Rocky Mountain National Park: Emeralds on Ice

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As I drove to Rocky Mountain National Park in November of 2016, my mind drifted back to a sunny morning in the spring of 1988. I was 22 and had temporarily moved back home to better afford college. Both parents were at work, and I was sitting lazily in our living room watching TV. My 18 year-old brother slouched into the room. “Can I get that $20 you owe me?” he asked, “I’m moving to Colorado. Don’t tell mom and dad.” I coughed up the double sawbuck, and, after the awkward goodbye of two brothers who have never been particularly close, he was gone, headed for Estes Park. At the time, it would have seemed unfathomable that 28 years later I would be texting him a selfie from his erstwhile escape to wish him a happy birthday. But yeah, that happened.

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I passed through the small picturesque town and quickly arrived at the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance station, where I paid the day fee of $20. (If only I hadn’t had to fork over that Jackson in ‘88!) From there, it’s another 10 miles to the parking area. The Bear Lake trailhead was crowded. I had hoped the day before Thanksgiving would have been reserved for shopping and baking, not hiking. I was wrong. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe this was light traffic for the Emerald Lake Trail. It’s the most popular hike in the park, according to the ranger who accepted my entrance fee. There were throngs of teenagers, couples, and families, all clad in footwear that ranged from sneakers to hiking boots to, (wait for it) dress shoes. The dress shoes were on a man in a suit, and no, I am not making that up. Lisa and I have seen this before – the “Business Hiker” – and it throws us every time. Are they on lunch? Is it the only clothing they own? It seems impolite to ask. Very few visitors that day were sporting any kind of traction gear, including Mr. Slick Soles. So, thinking maybe the spikes were overkill, I started out on the Bear Lake Loop Trail with my feet unadorned in sweet steel traction. Good idea? Nope. 30 seconds later, I slipped and almost fell. The trail was packed snow and ice. I put on the spikes. I watched as people slipped and slid their way up the trail. It was much, much worse for them on the way back (mostly downhill) and I saw a couple of falls. As always, the right gear can be the difference between a great hike and a miserable one.

The temperature in Estes Park (a perfect-for-hiking 45 degrees) was warmer than the temperature at the trailhead, which dropped steadily as one hiked farther up the trail. Nonetheless, the weather was sunny and relatively mild for a November day-hike in the Rockies.

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I continued around Bear Lake. A scant 256’ from the trailhead, Bear Lake is the largest of the four lakes I would visit that day. Even so, it adds only ¾ of a mile to the trip and proves a gentle warm-up for the hike ahead. Not that a warm-up is needed. AllTrails lists this route as moderate; while I’m not sure that I agree, in the end I followed suit in my rating (due to the ice). I’m not sure how Mr. Slick Soles would have rated it, but it was certainly no cake walk for those without traction gear. The trek around Bear Lake was one of scenic wonder and gentle elevation changes. There was no bad view of the lake, but the most pleasing was probably looking south from the north shore. A break in the trees allowed a better view of the Rockies beyond.

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Bear Lake from the north shore

Once around Bear Lake, I turned west on the Emerald Lake Trail. The path is wide and smooth. Somewhere I read that the first section is paved, but I could neither confirm nor deny that claim. Whatever the surface, it was under several inches of packed snow and ice. The crowds had thinned a bit and I managed to find myself alone for periods of time, passing only hikers headed back to the trailhead. Shortly after passing the smallest of the day’s water features, Nymph Lake, I had climbed 350’ and looked down on the pool, some 80 feet below the trail. I continued on, marveling at the scene.

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DSC_0320To the south, great rocky peaks reached imposingly toward the heavens, and glittering powder blew skyward off the ridges in a light wind. The entire range was ever so lightly dusted in snow, a thin coating of confectioner’s sugar on the cracked and golden top of an enormous pound cake. A mile and a quarter from the trailhead, I arrived at Dream Lake. If Dream wasn’t my favorite of the four tarns, it was a photo-finish with Emerald … and I took plenty of photos. Long and narrow like a Scottish Loch, and nestled against a steep incline, Dream Lake could have just as easily been a stretch of river. It was framed to the west by the same peaks that frame Emerald Lake and, like all the others, it was frozen and covered in snow. I tried to imagine those sunlit peaks reflected in sparkling blue water.

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Dream Lake

Everywhere along the trail would-be hikers were slipping and sliding – clutching rocks and tree limbs for support – and falling down. More than once I passed a slushy skid-mark in the snow punctuated with a clearly defined butt-print. Sounds kind of funny until you notice that six inches in any direction could have resulted in someone’s coccyx connecting painfully with a jagged piece of granite. There was a lot of rock, and cycles of melting and refreezing turned stone staircases and inclines into cascades of slippery ice. As I confidently strode up one such ice-clad stairway, I passed a hapless, young, solo hiker, who was scooting down the trail on her hindquarters, inch by miserably slow inch. Not the best way to explore the Rocky Mountains. She seemed resigned to her fate.

DSC_0294DSC_0321DSC_0290By the time I reached Emerald Lake, I’m pretty sure the temperature had dropped below freezing. The cold was no deterrent to my enjoyment and, to add to my delight, I arrived just as the last  few lake-gazers were leaving. Emerald Lake sits in a basin surrounded by high peaks. The most prominent of these peaks is Hallett, its distinct buttresses watching over Emerald Lake like a medieval fortress. I sat at the base of a dead gnarled tree and contemplated the scene. All was still. The lake, snow-covered and shrouded in shadow, seemed to radiate a subdued energy, as if impatiently waiting for the spring thaw and the freedom to ripple and dance once more. The sun was golden on the north peaks, its light slowly sliding up their precipices. As the shadows grew, the temperature continued to drop. Or, maybe I was just sitting on an ice-covered rock. Either way, it seemed time to tear myself away from the pristine vista and head home.

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Emerald Lake

The hike out was uneventful. I passed lots of people moving at a snail’s pace, grasping anything they could reach for stability. The young woman who had been inching her way down the trail was still struggling. She had only traveled about a half mile in the last 45 minutes. To her credit, she had still had a positive attitude. The shadows were long when I reached the parking area, and I hopped in my rented Buick to head out of the park. Along the way I stopped to view a herd of elk grazing in a pasture just off the park drive. I vowed to return to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park to see this quartet of lakes in a more verdant setting – and also to hike without spikes. (Mission Accomplished!)  ♦

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Date: November 23, 2016
Location: Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park, CO
Trailhead: 40.312015, -105.645723
Distance: 5.10 miles
Elevation Gain: 914 feet
Difficulty: Moderate (Due to ice)

7 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park: Emeralds on Ice

  1. One of the most popular hikes in RMNP for a good reason! WOW! I’ve done it a number of times now and it never gets old. If you go back, add Haiyaha on to this loop. It’s so much different than these 4 and only adds a short distance more (I clocked 5.7 miles total without going all the way around Bear Lake.) We did it in the snow as well and boy, is it ICY! There’s a cliff area on the way to Haiyaha so if you have snow that day, make sure you bring the spikes 🙂

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