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A Walk in The Rockies: Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake Panorama

While snow may dust the peaks, there is still plenty of hiking to do this year. The much anticipated re-opening of Rocky Mountain National Park has people coming from all over for some last minute outdoor adventures before winter.

On all sides the mountains shot straight up, the peaks partially obscured by a morning mist. It was peaceful and still, commanding reverence like a cathedral.

As a New Englander, I have always enjoyed hiking. A typical weekend excursion might mean trekking in The White Mountains of New Hampshire, or traversing the ocean vistas of Maine’s Acadia National Park. On a good day I would consider myself an active, outdoor enthusiast typically comfortable with new adventures. There is something a little intimidating about The Rockies however, especially if one has never seen mountains of such magnitude and majesty. Did I have the right gear? How would I know which trail fit my experience level? These questions swirled around in my head as I stared up at snow-covered peaks that cradle the YMCA. My hesitation was matched only by my wonder and awe. I had to experience the Rockies firsthand, with one foot in front of the other. It was this determination that led me to the Sweet Memorial Building, where I met up with legendary Hike Master Tom DeWitt.  In no time at all I had donned a pair of sturdy boots and was headed into Rocky Mountain National Park with Tom and a band of hikers that ranged in ages from 21 to “older than a Limber Pine tree”.

It would turn out to be one of the most memorable hikes of my life.

We drove about 20 minutes into Rocky Mountain National Park and parked at Bear Lake. At 9,450 feet, Bear Lake is the highest lake accessible by road in the continental U.S. We were headed to Emerald Lake, a body of water that glowed a bluish green nestled amongst a panorama of peaks and among forests of ancient pine and fir trees.  Hike Master Tom assured us that the 3.3 mile round trip would take us along several glacier made mountain lakes and have us back for lunch. Under his guidance we set off into a wonderland of snow frosted trees and a flurry of animal activity as the busy creatures prepared for the stark season ahead. Snowshoe Hare tracks criss-crossed our path, and evidence of underground “squirrel kitchens” were easily spotted. Red Foxes, field mice and young coyotes all left their mark in the newly minted snow.

IMG_1907 Scenic View from the Trail Nymph Lake

Soon we came upon Nymph Lake, named for the genus of lily-pad that was still visible under the thin, clear ice. The trail pleasantly wound upwards, taking our group past glacially erratic boulder settlements, and stands of Limber Pines that had rooted directly into rock crevasses. Industrious wood peckers bury the Limber Pine seeds into deep rock cracks, storing them for winter. Inevitably some of the seeds settle and grow right into the mountain. Their distinctive, gnarled trunks are reminiscent of life size Bonsai trees. Hike Master Tom told us that Limber Pines were some of the oldest trees in the park, and some were thought to be almost 800 years in age.

As we travelled upward, my hesitation about hiking in the Rockies melted away. The beauty that surrounded me was vibrant and awe inspiring. It was no wonder so many people flocked to the park each year. Just as I thought the hike couldn’t get any more beautiful, Tom announced that we would be reaching Emerald Lake right around the bend. We crested a small slope into what can only be described as an amphitheater of divine proportions. Emerald Lake bore its namesake well, glowing a deep bluish green under a thin half layer of ice. This effect was exaggerated by the higher level of “mountain flour” (a fine layer of sediment) deposited into the lake by the recent flooding. On all sides the mountains shot straight up, the peaks partially obscured by a morning mist. It was peaceful and still, commanding reverence like a cathedral.

Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park may seem intimidating at first, but there are a variety of walks and trails for every level and every age of hiker or climber. The YMCA offers regular guided hikes in the warmer months and hikes by request during the fall and winter. The Hike Masters and Y programming staff are the best resources for any questions or concerns you might have about a particular trail. Staff can recommend the right gear and trails for your experience level and their expertise and passion is evident.

Since my hike to Emerald Lake I have purchased an annual pass to the park and have great plans to use it. Whether it is a simple walk or an overnight excursion, Rocky Mountain National Park offers too much to be left unexplored.

Andrew Dolby is the new Strategic Brand Manager for YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center. He moved from Portland, Maine to Estes Park with his wife Jessica last month. They fell in love with Colorado on their honeymoon earlier this year and are happy to be a part of the Estes Park community. 

About The Author

Hailing from the great state of Minnesota, Martha joined YMCA of the Rockies in 2010 and has been enjoying life in the Rockies ever since. When she's not at work, you'll find her hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, at a yoga class, or dog sledding, depending on the season. Occasionally, she can sit still long enough to read a book. Martha is passionate about the YMCA's mission to build strong families and strong communities.

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