Emerald Lake

Saturday, January 23

Back in my misspent youth, I organized a hike to Emerald Lake every year around the Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t keep track of when I started this, or how long it went on, but at one point I considered making a few t-shirts that said, “Umpteenth Annual Emerald Lake Hike”. This was my traditional first hike of the season. It was early enough that we were always hiking across snow, and both Dream and Emerald were still frozen, although not frozen enough to hike across.

Although I’m not generally a big fan of crowds when I hike, I still make it to Emerald Lake at least once a year. This time, I dragged Scott along. This was his first hike to Emerald.

As is usual, the weather along the Divide was much different than the surrounding area. It wasn’t exactly clear in Estes, but it wasn’t bad. The roads were dry until about a mile from the parking lot at Bear Lake, where we entered a snowstorm and the road became snowpacked. The Glacier Gorge lot was full, and I was a bit concerned that we’d find a full lot at the end of the road. I needn’t have worried – it was only about 2/3 full.

I was considering two different destinations: Emerald Lake and Two Rivers Lake. For a time, the trail to Odessa Lake was closed at the Flattop Mtn trail junction due to the fire last autumn. It’s open now, but the volunteers told me it has been getting very little traffic. Little enough, that is, that we’d need snowshoes rather than microspikes. I was feeling a bit on the lazy side, and there’s always enough traffic to Emerald that snowshoes aren’t needed.

To Scott, I described the hike as a “conga-line” hike. Not everybody who parked here at Bear Lake was going to Emerald, but most of them were. I guessed we might see fifty people when we got there.

At Nymph Lake, I generally try to follow the winter route rather than the summer route. I found some footprints and we followed them for a few yards, but this was not the “beaten path” and after we postholed a few times we retreated back to Nymph and opted for the summer route.

The ice at Dream Lake was covered by a few inches of freshly fallen snow. Typically, the wind keeps the ice clear, but it was quite calm today.

As has been usual lately, I’m often amused by the navigation questions I get from other hikers. I think the map at the trailhead is pretty clear. Either quite a few people can’t read maps, or choose not to. Everybody is just following somebody else up the trail, not terribly concerned with where they’re going. “How much farther to Gem Lake?” and “Is this Lake Haiyaha?” were my favorites from today. Also, standing on the ice at Emerald Lake, “Is there another lake above this one?”

A common problem with a January hike to Emerald Lake is, where to sit to take a break? Generally, if a rock here doesn’t have snow on it, it’s because of the harsh winds. It was calm and snowing, so no rocks were clear. We headed towards the western shore in search of something better than closer to the trail and came upon two young women taking pictures of each other. They had stripped down to their sports bras. Instagram culture.

We never did find a nice place to relax, so we ate our snacks standing up. Naturally, this limits the length of our break.

After our break, while we were still crossing the ice, I counted thirty-two people. Not quite the fifty I predicted, but it very well could be that eighteen people had come and gone while we were there.

On the way down, the winter route from Dream back to Nymph had gotten more traffic, so we went that way. We stopped a couple of times and I attempted to describe the nearby topography to Scott, but I didn’t do a very good job: visibility was better than when we started, but everything beyond the two large glacial knobs was obscured by snow. At one of these pauses, I spotted what looked like a brown disk at my feet. It was the bottom of a water bottle somebody had dropped. I meant to leave it at the trailhead but forgot about it. It’s a nice metal REI bottle.

Some hours later, Scott sent me a couple of Strava screen shots. It says we went 4.50 miles, which I think overstates it by a mile. It also says we averaged 1.8 mph. I really don’t think we were going that fast: I kept stopping to chat. I recall mentioning that I’m sometimes hiking with people who never stop talking, and today it was me who never stopped talking. Pot, meet kettle.

I don’t think I scared Scott off yet. He says he’s interested in going to Haiyaha this winter and wants to go on a longer summer hike, or maybe even a backpacking trip.

Dawn Patrol

Friday, August 2

My alarm went off at 2:45am this morning. Crazy, yes?

Kristin and Coop are in the neighborhood with plans to do a week’s worth of back country hiking. I’ve known them online for about a decade, and met them a year or two back. They’re nice people and we share a common passion so I reached out to them to see if we could get together to break bread or something. They suggested a few alternatives. Two of them don’t fit my schedule, and the third was to meet at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am for a hike up to Dream Lake to watch the sunrise.

To get to Bear Lake at 5am, I need to leave the house not long after 3. This sounds like a stupid thing do, so of course I said “yes”.

The reason behind this is that Coop is a much better photographer than I am. My photos tend to be more like documentary evidence that I’ve been somewhere, while his you could call “art”. There’s a fundamental difference in how we go about it. That’s probably not correct: there are perhaps several fundamental differences in how we go about it. One of those is that he wants to take pictures during the “golden hour”. That means being somewhere at sunrise or sunset.

Which, today, means getting my butt out of bed before 3 and driving a couple of hours, then hiking a mile in the dark, all so we could be at Dream Lake for sunrise; to see Dream Lake and Hallett Peak bathed in the colors of the rising sun.

It seems I’m always saying I got out of the house a few minutes later than I’d wanted, and that I arrived at the trailhead late. But today I managed to leave by my desired time, and as might be expected, I hit no traffic once out of the city. So instead of being late I was at the Bear Lake parking lot early. I could have slept another fifteen minutes!

We hit the trail at 5. First decision was whether to take the shortcut to Nymph Lake or not. We went for the shortcut, but none of us could find it in the dark, so the long/usual way it was. Once at Dream, Coop picked a spot near the outlet. Another photographer was already set up there, and space was at a premium, so rather than get a poorer quality shot of the same thing as the others, I went for a slightly different angle and found a spot on a rock outcropping that wasn’t in their view.

The GoPro is fully automatic but I set it running anyway. I figured it would have a hard time with the lighting conditions, but you never know how things will turn out.

I’m really not a very astute photographer, and I still haven’t figured out all the ins and outs of the new camera. (I figured since it was another Canon it would be fairly similar to my old one. It is, but it isn’t. Most of the features that are in common work the same way, but not all. And there are loads of new features.) So I made some guesses and tried a few different things hoping that maybe I’d get a result I like. In the end, I think I did okay.

After watching the sunrise and taking in Dream Lake and Hallett Peak in all their glory we headed up to Emerald Lake. Kristin wanted to go there because it’s been a long time since she was there in summer. Hiking up there, it became obvious to me that I haven’t been there in summer in a long, long time myself. There are some wood bridges we crossed that I don’t recall ever crossing. I’m pretty sure every time I’ve been there in the last thirty years involved hiking across snow most of the way between Dream and Emerald.

We were up there early enough that it wasn’t crowded yet. We weren’t alone, but there were far fewer than the fifty or so (minimum, even in winter) that I’m accustomed to. I set up the GoPro again and we hung out there for quite a while. Hikers came and went the whole time, but the biggest group we saw was a mama duck with her eight ducklings. They swam around and stumbled over some deadwood floating on the edge of the lake before getting onto the trail like they were going to hike back to Dream Lake.

When we got back to the Bear Lake parking lot we discussed where we should go for breakfast and headed back to Estes Park. We ate at Molly B’s, sitting at the tables outside. It was quite pleasant (another beautiful day in the neighborhood), in spite of the heavy truck traffic rumbling up and down Moraine Avenue.

They explained where they were going to be hiking. It sounds like a nice time. I don’t know that I’m up to spending a week in the back country, but four years ago I’d have said I wasn’t up to any backpacking at all, so perhaps my attitude will change.

I like to think that I know my way around the Park. I may not know the names of all the mountains, even the ones I’ve hiked beneath many times, but I’d like to think if you mention a lake I’ll know where it is. So when Kristin talked about Ten Lake Park, I nodded as if I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had no clue. So after getting home, I had to look it up in the Foster guide. This will certainly go on the to-do list, most easily accomplished by staying a couple of nights near Verna Lake and getting there by bushwhacking up and over the flank of Mount Craig. It’s certainly too much effort for me to do as a day hike.

So it was a short day: too early of a start for me to make a habit of watching the sunrise, but a pleasant walk in beautiful surroundings, with friendly people. If they want to put up with me again, I’d be happy to meet up with them again on their next trip.

Emerald Lake and Bierstadt Lake

Sunday, June 16

I think it has been four months since my last visit to the Park. That’s way too long. But it’s too early to do a nice long hike because that generally means a decent elevation gain, and from down here in the big city it looks like there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground in the high country. So I figured I’d do a short hike to get a sense of how much snow there really is.

Lacking any good ideas, I resorted to an old standby: Emerald Lake. For nearly twenty years, I managed to drag a rotating group of friends up to Emerald on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a bit past that time now, but close enough. I was hoping to make it around the lake and gain some elevation on the west side of it for a change of pace.

I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot a bit before nine. There were only a few empty parking spaces left. I probably should have grabbed the first one I saw, but hoping for a closer spot I found myself up at the top. There, one of the volunteers said, “Hey! We know that car!” Doc and I exchanged greetings; he wanted me to tell him about the car after I got parked. Well, Ed’s usual spot was empty, so I parked there. Before I was out of the car, another volunteer parked next to me. So I answered all of Doc’s questions and chatted with the both of them before hitting the trail.

Emerald Lake

Just before getting to Emerald I met a guy who had just skied down one of the couloirs from near the top of Flattop. Being a non-skier, this sort of thing strikes me as pretty hard-core.

At Emerald, I worked my way around the norther shore far enough to get out of the ever present crowd, but I didn’t try too hard to continue west to higher ground. Having failed to execute my original plan, it occurred to me that this hike is so short there isn’t any reason I can’t add another short hike to the day. When I recently redid my online photo gallery I noticed that I didn’t have any pictures of Lake Bierstadt. Why not make a side trip to Bierstadt and rectify that oversight?

Having arrived at the lake a few minutes before ten it was too early for lunch, so I just relaxed and took in the views. I couldn’t help but notice a bunch of debris on the ice over on the west side. There was an avalanche here back in early May. This debris is likely from that event. How else would a bunch of pieces of pine tree be on the ice in the middle of Emerald Lake?

Avalanche debris on the lake

The hike back to Bear Lake was at times painfully slow. This is what I call “conga line hiking”. There were so many people around the end of the trail at Emerald that it sounded like a high school cafeteria. On the way down, the only places I could make my way past long lines of people was on the snow: I had my micro spikes but most others were in sneakers. I would have taken the shortcut from Nymph to Bear, but I’ll only do that when nobody is watching – don’t want to let the general populace know about the shortcut. No chance of stealth today, so I took the long way.

Lake Bierstadt is named for Albert Bierstadt, a painter known for his landscapes of the American West. I saw a few of his paintings when I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They’re big paintings of dramatic landscapes. So I find it a bit ironic that, in a Park with so many stunning lakes, the one with his name on it is, shall we say, not that impressive.

The hike from Bear Lake to Bierstadt Lake is about two miles. The first section is along the Flattop Mtn trail. This section of trail climbs a bit, and after the trail junction it continues to go up for a short distance. After that, it’s all flat or slightly downhill. It’s a forest hike with no views at all, except for a very short glimpse of Halleck and Flattop on a few yards of trail that goes west. The walking is very easy, with few roots or rocks to deal with. I was able to keep up what I call a “sidewalk pace”.

There were a lot fewer hikers here than at Emerald. Between Bear Lake and Bierstadt I ran into about two dozen other people. I made my way to a rock on the southwestern shore of the lake and ate my picnic lunch. I was joined in lunch by a duck who was working his way back and forth through the grasses nibbling as he went. And not far away I was somewhat surprised to hear the almost constant croaking of frogs. I know there are frogs in the park, but I’ve never seen any, and until now hadn’t heard them either.

Up to now, the weather had been quite pleasant. But to the north, some ominous clouds had formed and a chill breeze had picked up. I’d wanted to circumnavigate the lake, but with the threat of rain I packed up and headed down the trail to the Bierstadt trailhead.

Threatening clouds

So I still don’t have any pictures of the best views of Bierstadt.

The trail from the lake to the trailhead climbs something like 600′ in a mile. It switches back and forth across the mostly treeless slope on its way. I’ve made that climb a few times, but the last couple passages on this trail have been downhill only, like today. Just when I started down, I ran into a family coming up. They were only a few yards from the top. I couldn’t resist: I said, “Only another mile to go!” and waited a beat before adding “Just kidding.”

Emerald Lake

Sunday, May 31

The last weekend in May is my traditional jumping off point for the summer hiking season. Following tradition, I visited Emerald Lake.

As it’s a very short hike, I could enjoy a lazy morning. I left the house just after nine and had a pleasant drive in spite of the expected heavy traffic. Before I reached Boulder I realized I forgot to bring the spikes. I never had spikes until a few years ago, so I knew I’d have no problem getting to Emerald, but I’m much more comfortable hiking on snow when I have some traction. And it looks like Longs Peak has more snow now than is typical for this time of year – heck, more than is typical for any time of year – and after a very wet and cool May I was expecting to see more snow at Bear Lake than usual.

I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at about 10:45, late enough that I had to park near the bottom of the parking lot. There wasn’t as much snow at Bear Lake as I was expecting; clearly what’s been falling in recent weeks has been melting pretty quickly.

I recently bought a Fitbit Charge HR and this hike was the “shakedown cruise” for it. I played around with it on the Black Hills trip and for the Bolder Boulder, but the Android app crashed and I didn’t collect any useful data. I can use it with or without the phone app. If I don’t use the phone, it collects steps taken, flights of stairs climbed (1 for each 10′ gained), my heart rate, and exercise duration. Using the phone as well, I get a map of my hike. My concern is, if I use the phone, how long will the battery last?

I launched the app at 10:52, right at the car, and started walking. I followed the summer route as there wasn’t enough snow to take the winter route. According to the Fitbit, it was 1.82 miles from the car to Emerald Lake. It took me 48 minutes and I gained 818 feet of elevation.


One of the reasons I wanted this particular model of Fitbit is to collect a log of my heart rate. I’ve talked to people using older ones, and you need to use a chest strap to get a log of your heart rate, or stop every now and then and query the device to get your current pulse. Here’s what my heart did on this short hike:

fitbit_heartThis was just the hike to the lake. I stopped the app there and restarted it for the return trip. Oddly, I had a higher peak heart rate going down than I did going up. I don’t expect to get similar results on my much longer and more strenuous hikes. Unfortunately, when I got back to the car I managed to plug the phone into the charger without noting how low the battery was, so I still have no idea how well it will work for an all-day hike. I’m guessing I’ll be able to use the app on the hike to where ever I’m going, and not use the app on the way out.

There were fewer hikers than I was expecting. I guess the snow had most of them turning around at Nymph Lake. I did overhear a few amusing snippets of conversation. Near Dream Lake: “Where does all the water come from? Snow melt?” Keep in mind, they hiked half the way here over snow. At Emerald Lake as I was leaving, a young couple arrived, looked around for a few seconds, took a picture to prove they’d been there, and turned around to leave. The young woman calls out to a friend, not yet to the lake, “Hardly worth the trouble, it’s not very scenic.” I have several complaints about hiking to Emerald Lake but lack of scenery isn’t one of them.

I had the SLR up and running for the time lapse by 11:52. Readers of the Black Hills posts will recall that the GoPro was a casualty of that trip, so I only had the one camera. I managed to forget to put the lens hood on it, so when it started sprinkling I stopped and packed up as the lens would get wet right away. This turned out to be a good thing, as the graupel started falling almost immediately.

I beat the squall to Dream Lake and figured I’d set up the camera to continue the time lapse. Unfortunately, I ran into some unknown technical difficulty. The timer wasn’t working. It was counting down properly: “0:02… 0:01…” but no shutter release. Very frustrating. I reset it several times to no avail and by the time I gave up, the graupel started falling here. I had planned to snack on my berries while the camera ran for a while, but so it goes.

IMG_2698sThere’s a nice open view of Glacier Gorge and the Longs Peak complex from the trail below Dream Lake, so I stopped there and ate my blackberries and raspberries. There were squalls over Longs, just as when I paused here on the way up. Very scenic. The weather didn’t follow me past Dream Lake – from my rock with a view to the car, no more precipitation.

I had a lazy drive down the mountain in an unbroken string of traffic from Estes to Lyons.

The time lapse is a bit on the short side this time, but so it goes.

Cars and Hiking

Not only was Saturday the first Saturday of the month, it was forecast to be a gorgeous day. I decided it was time for the first hike of the season, so I planned for my umpteenth hike to Emerald Lake. Being the first Saturday, it was also time for Cars & Coffee in Lafayette. As Emerald Lake is a short hike, that left me plenty of time to check out the cars before heading to the Park.

Kent showed up this time in his new BMW i8. It’s a beautiful car and drew quite a crowd. IMG_1455s IMG_1458s

For some time I’ve considered taking the Chrysler instead of the Lotus. That’s sort of a joke, but only sort of. I still think they’re one of the better looking cars produced in the last few decades. But mine is starting to look rough around the edges. The clear coat is starting to peel off one of the repairs. But not a bad looking car for going on 16 years old.

Just after Kent rolled in with the i8, I saw a 300M show up. His is a 2000 (mine’s a 1999). He’s entered it into a number of shows and won some awards. He takes real pride of ownership, in spite of telling me he’s had all sorts of problems with it. As mine is finally starting to exhibit problems other than cosmetic, we chatted a bit about possible solutions to my undiagnosed problems. I may have to see if he’s willing to give me an assist on my repairs. Anyway, it was good to see the 300M represented.

As for the hike, not much to tell. I’ve done that hike dozens of time. Saturday, the wind was fierce at the lake. I was prepared to shoot a time lapse, but it was just too windy to sit there for any length of time. I made my way back to Nymph Lake for my picnic. The Park was quite crowded. From Nymph to Dream, I take the “winter route” while most take the summer route. There is one place where I can see hikers on that trail from below. There were about thirty people in a line, all within arms length of each other.

In spite of the crowds and the wind, it was good to get back on the trail after a few months off.

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