Offroading in Great Sand Dunes National Park

dunes-2The other 4WD club member bailed last minute, so I met up with Mike, a guest rider visiting from Louisiana, at exit 52 on I-25 at 10:15am. He loaded up and we drove up CO-69 until we reached our turn for County Road 559. It was a beautiful end-of-summer day, so we opened up the sunroof and took off the windows. The weather was mostly sunny in the mid-70’s with the beginnings of crisp air and a calm breeze.


We made our way up the dirt road that progressively got rockier and steeper. In parts, I had to use 4-Low to get up slippery, steep sections. Trees lined the road, so while we knew there were mountains in front of us, there weren’t a lot of vistas. The road wound up the hill, passing a number of campsites occupied by pickups and trailers. Before we knew it, we were at the top of Medano Pass. We stopped to read the signs, greeted the only other Jeep we saw, and headed back down the other side.

The road was covered in small rocks all along the way down; it probably couldn’t have hurt to air down a bit to be on the safe side, but we persisted. The trail was not very technical, however there were six creek crossings – the deepest being 18 inches or so. We had seen a number of stock pickup trucks make their way in the opposite direction beforehand, so we knew it was possible to ford.

As we descended, the canyon walls grew higher, the road got a little windier. Wildflowers were blooming alongside the road and up above the burnt forest, you could see the aspens were starting to change along the canyon rim. Up ahead, the dunes slowly grew out of the horizon as the trail turned from dirt into sand. We stopped for a selfie with a deer, made room for several more vehicles coming up, and found a shady place for lunch.

dunes-15We continued down the trail until we broke out of the woods and into the valley. The steep, towering dunes stretched out for miles in each direction ahead of us. The sandy road was becoming harder to traverse and I considered airing down again. Mike and I took a few photos and watched the skiers switch-back up the face of the closest dune. We passed a campground and a number of rental cars before reaching the paved road.


The trail itself was a little more than 17 miles and took no longer than 2 hours to complete. Had we more time, we would have taken a side trail over to Music Pass and attempted a hike. We parked in the lot in time for the rangers to bring out a fallen sandboarder to the waiting ambulance. The wide riverbed was nearby down a short path, but the river had reduced to a trickle. Families built castles in the sand while we crossed the inch-deep river, proceeding to climb the nearest dune.

People all over were playing in the sand, sand-boarding/sledding/rolling/falling down the dunes. Others were slowly trudging through the sand, hiking their way along the ridges up to the highest peaks. It was a lot hotter here and the increasing clouds were appreciated. Thankfully, we noticed no bugs.

dunes-24Having just recovered from a cold, I couldn’t make it too far without gasping for air. We returned to the Jeep and stopped at the visitor’s center for a passport stamp and some education. Afterwards, we drove down the road a ways and hiked up to Zapata Falls. It doesn’t look like it, but if you carefully walk up the rocks in the creek, you’ll enter a tall canyon where the falls are hidden.

It was later in the afternoon at this point, so we hit the road going south, heading east and eventually north, back to the meeting point. Mike and I stopped for dinner at the Silver Sage Steakhouse, no doubt the pride of Fort Garland, Colorado. The ride back was tiresome and it rained heavily in places. The dust from the trail combined with the smoke in the air made it hard not to rub your eyes.

dunes-stampWe parted ways around 6:45pm. Mike left to find a campsite for the night and I headed back to Denver, arriving shortly after 9pm. I would argue against doing another day-trip; an overnight would allow for a solid hike up in the mountains and more time to enjoy the dunes.

I would rate the trail as “Easy” and would probably air down my tires a bit for the south side of the trail and for the sand. My initial concern for going southwest to northeast on the trail (needing to air down for the sand and then not having air for the rocky trail) was unfounded, and I’d probably enjoy going up from the dunes side and back down again rather than go up and over.

Another park in the books!

Kumano Kodo – The Bus Day

Day five. It was nice to listen to the river and rain while sleeping. Adam and I were awakened at 6a by the town fire department’s siren, so I got up, retrieved my dry laundry, packed, and stretched. My back was feeling better every day, but still far from ideal.

Despite the rain, Chris decided to finish out the walk, while everyone else opted for the bus. The group convened in the cafeteria for a quick breakfast before departing for the bus station. Alicia, the Australian solo-hiker who we had run into several times throughout the week, tagged along. The scenic 45-minute ride into town followed the teal-blue river most of the way, making for an entertaining ride.

japan2016-261The group went first to a temple in town, obtaining the obligatory stamp and photos, then made our way to the bus stop. While walking, we agreed on a stop for coffee, which proved harder to find than we expected. We ended up in a mall cafe that Adam most-accurately described as an Applebees meets tiki bar. The coffee was unremarkable, but it paired well with the hot dogs.

Continuing to the train station, we again saw Alicia outside smoking while waiting for the train to Kii-Katsuura. Once there, we boarded the bus to the temples, pagodas, and waterfalls. We climbed the numerous stairs upwards to the ~800 A.D. temples, where we had great views of the pagoda and waterfall. Chris G and I walked down another path with many stairs that led us to the base of the waterfall. Pictures don’t do it justice.


We headed back up to bus stop and enjoyed shopping/tea while waiting for the bus back down to the JR train station. To kill time, we walked around the near-empty town until we came across a noodlery – success! Biero and our first ramen of the trip. We stocked up on snacks at a convenience store on the way to meet up with Chris P at the JR station. We all walked down to the ferry, stopping to see Chibi, a fat cat Dan and Chris had met on their last trip.


Photo courtesy of Mr. Glass

We took a ferry across the harbor crossed over to our accommodations for the night – a very 80s hotel on it’s own island. Once changed into our yukatas, Chris P led us on a short tour of the grounds, along catwalks and paths that were reminiscent of Myst. Afterwards, we gathered at the hotel’s men’s bath that had an outdoor onsen! Hope you enjoyed the view, fisherwomen! It was incredibly relaxing to soak in the warm waters of the outdoor pool while watching the waves crash below and the boats putter out in the harbor.

Once back at the hotel, we gathered up Kumano Kodo beer and snacks for happy hour in Chris’s room while waiting for our luggage to arrive. We re-convened later in a private dining room for Thanksgiving dinner. It was an amazing spread, so much food that we could hardly eat fast enough. After many days of being culinarily adventurous, I was getting tired of fish. Despite this, the meal was filling (Adam and I worked out an arrangement early on where I traded my fish for his beef portions) as was the sake. Afterwards, we all passed out – fat and happy.

This was the last day on the trail and being out in the Japanese countryside, which meant the vacation was nearing it’s end. Soon we’d be in Tokyo, bookending the hike with another busy city.

~0 miles

Kumano Kodo: The Easy Day


Day four. I woke up, stretched out, packed up, and joined the others on the floor for breakfast. I was feeling pretty good, all things considered! We left the hotel and walked through town to find the stamp. It was cooler out and the steam created from the world heritage onsen made for a pretty morning scene. We caught the bus to our next starting point, fueled up on coffee at the vending machine, and walked along the road to our first stamp of the day.

From there, it was a moderate uphill climb, though it seemed easier than the day before. We were sore… These were nice, wide trails – mostly level and very enjoyable. We walked to an amazing viewpoint and stopped for photos, then continued up and over the pass. The trail had long stretches of flat sections with some brief uphill legs, but they were tolerable. It was a day of pleasant ridge-walking under the canopy of cedars.


japan2016-224We stopped for tea and a pancake-like muffin at a pavilion in the woods (near a stamp box). I noticed afterwards that we were all hiking in silence, enjoying the day. Shortly after, we took a break for lunch at another old tea stop-turned-gazebo with a view of the upcoming town. The lunch box was outstanding! Minimal fish, tasty rice rolls of beans and herbs, eggs, and a bottle of tea. We relaxed in the shade while our still-wet things dried out in the sun.

Down, down, down – we took our time with the descent. More death rocks! In town, we walked across the bridge to grab refreshments from the vending machine and to get another stamp. Continuing on, we walked along the river and up over where the tunnel is. Once through town we found the stamp, then stopped at the general store for beer restocking before winding up at the schoolhouse-turned hiker hotel, where our bags met us. Bath, laundry, lounge, dinner, sake! It was much cooler out here, which was very nice to sleep in.

Kumano Kodo – The Long Day


Dan, our fantastic chef, Pratt, and Julian, just prior to our departure

Day three. Our first night of Japanese style mattresses… I woke up at 6 and got ready for a 6:30 breakfast, which was incredible. The chef whipped up some very tasty dishes again to prepare us for a long day. Annoyingly, my jacket, rain cover, hat, and rain kilt were still wet from the day before.


We set off, walking along the road for awhile. Eventually the trail went downhill, back through the woods. Then we started our ascent up the first pass – “Sandal” pass – up up up! It wasn’t a horrible ascent, but someone thought it was a good idea to make the trail on the other side out of flat stones. Combined with the leaves and wetness from the rain the night before, it was VERY slippery. In parts it was steep and windy, which made for a strenuous descent – one slip and you could slide right off the edge of the hill!  Nevertheless, we all made it safely to the road at the bottom only to find the next section of the trail closed from typhoon damage several years earlier.

We continued walking along road and found the permanent detour. The trail was in good condition and there were a lot of well-placed stairs. At some point on the way up to the second pass, I ran out of water, which made my ascent that much slower. The views were pretty great, though and we forged ahead, walking just under the peak before heading back down – again. On the back side, we connected with another road and found a container collecting and filtering water from a nearby stream, where I refilled the CamelBak. We walked along road until we found the other side of the detour.

japan2016-165Across the road from the detour were more stairs back into woods. We met some twenty-somethings from CA, who were eager to pass us. At a split in the trail, we found stamp box at another shrine. Rejoining the trail, we passed another tea house and more shrines. Up up up! We reached another road at the top where I made a plea to open up our bento boxes at a nearby rest area – I was spent.

Down, down, down the other side. Again, still slippery from the night before. We passed an abandoned settlement being overcome by tree growth. The trail turned into a road, which eventually went alongside a river. Eventually we ventured back up, into the woods and past more shrines. Land crabs stood out amongst the piles of leaves and we stopped a couple times to take photos and rest.

At the top we were fascinated by a giant, blue worm in the middle of the road. We got our stamp and followed the signs down the road into a small town which had several options for vending machines. We found ourselves at a tea house up a hill at the end of town and stopped for in coffee. Exhaustion was creeping in so we shook out the stiffness and kept walking.

This part of the trail was mostly downhill with some small uphill sections. By this time we were swearing every time we had stairs to traverse. We found a path to an overlook of the massive Honshu shrine, which was where the trail ended for the day. The trail reconnected and we made our way down a variety of types of stairs. Wide, short sets, stone, wood, high steps, narrow steps.


Eventually we reached town and had more road to walk along. Prior to entering the temple grounds, we obtained another stamp. We took a few photos of the temple grounds and then walked down another long set of stairs to the main street of town. From there, we found the visitor’s center and walked up to the large gate we had seen off in the distance instance. One more stamp before we caught a bus to the village where we were staying for the night.

We showered, soaked in the outdoor onsen, and enjoyed another many-course dinner – this time directly seated on the floor, which was challenging. Some how I ended up with my own room and despite another Japanese-style bed, I quickly passed out.

Kumano Kodo: The Wet Day

japan2016-126Day two. I was expecting to sleep really well, but it was quite warm in the room I shared with Adam. I re-packed, hit the onsen again, scarfed down a quick breakfast, and we were on the trail early. More uphill… Today was the first encounter with the “death stones,” which were very tightly-coupled stones that were considered a primitive type of pavement. Unfortunately, they were often placed on steep slopes, which made traversing quite difficult.

We walked to a bus stop and stopped for rest, tea and snacks. The rain started while we were waiting for everyone to arrive. Nevertheless, we donned our rain gear and continued walking, though slowly getting wetter. We passed more shrines, collected more stamps, and encountered numerous slippery wet stones; Dan even spotted a snake. It didn’t dawn on me until now that this was a region that might have poisonous snakes to contend with, but thankfully it was cooler and the snakes didn’t want anything to do with us.

We continued down the valley into town. Sadly, the foot bath was closed but it was a dry spot to have our packed lunch. Adam had opted for the bus earlier and while Pratt, Glass, Julian, and Dan went to the museum, I rested my back and waited for them, listening to the rain and struggled to find wifi. After a short wait, we all continued walking along the road, which continued to get steeper until we found ourselves above town, the rain beginning to permeate our gear as the temperature began dropping. A few miles and a couple stamps later, we arrived at the next ryokan.

Really the only thing keeping me going the last couple miles was the thought of stripping off all the soaked layers, putting on a dry yukata, and enjoying the warm onsen. We sat and had tea, beer, and snacks before an outstanding multi-course meal was served to us and the other guests. We quickly passed out after a long day.

Kumano Kodo: The Short Day

Day one. I began each morning by stretching and doing sit-ups, hoping to strengthen my core slowly each day to help heal my back and resulting sciatica. We met for breakfast, got our IC cards re-upped, and caught the Shinkansen to Tanabe where we caught a bus that brought us to the start of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. After dropping off our suitcases at the luggage shuttle, we enjoyed our bento boxes at the Kumano Kodo visitor center, where we learned about the UNESCO World Heritage sites and basked in the wifi, not knowing when we would have Internet access again. We washed our hands at the impurity fountain at the nearby shrine, posed for a photo, and began our ascent of the Nakahechi trail.


The trail was a fair amount of steps and uphill for the first mile or so, but once we were on top of the ridge, it was mostly level. We passed only 3 fellow hikers, one woman who laughed and said “Up, up, up!” After awhile, we found ourselves walking through the small town of Takahara, stopping at the various shrines and other sites to get the stamps in our books.

We arrived at the Kiri no Sato Takahara ryokan shortly before dinner. I changed out of my wet hiking clothes into the provided yukata (casual robe) and visited the 0nsen (hot springs bath) before enjoying drinks and an amazing dinner.

Denver to Osaka

The 10-hour 787 flight left Denver around noon and was smooth the entire way. I started getting a cold a few days before the trip and my ears refused to pop on the descent, causing a fair amount of discomfort that carried over to the next few days. I managed to make it to Narita, get through customs, retrieve my bag from the baggage claim, track down an ATM, get back through security, check my bag again, get on a short domestic flight to Fukuoka, take a subway to the right station, pick up my 14-day Japan Rail (JR) pass, and find the hotel on minimal sleep. As I was about to head to the nearby 7-11 for some food, I caught (Chris) Pratt, Adam, and Julian in hallway. Success! (Chris) Glass arrived shortly after I did and our trip was underway.

Pratt had planned a low-key first day, so in the morning we met for breakfast, re-packed our backpacks for an overnight, checked out of the hotel, and made our way to the steam train to Hitoyoshi (SL-Hitoyoshi), leaving our luggage in lockers at the train station. All of us were sleepy and it was raining, so we enjoyed winding through the Japanese countryside. After a couple stops, rainy, arrived in Hitoyoshi, where we walked around town while waiting for next train. We grabbed our first bento box on the station platform then took the Isaburo 3 train to Yoshimatsu, where we transferred to Hayato-no-Kaze 3 train. We stayed overnight in Kagoshima.

Our primary form of transportation

Our primary form of transportation

In the morning, we rode the Shinkansen (bullet train) back up to Shin-Tosu station and transferred to the Kamome 5 train over to Nagasaki. We wandered around town, stopping to wander through Dejima, a Dutch trading post and nationally designated historical site. From there we grabbed lunch, our first Japanese-style meal. Afterwards, we grabbed a trolley to another part of town and walked to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was interesting, but very crowded and hot – we walked through quickly and then visited the park created where the bomb landed.

japan2016-23We walked across town to the Mt. Inasa ropeway, which took us up to the observation deck. Over drinks, we rested in the restaurant as sunset approached and after taking photos, we walked back to the JR station. The Shinkansen took us back to Hakata Station, where we picked up our bags before catching another train to Hiroshima for the night. Our JR passes allowed us unlimited first class travel on any JR train (and some others) based on availability, which meant we traveled very comfortably.

japan2016-30In the morning, the group talked about ideas of what to do for the day. Pratt, Adam, and Julian opted for a sake day while Dan, Glass, and I chose to visit Itsukushima and the floating torii gate. The three of us took a light rail train and then ferry to the island. We walked around with all the other tourists, looking at pagodas and shrines and commingling with the local deer population, who didn’t seem at all fazed. After a quick coffee and pastry puff break, we continued wandering around the grounds. We ventured into the woods to walk the trails to the ropeway, but found it was too busy to attempt, so we walked the back way to the ferry along the road. Once across, we trained back downtown and walked to a pizza place before visiting the A-bomb dome park. Tired, we bussed back to train station to meet up with the others before our train to Okayama for the night.

In the morning, we again left our big bags at the train station and carried our backpacks on the ferry to Naoshima. Upon our arrival, we took a small bus to the Benesse House hotel. It was too early to check in, so we left our packs and walked around the island to see some of the art exhibits. While wandering around town looking for the art houses, we stumbled upon a cafe for lunch. Restored, we continued the art house walk, visiting a handful of houses that had been abandoned and turned into art installations.

From there, we took the bus back to the port for a visit at our first public bath, which we had to ourselves. We had been walking close to 10 miles per day, so it was a great relief to stop and soak for awhile. Afterwards, we headed back up to the Benesse House to check-in, enjoying champagne on the gift shop patio before moving to wine on our own balconies as the sun was setting. Later on, we walked down the hill to another Benesse building for dinner. Amazing! There were a number of courses, each better than the last. It was here I decided to be adventurous and try the fish being served. Butterfish was delicious, however the texture of abalone was less than ideal. Once finished, we got a ride back up the hill to the hotel and rode the 6-person monorail up to the top of the hill to visit Oval, the hotel’s bar, for a nightcap.


The hotel was mostly concrete and it was hot, so most of us didn’t sleep very well. We had a buffet breakfast then headed back to the port. We took the ferry to Inushima, a nearby island that is part of the Benesse Art Site. The group split up and wandered through various art houses and a former copper refinery-turned-art installation. We regrouped at a small restaurant for a delicious curry lunch and local beer. Again, we boarded the ferry, which took us to Teshima. Most exhibits were closed or closing for the day, but we did manage to see one exhibit, the heartbeat exhibit, at the end of a long walk near the beach. Because we were visiting off-season, we decided to change our plans and head back to Okayama early, where we picked up our stashed bags and got new tickets and bento boxes for an earlier Shinkansen to Osaka. At this point I had exhausted my limited clothing selection, so I washed my clothes in the hotel room sink.

japan2016-82The next day was a down-day for Adam and I. We relaxed in the morning, doing our own things, while the rest of the group got up early to go see the Fushimi Inari shrine and it’s world famous torii gates. My back had been hurting since the first day in Japan, so I needed to lay low and rest. I found breakfast and took a local train up to nearby Kyoto, finding an ATM and snacks while killing time before meeting up with everyone. We took the train to Tenryu-ji zen temple, wandering the grounds and taking pictures. Pratt had arranged for us a lunch at Shigetsu, a Japanese-style vegetarian restaurant. Most everything was delicious, though we were all having trouble sitting on the floor for so long.


The group walked back to main road of the temple to Arashiyama Station and took the train to where we could walk to the Ryōan-ji temple and Zen rock garden, followed by the Golden Temple. Later we caught buses to the Higashiyama District (old Kyoto) as the sun was setting. We walked to one temple, but found a line around the block, so we walked to another only to find another massive line. There were people everywhere and we were all tired and overwhelmed, so we ducked down an alley to get out of the crowds. Wandered down a side street and found a perfect spot for beer, horse jerky, and meat buns. We caught another bus t0 Kyoto station to take an express train back to Osaka. After a quick dinner, I fell fast asleep. We had done so much walking and the humidity that day was remarkable – Pratt even asked if I was okay because I was sweating through my clothes and onto the backpack.

The next morning we were to begin hiking, the reason for the trip, so I had to re-work what I was carrying in my suitcase and backpack, saving some for a bag Dan set aside for overflow items.


Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake Hike

My two-alarm system failed me (yet again), so I got to Loveland 20 minutes late for meeting Mark for breakfast at the Coffee Tree. Coffee and breakfast consumed, I grabbed my things, jumped in Mark’s Boxster, and we took to the canyons.

I had been to this area of Rocky Mountain National Park before, so I knew how busy it gets. We aimed to be on the trail no later than 8a, but thanks to my system failure, we arrived at 9:15. The queue to get on the shuttle bus moved quickly and after a few stops, we were dropped off at the (full) Bear Lake parking area.

Once on the trail, we immediately we started uphill. I was a little disappointed by the swarms of people and that the “trail” was paved, however once we passed Nymph Lake, the pavement degraded into a dirt path.


Overlooking Nymph Lake

We trudged up the numerous stairs, passing lots of families with grumpy kids. Mark and I were engrossed in conversation and before we knew it, we had reached the second lake, Dream Lake.


Dream Lake looking east

It was beautiful – set at the bottom of a steep hill, the lake reflected all the looming trees and was a lime green color when the light hit it right. This was a popular spot for fishermen. Hoping to leave the crowds behind, we pushed onto our destination.


We climbed many more stairs as we followed a creek towards it’s source.  The boulders and resulting waterfalls started getting larger and soon we came to the end of the trail at Emerald Lake. We had found the rest of the crowds seated along the rocky banks, enjoying the view and either the sun or shade. Chipmunks and birds desperately tried to dig through backpacks, looking for snacks. There was a slight breeze coming off Flattop Mountain and from where we sat, we had a good view of the Tyndall Glacier (or what’s left of it) above us.


Emerald Lake underneath Flattop Mountain

The lake was becoming more crowded as the day went on, so after a few moments of rest and a quick snack, we made our way back to the trailhead. We were surprised and somewhat disappointed at how crowded the trails actually were. The fact that they were bussing people in from the overflow lot suggested it was a very popular weekend destination. We decided to view the nearby Bear Lake (which is the featured image for this post) and while resting in the shade, we talked with a park volunteer. According to her, attendance was up 12% from last year, despite 2015 being the park’s 100th anniversary.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake

We probably sat too long because we decided not to hike another 2 miles to Bierstadt Lake. The bus arrived and took us back to the car. Because we were already in the park, we drove up Trail Ridge Road to the alpine visitor’s center in the heart of the park.


It was a beautiful day and the clouds were starting to roll in. Mark was kind enough to drive so I could focus on not focusing on the lack of guardrails along the road. Once above tree-line, I noticed how green the landscape is this time of year. We made it to the visitor’s center only to find a line of cars in the parking lot spilling into the road. Tired and hungry, we vetoed the center and headed back down the hill.

Deer friend

Deer friend

We exited the park and got caught in a small amount of traffic who was stopped to take photos of several elk grazing on the edge of the road. There was some festival going on in Estes Park and not wanting to deal with more crowds and traffic, we decided to head back to Loveland and find food.

By the time we reached 3 Margaritas, it had been 8 hours since we had eaten breakfast. We didn’t even mind the loud infant seated next to us, we just needed food ASAP. Afterwards, Mark dropped me back off at my car and we parted ways. Another great outing with excellent company. Despite the congestion, I still enjoyed getting out of the house and being in the woods.

The hike took us about 2 hours. The map below has the incorrect altitudes – the hike was 3.5 miles round-trip and we started at an elevation of 9,475 feet, climbed 635 feet, reaching a max height of 10,110 feet. I would go back as long as it wasn’t on a weekend.

Diamond Lake Hike

diamond-lake-9Up at 5:30a, picked up Clark at 6a, and arrived in Eldora by 7:15a. The road through town soon turned to dirt and the cars were already lined up along the side for the Hessie Trailhead. We made it past the crowd and began our four-mile off-road adventure. We got to the Fourth of July trailhead at 7:30a, found a spot along the road amongst the dozens of other cars, suited up, and got going by quarter to eight.

The sun hadn’t quite made it into the valley and the temperature was somewhere in the 50’s while we slowly climbed along the hillside. We caught glimpses of a massive waterfall across the valley between the looming pine trees. Once in awhile we’d cross a “hydrologic pathway,” where snowmelt would run down the mountainside, forming waterfalls of all sizes and resulting in a variety of wildflowers.

Because we were in awe of our surroundings and stopped often to take photos, it took us awhile to hike the mile to the Diamond Lake trailhead. Most other hikers continued up the switchbacks towards the Arapaho Pass, but we peeled off here. After some quick calculations, I determined that we needed to turn around and head back to the car by 10a in order to be back in Denver by 1p. This meant that we had around an hour and 15 minutes to hike the remaining 2+ miles to reach the lake.


Among several reasons, the Fourth of July trailhead is named for it’s abundance of colorful wildflowers

We got moving, steadily descending into the valley. There was yet another impressive waterfall near where we crossed the river and began our ascent back up the other side. It turns out that the giant waterfall we saw early on was the outlet for the lake we were heading towards. Clark and I both grabbed our second trekking pole to help pull us up the hillside. I was so focused on reaching our destination that I almost didn’t stop to appreciate the intense greenery around us.


Roughly fifteen minutes before the all-stop time, we arrived at the lake. Several peaks still dotted with patches of snow rose up from the opposite shore, making for a picturesque backdrop. There was barely any wind and the temperature had risen to 60 degrees; it was quite comfortable. The clear water of the lake reflected the deep blue of the sky, but also appeared turquoise in places.


Clark and I found a place in the shade to sit down and eat our brunch (a.k.a. sandwiches and Cliff Bars) and rehydrate. I was surprised to see a number of campsites along the shores. Though there were swarms gnats everywhere, I imagine it’d be a pretty spectacular place to set up camp for a weekend. I really hated that I had over-planned my day and couldn’t stay to enjoy this magnificent piece of nature we had worked hard to attain.

Rested and re-fueled, we gathered our things, took some last photos, and worked our way back to the car. Among many other hikers, we crossed paths with some recent transplants from upstate New York (including Rochester!) – the “BEAT SLU” shirt was the tip-off. Despite the many cars at the parking area, the trail really wasn’t all that crowded.

The entire hike was 5.7 miles with about ~750′ of elevation gain with a max of 10,950′ elevation. As with most of my hikes this season, I would happily return and maybe even visit Upper Diamond Lake.

Gem Lake Hike

Gem Lake trailheadContinuing with my conditioning for the Kumano Kodo hikes, I met up with Mark in Loveland (not Longmont, not Lakewood) around 7a at the Coffee Tree, where we enjoyed our choice of beverage and a breakfast sandwich. After sufficiently caffeinating ourselves, I grabbed my gear, hopped in Mark’s Porsche, and we set off winding through the canyons of Rt. 34 towards Estes Park.

I had never been on this trail before, but Mark asserts that it’s his favorite. We got on the trail around 8:45a; a little later than usual, but the temperature was ideal and there was plenty of parking. It seems the further away from Denver you are, the later you can get started. After Mark first told me about Gem Lake, I did my research and learned it was only 3.5 miles round-trip. I was somewhat skeptical about driving that far to hike that short of a distance, (I had been averaging around ~5.5 miles on previous hikes). As we started climbing the man-made stairs, I quickly realized that I had underestimated this venture – we would be climbing ~1,000 feet of elevation in 1.75 miles at roughly 8,000 feet above sea level!

Facing south

Facing south towards Longs Peak

There were many scenic places to rest and catch our breath, many of them looking south towards the northern end of Estes Park. It was a perfect day with only a few clouds littering the beautiful blue sky. We were fortunate enough to see some lingering wildflowers (namely fireweed) on our ascent. The trail got steeper and the rocky steps became higher and wider the closer we got to the lake. When we passed the open-air privy, we knew it was nearby.



Gem Lake is more of a medium-sized pond and the lack of a spring or stream suggests that it’s filled by snowmelt draining off the surrounding cliffs early in the season. There were five other groups seated around it’s shores, taking in the scenery and enjoying the cool breeze. Mark and I made our way along the boulders to stake our spot in the shade. Sitting in silence, we watched dragonflies and a solitary bat devour the bugs above us as we chomped down on Cliff Bars while the resident scavengers begged their hardest for a bite. I let my senses absorb all they could; it was reminiscent of my time doing observational requirements for the Environmental Science merit badge at Camp Sequassen almost twenty summers ago.

After some time, a group of noisy teens and their chaperone arrived and set up nearby. They fed a couple chipmunks some of their snacks, which prompted all of the nearby rodents to investigate, further winding up the teens. Mark and I got up to stretch out our creaky joints and continued down past the lake a little to see the all valleys to the north. It was starting to warm up, so we began our descent.

The closer we got to the parking lot, the more people we passed on their way up. We concluded that our arrival was timed perfectly. I heard odd screeching noises and wondered if that were a type of raptor that we had read was nesting nearby, but it turned out to be squealing children. Time to go! We got back in the car and returned to Estes Park to find lunch.

The crowds had arrived in town from the prairie. Not wanting to deal with traffic or the hordes of tourists, we turned down a side road and stopped into Himalayan Curry and Kebab for a delicious chicken curry dish before making our way back through the canyons to Loveland.

I could see why Mark liked this hike. It wasn’t some piddly 3.5-miler; this kicked my ass! Combined with Mark’s excellent company, it was a pretty great day in the mountains.