Emerald Lake

I called Jerry last week and suggested a hike. He reminded me that Memorial Day was coming up and said we should hike to Emerald Lake. I’ve already hiked there once this year, but of course Jerry was correct: it was Memorial Day weekend.

Something like thirty years ago, Jerry and I first hiked to Emerald Lake on Memorial Day weekend. That was probably the first time I’d hiked on snow. We had a good time and repeated it the next year, and the year after that. By then it started to feel like a tradition so we kept going to Emerald Lake on Memorial Day weekend every year, unless we did it the week before or the week after. We started taking other friends along. We had a different group each year.

We lost track of how many years we went. No, that’s not true – we never kept track. We didn’t know how many times we opened the season with Emerald Lake, but it was certainly in the teens. One year I considered making t-shirts: “The Umpteenth Annual Emerald Lake Hike”. When Jerry moved to Albuquerque, I continued the hike with other friends for a while. Then, of course, we moved to Phoenix and I went years without visiting Emerald Lake.

The hike this time of year has always been a snow hike, and the lake has always been frozen over. I had never heard of microspikes before recently, so all those years it was just hiking boots without traction. I always had difficulties with two places on the trail. One just above Nymph Lake where we traverse steep snow and one at Dream Lake that’s not so steep but is along the water. I’m much more comfortable now with the microspikes.

At Emerald Lake, the ice breaks up around the edges near the outlet first. Sometimes, it’s still a few inches thick but won’t support any weight – it’s in hexagonal pieces as long and thick as your finger. If you toss a rock near the edge of the ice, a bunch of these pieces break off, tinkling a bit like wind chimes as they float. One year smaller rocks weren’t busting the ice, so Chris tried to throw a bigger one in. He lost his footing and went into the drink with the rock.

We generally had good weather. Once it was calm and cloudy, with the ceiling just above our heads when we arrived at the parking lot. When we got to Dream Lake, we couldn’t see the other end of the lake; we’d hiked into the clouds.

Saturday was a fine day, with a deep blue nearly cloudless sky. We sometimes take these blue skies for granted here in Colorado, but we really shouldn’t. You don’t see skies this blue in L.A. or Ohio, and not really that often in Phoenix. On a clear day, as you climb to higher elevations the blue just gets deeper and deeper. It’s almost purple when you look straight up when standing on the summit of a high peak. Anyway, a fine day: car thermometer read 64 at the parking lot, only the barest wisp of a cloud visible, and no wind.

As usual, there were quite a few people on the trail. Just a few yards from Bear Lake we passed a couple hikers who said they were surprised to find snow there. I had to laugh a little to myself. The mountains are at perhaps their most beautiful right now; I seldom see Longs Peak with more snow on it. Didn’t they look at the mountains as they drove to Estes Park?

We were never out of sight or earshot of other hikers. I only saw one other person wearing spikes – most were in sneakers, and most of those wore socks that didn’t cover their ankles. Most were also empty handed – not carrying food or water. But it’s a short hike, and I should applaud them getting that far, as something like 99% of visitors to the park don’t get more than a hundred yards from their cars.

At Dream Lake we scouted the route to Haiyaha. Not too many tracks along the summer route to the lake and as I was the only one with spikes we stuck with the original plan to lunch at Emerald. We took a short break for a snack before continuing.

Before long, we were at the lake and found a nice vantage point to watch the world go by. Most people tend to congregate where the trail dumps hikers at the lake’s edge; we went clockwise a short way around the lake from there, climbing the rocky slope to the shade of some trees.

Skiers in the couloirAlmost immediately, somebody saw a group of skiers near the top of one of the couloirs above the lake. I shot a couple of pictures before setting the camera up for the time lapse. Click on the picture to enlarge it; the skiers are plainly visible not far from the top.

We were there for about an hour. The skiers took their time getting down; they hiked past us as we were packing up. They told us they put boots on the trail at eight and hiked to the top of Flattop. There was another group of skiers above them, but they were taking much longer to descend.

I was hoping the skiers would show up in the time lapse. Maybe not so much the skiers themselves, as at best they’d just be specks, but the tracks they left were plainly visible to the eye. There were already a couple of bright white tracks through the dusty snow and these guys crossed them to make a couple of double helixes. But the snow is too white, the dust plainly visible to the human eye washed out on the camera image.

I shot time laps with both the GoPro and the SLR. Although it was cloudless when we hit the trail, I figured that by noon we’d likely see some clouds. Starting about the time we got to the lake the thin wisps of cloud built up, never getting very thick, but by mid afternoon filled the whole sky with overcast. This time I prefer the footage from the GoPro as the canyon is so narrow the wider angle works better. I made this video longer than the usual time lapse. It’s about two thirds of the total footage shot, so you’ll sometimes notice the same clouds twice.


Out Back
Trailhead 10:00 AM 01:25 PM
Emerald Lake 11:35 AM 12:35 PM

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