Emerald Lake – Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

After our walk around Bear Lake, Mona and I decided to hike to Emerald Lake. When planning our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was cautious about the altitude. Where we live in Kansas just about 950 feet above sea level. When we arrived in Denver, we were suddenly a mile above sea level (or 5,280 feet). By the time we reached the trailhead, we were almost 9,500 feet above level – literally 10 times the elevation our bodies were accustomed to. 

Because we didn’t have time to acclimate ourselves and went straight into hiking, I planned hikes that had no more than 1,200 feet of elevation change. I chose that number based on our trip to Death Valley. We’d had no significant issues with that change from trailhead to peak. I felt anything more would be strenuous. And that wasn’t the purpose of this trip. As Mona reminded me, we’d already taken a trip climb a mountain, this time we’d just enjoy a nice walk in the woods.

The Emerald Lake trail was perfect for this purpose. The roundtrip is only 3.5 miles with a total elevation gain of 650 feet. It’s relatively short, easy and includes stops at Nymph Lake and Dream Lake to provide additional views. As flatlanders, this was our ideal first day hike.

Only a half-mile from the trailhead, we reached Nymph Lake. There was no significant incline so it was an easy walk through the woods. Our strategy to avoid any altitude sickness was to take short breaks for water and snacks. Fortunately, at Nymph Lake there was a bench where we could enjoy the view and sip from our water bottles. Unfortunately, there were very feisty birds and ground squirrels that tried to steal our gluten-free cheese crackers.

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For those wondering, there are a number of squirrels and chipmunks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our particular nemesis was the golden-mantled ground squirrel, which is often mistaken for a chipmunk due to its markings. Unfortunately, many visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park think it’s cute to feed them so a lot of them readily approach humans. 

 

Don’t. Feed. The. Animals.

 

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It’s not good for them nutritionally. It discourages them from foraging their own food and encourages dependency on humans. And it makes them try to steal my delicious gluten-free cheese snacks. If you aren’t worried about the ground squirrels (even though you should be), then worry about me deprived of my snacks. Don’t do it.

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Next, we moved on to Dream Lake. If you only have time for a short hike and can’t make it all the way to Emerald Lake, it is completely worth the mile from the trailhead to Dream Lake. The lake had partially frozen and surrounded by pine trees. We could seek Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain rising in the distance. Literally, it was like something out of a dream. A peaceful lake in the middle of the woods and surrounded by mountains. All we needed was an inspirational quote printed on the view and it could be hung in a dentist’s waiting room. (I kid. My dentist has fantastic modernist metal sculptures by local artists on his wall. What’s up, Dr. Mendez!)

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As continued up the trail, there was more snow that meant more packed ice. When planning our trip, I did some research online to see whether we would need microspikes and trekking poles. Visiting in October is tricky. We were past the popular summer season but not yet into winter. Overall, the online advice was ambivalent. Some said they needed microspikes, others said they didn’t. We went without, but there happened to be some snow on the days before our visit. The trail was definitely icy in sections and I fell once on a slick patch. On a particularly steep and slippery section during our descent, I gave up and took it like a slide. For the record, 10 out of 10 and would totally do it again. Sliding down that section of trail was completely worth my wet behind for the rest of the hike. 

Reaching Emerald Lake was incredible. We sat along side other groups, families and friends, to eat snacks before beginning our hike back to the trailhead. We took pictures of ourselves with the majestic backdrop of still, reflective water and mountains beneath blue sky. The morning clouds cleared and a gorgeous, cerulean sky reflected in the still lake beside green trees and craggy mountains.

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I felt a profound and personal connection to the sky, water, soil and landscape that I will eternally struggle to put into words. That I discovered the place, though a million others have been there before me. That the place was mine, though I shared it with everyone else in the world. That the place is special to me, though anyone with a single sense could stand where I stood and appreciate it.

Maybe it means something and maybe it doesn’t, but the emerald is my birthstone. And standing beside Emerald Lake I was really and genuinely happy. Literally throw my hands in the air and laugh kind of happy.

I thought, isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it amazing?

And the landscape answered, “Yes, it is.” 

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