Emerald Lake Trail: It’s Not Easy Being Green

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Bear Lake in November 2016

In November of 2016, during a solo visit to Colorado, I hiked to Emerald Lake – on ice. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the trail was crowded. I hadn’t expected the crowds, but I was ready for the ice. Kahtoola MICROspikes carried me easily up the trail, while others slipped and slid around me. July 28, 2018, however, was bright, sunny, and moderately warm. Also, the trail was clear and dry.

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IMG_5808We arrived at the Bear Lake Trailhead at a quarter past seven and found the massive parking area already nearly full. This hike is the most popular hike in the park; there is little mystery why. Along the lean 1.75 miles to Emerald Lake, hikers pass three other splendid lakes, and trek through some decidedly quintessential Rocky Mountain scenery – all on a trail that’s not overly taxing. The elevation gain on a roundtrip to this Colorado jewel is only around 600 feet. On my 2016 hike I chose not to add Lake Haiyaha; Lisa and I would discover it together on this one.

IMG_5812The air was cool and crisp as we donned our packs and filled our bottles. The parking lot was nearly full, busses were regularly dropping off even more visitors, and the Bear Lake Loop, which began mere feet from the trailhead, was already becoming congested. We skipped it and headed straight down the Emerald Lake Trail, which looked less crowded. We would visit Bear Lake upon our return to this juncture.

We started off. Moving quickly along the smooth trail, we hiked gently upward through Rocky Mountain pine forest. Pre-hike research indicated that the initial part of the trail is paved, a drawback in our opinion. On my previous visit, the entire trail had been paved – with ice – so I really had no idea what to expect. The trail surface was actually hard packed dirt with gravel. It was wide and smooth and well maintained, but not what I would call “paved”.

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Nymph Lake

IMG_5823Half a mile later, we stood at the east end of Nymph Lake. Small and pear-shaped, Nymph was covered in western yellow pond-lilies, their bright blooms contrasting sharply with the green leaves and dark water. Most of the lake was in shadow, but the sun washed the western shore, revealing stands of lodgepole pines on the grassy banks. The trail approaches the lake from the south, then tracks north along the eastern shore. We were treated to delightful views of the lily-covered lake all along the trail, although there were several spots where direct water access had been blocked for habitat revitalization. Predictably, numerous park guests felt these rules did not apply to them. It’s a miracle that we still have nice things.

IMG_5983As we left Nymph Lake behind, we began to climb. A short ways along the trail, we were looking over this first tarn from 80 feet above. Now it seemed a glistening pool surrounded by rock and evergreen hills, the Rockies a blue-grey Matisse in the background. The views to the south were spectacular as we traversed the ridge over Tyndall Gorge, often finding ourselves with a cliff face to our left and a sharp drop to our right. Climbing past a cascading waterfall, we stopped to marvel at Tyndall Creek as it danced over the rocks on its way into the gorge.

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Looking over Tyndall Gorge

Just before Dream Lake there was a fork. The Lake Haiyaha Trail veered off to the left, tracking upward into dark pines. The Emerald Lake Trail turned right, crossing the creek via a rough-hewn log bridge, guiding us to one of the most scenic spots on the trail. Here, Tyndall Creek snaked its way through a tiny meadow of lush green grass and wildflowers. The creek bubbled effervescently as it gamboled over rocks and under the zigzag timber. We lingered there, soaking up the bucolic surroundings, before continuing to Dream Lake.

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Dream Lake is, just as its name implies, a vision of natural wonder. Long and narrow, and tucked up against the steep mountainside, it stretches away to the west, pointing toward Emerald Lake and Hallett Peak. That morning, it rippled in a cool breeze; had it been still, Hallett Peak would have cast its reflection in the dark blue pool, as the peak was now the defining feature of our western view. The trail followed the northern bank of the 1200-foot loch and was often inches from the crystalline water. Two years prior, I had not been sure, but on this day I felt firm in my conviction: Dream Lake was my favorite of the four along this trail.

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Dream Lake

IMG_5906Reluctantly leaving our Dreams behind, we climbed steadily toward Hallett Peak. The trail frequently gained its elevation by means of timber steps, and we passed more cascading falls as we clambered upward. The terrain was rockier now and we squeezed between rufous ponderosa pines and massive grey boulders as we pressed on. Another quarter mile slipped by, and we found ourselves at Emerald Lake.

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Emerald Lake and Hallett Peak

IMG_5920Emerald Lake boasts a dramatic reveal – hikers top a small rise through a crevasse in the surrounding rock, and there it is, surrounded by impressive peaks and spires that split the blue sky beyond. The most impressive of these peaks is Hallett, its three buttresses jutting forward in stalwart determination, guarding the jewel below. I have seen pictures of this lake looking stunningly green; on neither of my visits have its jade-like qualities revealed themselves. Emerald Lake was a cold steel-grey; its surface rippled just enough to blur the reflection of the mottled hillside that rose sharply from its banks. Two years before, those slopes were powdered with snow and plunged into a icy pool that was more pearl than emerald. Where was the viridescence that earned this lake its gem of a name? Despite its steely countenance, we were far from disappointed in Emerald Lake. Its majestic beauty is hard to dispute, whether frosted in ice, or steely grey in the early morning light. But apparently for Emerald Lake, it’s not easy being green.

We retraced our steps feeling energized. We had only been on the trail for an hour and a half, and the weather, which had threatened to be overcast, was sunny and mostly clear. As we passed Dream Lake, we decided to add Lake Haiyaha to our circuit that morning. This proved an excellent addition to an already rewarding hike.

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Lisa in her natural habitat

Back at the fork, Lisa was again entranced by Tyndall Creek and the tiny meadow. She sat reverently on the log bridge and refused to be moved until she had again harmonized with this incomparable plot of earth. Then we headed up Lake Haiyaha Trail to collect another 300 feet of elevation and our fourth lake.

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IMG_5973 Nymph and Bear lakes in the center, Sprague Lake in the distance (upper right)

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Chaos Creek

We climbed steadily up through the pines, the trail more rugged than before. As we rounded the eastern-most tip of a ridge leading to Hallett Peak, our view again widened over Tyndall Gorge. Below us were Nymph and Bear lakes and, hazy in the distance, Sprague Lake. Several times we passed rock climbers heading somewhere to practice. Each group included a member carrying an almost full-sized mattress. These were for fall protection. (We asked.) After crossing Chaos Creek by means of another log bridge, we arrived at a massive boulder field. The trail kind of disappears here, but you are within 50 yards of the lake, even though it’s not yet visible. We picked our way over the rocks and under an ancient gnarled pine. There, sparkling in the morning sun, and significantly greener than Emerald, was Lake Haiyaha.

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Lake Haiyaha

IMG_5961IMG_5963Haiyaha is well worth the little bit of extra mileage and elevation. Even the light scrambling we had to do seemed a pittance when compared to the pristine mountain lake before us. The drawback? Its shoreline is a jumble of enormous weathered rock and therefore ill-suited to relaxing recreation; save your picnic lunch for Bear Lake. Regardless, we were happy to bask in the warm sunshine on a smooth rounded boulder. We weren’t the only ones. Lake Haiyaha was by no means crowded, but we did share our communion with several others. As I hopped precariously from rock to rock, I considered my decision not to visit on that icy day in 2016. I had made the right choice.

IMG_4885IMG_4924.jpgEventually we tore ourselves away from the tranquil setting and followed the trail back to the trailhead. Bear Lake had waited patiently as we visited its four siblings and now beckoned from amongst the pines, the sun glittering off its veneer. The final leg of our hike was more of a stroll, a clockwise jaunt around the Bear on a wide, smooth trail that rolled gently along the shore. Our amble was briefly interrupted by a three-toed woodpecker that worked furiously on a ponderosa pine. As I noted in 2016, the best views of Bear Lake are from the north bank where, through a saddle in the surrounding hills, several unnamed peaks provide a picturesque background to the lake. From the eastern shore, Hallett rises above the pine-covered foothills.

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Bear Lake

IMG_6003Completing our circuit of Bear Lake, we returned to the trailhead to find throngs of visitors swarming the picnic pavilion, besieging the ranger station, and assaulting the restrooms. We edged past a ranger waxing poetic on geology to an only marginally interested assembly of children, many of whom looked to be barely containing the urge to bolt. Other children cried, or else whined for snacks. Everywhere were the grim faces of parents on vacation. We almost ran to the car. ♦


Date: July 28, 2018
Location: Estes Park, CO
Trailhead: 40.312029, -105.645899
Distance: 6.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 950 feet
Difficulty: Moderate


Next: Winter 2016 Emerald Lake Trail (on ice!)

4 thoughts on “Emerald Lake Trail: It’s Not Easy Being Green

  1. Ah, July in Rocky…not my favorite time of year! We did the Emerald hike many times and were rewarded with the emerald color once or twice. We haven’t been to Haiyaha, however, and will remedy that in the spring. And thanks for the spike info. We hope to get to winter Rocky for a few days soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Rocky Mountain National Park: Emeralds on Ice | BIT|Hiker

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