Even my favorite trail is flawed. I went back to it today anyway.
The trail to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t perfect for a couple of reasons. The big one is that everyone here knows how beautiful it is. So sometimes everyone seems to be on the trail.
Two months ago when I returned to my SUV after hiking this trail on a Sunday at the height of the summer, the 275-space parking lot was full and a line of cars was waiting for my parking place. “This is not exactly a wilderness experience,” a park ranger told me then.
Today was much more of a wilderness experience. When I arrived at the Bear Lake Trailhead about 7:30, only four vehicles were parked in the lot. On the two-mile hike up to Emerald Lake I encountered only four people. But coming back down later in the morning I passed dozens of people hiking up and counted about 100 vehicles in the parking lot.
The trail still wouldn’t be perfect even if it were my private property. It’s more than an hour from my apartment in South Boulder.
But the incredible beauty of this trail far outbalances these relatively minor flaws. They are certainly no deal breakers for me.
Where else can anyone find a string of four alpine lakes along a well-maintained trail that is steep enough for exercise but not too steep? In all the world no other place comes close.
In the past half dozen times I have hiked along these lakes, four of them were enough for me. Today I added a fifth lake that is a couple of miles before the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Twice recently I made sure to get to Sprague Lake at first light but never before combined it with the Emerald Lake hike. Even though I have some decent pictures of Sprague Lake, I wanted to take some with my new Canon 50D camera.
I arrived just in time to take these shot. I didn’t even have time to set up my tripod, but I didn’t really need to because my new camera shoots without any digital noise at least up to 3200 ISO. I didn’t manipulate the color at all — this is what first light really looks like.
Today was one of the last reasonably warm days of the season to attempt these hikes without snowshoes. When I called a park ranger yesterday, he tried to reassure me by saying that the snow level was up at 9,500 feet. However, Emerald Lake is even higher — 10,112 feet. Fortunately, I encountered a lot less snow on the trail than I did Wednesday on the Switzerland Trail.
First comes Bear Lake, just 256 feet from the trailhead. A sign says that the trail around the lake is wheelchair accessible, and I was delighted to see a man in a wheelchair enjoying the scene.
Then comes the one-mile hike up to Nymph Lake. Once this summer I made sure to be there at first light. While I would have loved to have been there at first light today, I couldn’t figure out how to be more than one place at the same time.
After about 1.5 miles, the trail reaches Dream Lake, which many people consider the most beautiful. It is incredible, but also windy — even early in the morning. A gust almost blew me over as I tried to steady myself for one of the many shots I took there.
My personal favorite, assuming one can reasonably compare degrees of utmost beauty, is Emerald Lake at the end of the trail. Hallett Peak, cresting at 12,713 feet, starts here in Emerald Lake. It really is the color of an emerald!
Encountering a few human beings wasn’t too hard to take today.