Level: Moderate/Hard
  • Note: Hike begins at Bear Lake trailhead

We hiked to Sky Pond with Tom’s brother back in 2021 and hope to do it again some day. The views at the top are unreal, but you do have to work quite a bit to get there. The hardest (and sketchiest) part of the hike is scaling a waterfall to get up (and then down) from Sky Pond. We saw someone cut their knee open pretty badly on a rock; however, we took our time and followed the route set by other hikers ahead of us, and we were fine. Make sure your shoes have good traction for this hike (we do not recommend Nike tennis shoes)!

This hike is also one of our favorites because it is so scenic. You’ll get to see Alberta Falls, The Loch, and lots of wildlife on your way up!

3. Chasm Lake
  • Length: 8.0 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,552 ft
  • Route type: Out & back
  • Level: Hard
  • Note: Outside of Bear Lake corridor

To hike to Chasm Lake, you’ll get to feel like a big shot by parking at the Longs Peak trailhead and being able to say you’ve done the first part of Longs! Kate hiked to Chasm Lake with her friend in summer of 2022. The hardest aspect of this hike is the elevation gain. When you get to the lake, you can even jump in (if you’re brave enough)! We saw several people do this but did not opt to try it ourselves – that water is cold, y’all!

4. Odessa Lake
  • Length: 8.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,991 ft
  • Route type: Out & back (option to make loop with 2 vehicles or shuttle)
  • Level: Moderate
  • Note: Hike begins at Bear Lake trailhead (but can also access via Fern Lake trailhead)

Odessa Lake is a perfect hike to choose your own adventure. Kate got to backpack to Odessa Lake with her friends in 2023 and stayed at one of the two backcountry campsites. If you’re able to secure a permit, we highly recommend this! Watching the sunrise at the lake in the morning was surreal.

However, this is also an extremely beautiful alpine lake just for a day hike! There are also several add-ons to this hike. An easy stop on your way up is Lake Helene. It is not marked by a trail marker, however, so we recommend bringing a map or AllTrails to know when to turn to see the lake. A more difficult add-on on the way up or down is Flattop Mountain. We did not opt to do this one with our heavy backpacks, but it could be a fun extension if you’re trying to get in a longer day hike.

Another add-on is Fern Lake, which is just another half mile or so from Odessa. You could even make this hike a loop if you started at Bear Lake and hiked down to the Fern Lake Trailhead, but you would either need to take the shuttle back up to Bear or have a second vehicle parked at Fern.

Gem Lake
  • Length: 3.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 987 ft
  • Route type: Out & back
  • Level: Easy/Moderate
  • Note: Outside of Bear Lake corridor

Want an easier hike with a breathtaking view? Look no further than Gem Lake! After getting to the lake, we followed the trail a bit further around the lake and scrambled the rocks for an even better view. It is especially beautiful at sunrise or sunset. An added bonus of this hike? You’ll get to see (and possibly use) one of the most scenic toilets of all-time!

Helpful Reminders for RMNP

In order to ensure that you have an amazing, stress-free experience during your time hiking all of these amazing alpine lakes at Rocky Mountain National Park, we want to provide some clarification on the timed entry permits, park passes, and a packing list!

Timed Entry Permits & Passes

Remember that as of August 2023, you MUST have purchased a timed entry permit in advance in order to access RMNP between 5am-6pm (Bear Lake corridor) or 9am-2pm (anything not in Bear Lake corridor). Please see that we have noted on this blog which of these alpine lake hikes begin at the Bear Lake trailhead and which do not, so you can purchase your timed entry permit accordingly. Timed entry passes become available on the 1st of the month in advance of the month you plan to visit (i.e., all June passes become available on May 1st); however, there are also a limited number of permits released each night at 5pm for the following day. If you plan on trying to snag one of these, be sure you have already made a account and be on the site with your payment info ready exactly at 5pm (they go very fast).

Once you receive a timed entry permit, either print it, screenshot it, or add it to your Apple Wallet. There is limited cell service at the gate, so you may not be able to open it via email. More info on the timed entry system at RMNP can be found here.

In addition to the timed entry permit, you’ll also need a park pass to get into the park. We always purchase the Annual National Parks Pass for $80 to use over the course of a year for all national parks. However, if you don’t travel to national parks often, you can also purchase a day pass to RMNP for $30 or a 7-day pass for $35. These passes can be purchased at the gate entrance to the park.

Recommended Packing List

Here are some essentials to make sure you pack for a day hike in RMNP:

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