Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake Hike

Bear Lake

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.

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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.

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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.

Waterfall

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.

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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.

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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.

Gem Lake Hike

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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.

Critters

Critters

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.

Blue Lake Hike

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blue-lake-4Despite my body’s several attempts to thwart awakening, I got up and out of the house by 5:40a. I picked up Clark along the way and we drove past Boulder, heading west through Ward and arriving at the Long Lake trailhead parking lot inside Brainard National Recreation Area at 7:24a, only to find it full. Disappointed, we drove to the next parking lot and easily found a spot.

While looking at the map to see which trails the lot serviced, the parking lot attendant arrived and I inquired about Blue Lake. I’ve been wanting to hike there for months, but recent trail reports stated that the trail was still covered in snow and that it was still too early to make it all the way. Thankfully, the reports were two weeks old and the attendant said it was completely accessible, so our disappointment turned quickly to excitement as we collected our things and got on the trail.

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We kept coming across interesting things along the way that were slightly more noteworthy than the last. First there was the small bridge showcasing wildflowers with amazing backlighting, then came the wooden bridge over the waterfall, and about a mile in we found Mitchell Lake, scenic and serene. We kept moving and got to the river crossing, where snowmelt was rushing down to meet the lake below. The bridge across was wide enough to make safe passage, but narrow enough to question each step out of fear for falling into the presumably frigid waters.

Once navigated, the trail took us upwards and I noticed the trees were getting smaller. There were large patches of snow all around, which made for numerous vernal pools, a fair amount of bugs, and a muddy trail. We even saw a number of rodents, including a marmot or two, running through the newly alpine landscape. The trail flattened out some, as we made our way along the river, crossing several remaining patches of snow; I was so glad I opted to bring the trekking poles on such a rocky trail! It was a bluebird day and the scenery was spectacular – I couldn’t believe our surroundings throughout the entire ascent.

Seeing as it was a holiday, I figured there would be a fair amount of people on the trail, but when we finally arrived at Blue Lake, we were able to easily find some shelter from the winds coming down off the peaks ahead. The lake was half-frozen still, with much of the ice pushed against the near shore. We took many pictures before settling in for some much-needed reflection on the rocks overlooking the incredible scene. In retrospect, this would have been a perfect time for lunch, but a Cliff Bar and water perfectly sufficed.

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Clark and I spent about 45 minutes at the lake, watching some hikers scramble along the far shore to reach the upper lake. I’ll happily wait until later in the season before attempting that. The winds were permeating our jackets, so we gathered our things and made our way back to the trail. I was astonished at how many people had reached the lake and turned right back around, barely taking note of the natural beauty before them.

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The sun was higher in the sky, which allowed for better photos on the way down. Again, the trekking poles proved their worth. When we arrived back at the bridge over the waterfall, we heard what sounded like a rifle firing. Upon arriving at the parking lot, the attendant advised us that hunting is legal on Federal lands a certain distance away from the trails. I made a note to wear a bright orange vest on my next outing, vowing to return as many times as I could.

Cars were still lined up along the road in front of the lake near the entrance of the park, where a moose we saw on the way in had summoned a friend to pose for photos (and maybe find some food). We made our way through the hills back to Boulder and found an excellent and inexpensive Indian buffet. I dropped Clark off after lunch and I was back home by 1:30p – just in time for a nap. A memorable Fourth of July!

6.1 miles round-trip, approximately 2 hours up and 90 minutes down (though we definitely took our time)

Silver Dollar Lake & Murray Lake Hike

Naylor Lake

It was raining steadily in town when I got in the car at 6:20a. Knowing the weather could be very different up the hill, I decided to take the risk. While driving, the cloud ceiling was getting higher, the rain was diminishing, and I felt increasingly better about my decision.

After a quick stop in Idaho Springs for coffee, I arrived in Georgetown somewhere after 7:30a and started the drive up the pass. Vehicles belonging to soggy campers were parked all along Guanella Pass Road. I arrived at the main parking lot at 7:45a, and though the actual trailhead was another mile or so up Naylor Lake Road, the Internet said that vehicles with low-clearance shouldn’t attempt to traverse it. Had I known that the Prius I saw could make it, I would have taken the Battle Wagon…

silver-dollar-lake-2The rain had stopped and there were patches of sun appearing in between clouds. A couple hikers intending to do some fishing were on the trail ahead of me, but I soon passed them once we left the woods and began the real ascent. The trees progressively got smaller and smaller as we approached the tree-line. Small patches of lingering snow no more than 10 yards across made the climb more interesting. Thankfully it was packed down, so there was little fear of sinking.

There was still a fair amount of cloud coverage, but the hikers I played leap-frog with agreed that it wasn’t anything to worry about yet. Soon the trees turned into bushes and a couple hikers passed us. It was obviously still Spring in this bowl, as there were many places along the trail suffering from runoff – it was muddy! The trail climbed steadily until the bushes turned into grass. Wildflowers were scattered along the hillside and we had a great view of the lakes and valleys below.

I eventually settled in formation on the trail behind a couple originally from the midwest. We talked about all the great places to hike and explore nearby and they gave me some great tips on where to try out snowshoeing. Before I knew it, we had arrived at Silver Dollar Lake!

Silver Dollar Lake pano

 

The weather was still mostly cooperating, so we continued up the trail another half-mile to see Murray Lake. We didn’t make it to the lake’s edge, but we took some photos and decided that the clouds were starting to turn ominous, so we started back down. This was a trail that you didn’t want to be stuck walking down in the rain. Not only was it completely exposed, but it was fairly steep in places and resembled a slide more than a trail. I’m not sure if I need boots with better treads or if the rocks along the trail were overly slick, but my normal foot-placement resulted in a couple slips and falls.

Lake Murray

I slowed to take some photos, parting ways with the couple as they make their way back to their car. There were still people fishing at both lakes, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable hiking alone at 11,900 feet, despite not seeing any more people hiking up. To my surprise, shortly after I decided to make my descent I ran into Ben and James! We had talked earlier about meeting up, but there was some weather-based hesitation so I wasn’t sure if they were going to make it. We chatted for a few moments and went on our separate ways, tentatively planning to meet up in Georgetown afterwards.

The walk down is always faster than the walk up. I passed a few more people ascending and that’s when I first noticed the raindrops. I picked up my pace as best I could, taking care not to misstep anymore, but the rain increased and the trail became even more slippery. It didn’t quite reach downpour levels, but the rain was steady and was certainly testing my rain gear.

As I was about to take a selfie in front of a snowpack, I heard several rounds of gunshots coming from the cabin near the privately owned Naylor Lake. I had read comments about hikers hearing gunshots and subsequent bullets whizzing past their heads into the trees, so I ducked out of site for a few moments until the gunfire stopped. This was yet another motivator to get back to the car!

Wet.I passed several more groups who were not dissuaded by the rainfall and stopped long enough to give them some cautionary advice, but was getting soggier by the minute. By the time I reached the trailhead, I was drenched… and I still had another mile to walk down the dirt road until I reached the car. Thankfully I had a dry tee-shirt and shoes waiting for me, but had to drive home in wet boxers with a blanket draped over me while my pants dried on the passenger’s seat. I skipped Georgetown and went straight home.

Was it worth it the trouble? Yes! I can only imagine how green the bowl looks on a clear summer day. I saw a few marmots scurry across the rocks and one person pointed out an American pika grazing nearby. I didn’t see a lot of birds, but I could hear them. No mountain lions. In retrospect, I was successful in staying in the moment not overthinking much of anything.

The hike was just over six miles and roughly 1,300 feet in elevation gain.