Location Spotlight: Dream Lake in Winter

January 23, 2023  |  Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

On my recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, the top item on my list was to reach Dream Lake, one of the most popular locations in the park. It draws a lot of people, with the park advising visitors to arrive early or use the park shuttle since the lot will be full. During the summer and early fall, and even with packed down snow, this is a fairly easy hike on an out-and-back trail that totals about 2.2 miles. But with almost 2 feet of fresh snow, the trail becomes a little more treacherous in spots, making it less "easy".

Our first attempt at this hike was our first day in the park. Being unfamiliar with the trail, we were banking on the fact that it would be visible, even under a little fresh snow. And it was on the lower sections of the trail. But as we climbed higher, more snow was piled on the trail, until we lost the trail completely just above Nymph Lake. You can see what I'm talking about in my image below, "Snowy Spruces". There's supposed to be a trail there, heading into the trees. Slipping and sliding down the slope would have meant at the very least, a difficult climb back up. It was at this point that I and my companion Kristen Wilkinson decided that it'd be wise to save it for another day. By this time, it had taken us two hours to reach this point, due to the heavy snow and some time spent trying to find the trail under the snow.

Blue Spruce Trees above Nymph Lake are covered in fresh snow on a winter morning in Rocky Mountain National Park,

Snowy Spruces

Blue Spruce Trees above Nymph Lake are covered in fresh snow on a winter morning in Rocky Mountain National Park,


We tried again a few days later. This time, the trail was packed down pretty well and easy to follow. We were able to skip the snowshoes and just hike the trail in microspikes. This made it much faster going, enabling us to reach the lake in just an hour. We had allowed a lot of extra time, given how long it had taken us the first time, and we were also dealing with the altitude. Living at sea level, suddenly finding myself at nearly 10,000 feet in elevation was quite an adjustment. We took our time, catching our breath as needed, even using portable oxygen bottles when we were particularly winded.

We arrived at the lake in the dark, and were soon joined by a local photographer named Fred, who chatted with us as we waited for the light to come up. We were a little hesitant to walk out on the frozen lake, unsure if it was safe. Fred advised us that the ice at this time of year would be at least one or two feet thick, except where the lake outlets into Tyndall Creek and the ice thins out. Armed with that information, we walked out onto the ice as the light came up and began working.

Dream Lake sits beneath Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain, frozen on a winter day in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colorado.

A Winter's Dream

Dream Lake sits beneath Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain, frozen on a winter day in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colorado.

The morning was overcast, so there was no hope for any alpenglow or dramatic light, but the soft, even light revealed the textures in the ice, which became my focus for "A Winters Dream" shown above. The rocks on the south side of the lake made for an outstanding foreground while Hallett Peak on the left, and the Dragon's Tooth and Dragon's Tail of Flattop Mountain on the right, provided for a dramatic background.

The ice that covers Dream Lake forms beautiful designs with bubbles, cracks, and fissures covering the surface and just below.

Dream Lake Ice Abstract

The ice that covers Dream Lake forms beautiful designs with bubbles, cracks, and fissures covering the surface and just below. The lake freezes in October and doesn't thaw until April.

Eventually, my attention turned to the ice itself. I've been slowly trying to incorporate more abstract compositions into my work, and the ice of Dream Lake offered a ton of opportunities, if I could make myself see the designs that would be more pleasing to the eye. So I spent a bit of time looking at the cracks, fissures, fog, and bubbles I could see in the ice, and one of my favorites was "Dream Lake Ice Abstract", above. I just love the textures and designs the cracks and fissures make. The image itself seems to glow. I have more of these to edit when I get time.

A winter mountain scene at Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Frozen Dream

A winter morning at Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park sees fresh snow scattered across the frozen surface of the lake.

I almost figured that after that second trip to Dream Lake, I wouldn't make another trip back. Despite the shortness of the hike, and the fairly minimal elevation gain of about 425 feet, the elevation and cold air had taken a lot out of me. But we still hadn't had great light on the peaks, and when Kristen and I discussed it, we decided that we'd make one last hike to the lake in the hopes of some sun on those peaks. There had been some fresh snow overnight. Not enough to be a problem this time, but the fresh windblown snow filled in the frozen ripples on the lake, creating a beautiful texture and pattern in the foreground, as a soft warm light came up on the peaks. You can see the result in "Frozen Dream", above.

Hallett Peak towers above the landscape seen from Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hallett Peak stands at 12, 720 feet above sea level.

Rocky Mountain Monolith

Hallett Peak towers above the landscape seen from Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hallett Peak stands at 12, 720 feet above sea level.

Beyond Dream Lake is Emerald Lake, about another half mile up the trail. This time around, we decided not to hike to Emerald Lake. Despite being dressed for the cold, after being relatively still for a while waiting for the light, you do start to feel it and it begins to sap your energy. So while we decided not to proceed further on to Emerald Lake (according to the locals we spoke with, it's not quite at the same level of Dream Lake), I did want to walk to the west end of the lake for a bit of a different view of Hallett Peak. At this point, a pretty good wind had begun blowing down on us from the peak, and a lot of snow was blowing across the lake. I found the angle I wanted with the lodgepole pines in the foreground and Hallett Peak towering above, and made "Rocky Mountain Monolith".

Longs Peak is visible from the Dream Lake trail on a winter morning in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Longs Peak

Longs Peak is visible from the Dream Lake trail on a winter morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs Peak is the tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259 feet.

Once we finished up at the west end of Dream Lake, we began the hike back down. I always find it easier going back down the trail, but it also gives me a chance to see the things we missed on the way up, since it was still dark when we did. For instance, above Nymph Lake, there are some stunning views of Longs Peak, Pagoda Mountain, and Otis Peak from various points on the trail. On our first attempt, the peaks were obscured by blowing snow. The second time, it was overcast and the light was flat, making the view a bit less interesting. Finally, on our last morning, the sunlight filtered through the clouds that were moving in and lit the peaks, helping create an interesting depth to the scene.

It was this last morning that really solidified the trip for me, allowing me to make photographs that fit the ideas I had in my head prior to the trip. So I guess the moral is, keep trying until the elements fully cooperate!