I’ve previously blogged about the beginning of spring break 2022 in Breckenridge, Colorado. Following that weekend with Elizabeth’s family, the two of us headed up to Estes Park to spend some time at our wedding venue for next year and to work through some of the many possible vendors. I’ll write about that part of the trip if and when I have the time. It was a lot less joyless than I anticipated, and Estes Park is a really beautiful little town. Meeting with differential hotel managers and rehearsal dinner venues wasn’t super fun, but I did enjoy trying out the local restaurants and enjoying the mountains every time I went outside.
For now, though, I want to write about the one afternoon we took off from wedding stuff to spend some time in Rocky Mountain National Park. The entrance to the park is literally right past Della Terra, the wedding venue. Every morning, the mountains along Trail Ridge Road beckoned me to go hiking. Maybe that wouldn’t be the best idea in the middle of March, when the road wouldn’t be open for another two months. But I really wanted to get out into nature at least once. By coincidence, James was staying with his brother in Fort Collins. Elizabeth and I invited him to drive up to Estes Park and join the two of us in a hike on Wednesday, March 16. On the morning of March 16, Elizabeth and I toured a few more hotels while James made the trek west on US-34 into town. We met him at the Egg of Estes, a little breakfast diner right at the intersection where the US-34 and US-36 meet on the east side of town. I ate a hearty late breakfast while Elizabeth and James were a bit more modest in their dietary choices.
From there, James followed Elizabeth and myself down Fall River Road toward the entrance to the national park. As we’d found the day before, the Fall River Visitor’s Center is actually outside the entrance station, making it a perfect place for him to park his car and join us in our rental. We flashed the America the Beautiful pass at the entrance station, and my third official visit to Rocky Mountain National Park had begun. There were two possible places we could snowshoe – Hidden Valley, near the Fall River entrance, or basically anywhere from Bear Lake. I was naturally suspicious of the ability to find parking at Bear Lake in the middle of the afternoon, even in the middle of the week in the middle of March. The lot isn’t that big. But there also wasn’t a lot of snow at Hidden Valley, and you do need snow to go snowshoeing, believe it or not. So while I took in the brand-new scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Fall River section, the three of us decided that we had better pick up some elevation if we were going to use our snowshoes. We headed back toward the Beaver Meadows side of the park and I took it up the windy Bear Lake Road. Along the way, clouds over the continental divide thickened and threatened to bring snow down over us. That seemed suboptimal.
To my surprise, the parking lot at Bear Lake was nearly empty. Maybe there really is something to be said about visiting national parks at off times. There was a smattering of other vehicles, but apart from one bus full of school children that seemed to be leaving there really wasn’t much of a crowd. I strapped on my GoPro and hiking boots and we headed over to the trailhead. I’ve talked a bit about Bear Lake Road and the big elevation gain up to near the trailheads previously when Elizabeth and I hiked Glacier Gorge with Michael and Irene in 2020. It bears repeating, though: there’s quite a bit of elevation gain until you reach the end of the road. The road terminates at the foot of some of the most prominent peaks of the entire Front Range at the continental divide. That means there’s quite a difference in weather between Della Terra and Bear Lake, even though only a few miles and 1,000 feet of elevation separate them. While Della Terra was largely snow-free, and snow only existed in shady spots around it, the snow depth at Bear Lake was hanging out around 50 inches according to daily tweets from the RockyNPS account. I didn’t exactly believe that a base pack of 50 inches of snow was on the ground – until we passed the trail sign.
That made me buy the 50 inch snow depth thing a little more.
The Bear Lake trailhead fans out into a couple of different trails. One can do a loop around Bear Lake itself, or head north to meet the trail that goes up Flattop Mountain (I would not suggest this in March in a snowstorm). The trails off to the south split off pretty shortly, with one going over to meet the Glacier Gorge trail, and the other heading up a similar valley along Tyndall Creek toward the gap between Hallett and Flattop Mountains. This trail stops at three popular lakes along the way – Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake. In the summer, the hike up to Emerald Lake is a scenic option for those who might be daunted by some of the more difficult climbs around.
In the winter, Emerald Lake is a great snowshoeing option for beginners to the sport. Admittedly, one doesn’t really *need* to snowshoe on the Emerald Lake Trail. A long winter of recreational enthusiasts pounding over exactly where AllTrails said they needed to go had left a narrow, hard-packed trail that needed no more than maybe some spikes. It was pretty slippery from constant melting and refreezing, though, and without spikes I decided that snowshoes were probably the move after a couple hundred feet. The three of us took varying amounts of time in strapping in the shoes. Then we were off and hiking again. Although the Bear Lake lot had been relatively empty, there still was a fair amount of other hikers, along with some snowshoers and even a cross-country skier. After a short amount of hiking, the trail opened up to the first landmark of the trip – Nymph Lake.
The clouds were really gathering around by the time we hit the lake. Elizabeth and James looked unconvinced when I told them we could save time by just cutting across the lake, but hello – why else would you snowshoe out there if not to walk over the ice? I can understand the trepidation they had, considering it really hadn’t been cold all week and even now was in the low 30s, but I figured 50 inches of snow doesn’t happen without also forming a decent layer of ice over water. And indeed, Nymph Lake was completely frozen over. In my opinion, this is a place that would probably look a lot prettier in the summer, or even on a sunny day in the winter.
On a summer day, we would pick up the trail and hike around Nymph Lake counterclockwise before continuing on the trail on the other side of the lake. In this circumstance, we trundled across and found the trail via the direct path. The trail was a little hard to follow, given that it was kind of a snowshoeing free-for-all on the far side. It narrowed and went up a hill on Nymph Lake’s northwestern flank. With the trail signs covered in snow, we were mostly counting on the hard-packed surface to guide us. Which, after a while, with us still going northwest, I began to wonder…
A heavy, fluffy snow was falling by the time we crested a hill and got a panoramic view. Now I knew something was weird, because below us lay a view of Bear Lake, somewhat obscured by the windless snow.
That meant we were somehow backtracking towards where we started. Elizabeth’s phone was broken from falling face-first into asphalt (long story) so we didn’t have AllTrails and were relying on Apple Maps navigation. Fortunately, this hill gave just enough of a boost that James was able to pick up service and get the Emerald Lake Trail pulled up. It turned out that we’d been going the wrong way for like 15 minutes since leaving Nymph Lake and would need to backtrack back downhill. We were far from the only people who made this mistake and would be constantly advising passersby to make sure that they stayed left at the shore of Nymph Lake to avoid taking the unnamed snowshoe trail up to the (admittedly quite photogenic) Bear Lake overlook.
After clomping back down to our actual trail, we finally began to bend west in the true direction of Dream Lake. I breathed a sigh of relief. The two lakes weren’t separated by much distance, in all honesty. However, some hillside stretches of trail became so narrow that it became necessary to put one snowshoe in front of the other to avoid careening off the edge of the packed-down area. This was a bit nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, the snow fell ever harder than before. There was no wind and it was 30 degrees at least, meaning the snow wasn’t necessarily unpleasant. It added a winter wonderland element to the excursion, if anything. But the heavy snow rates and cloud cover were working to limit our visibility, which could be a bit sad when it came down to it.
It wasn’t very long before the three of us crested the steep little hill we’d been climbing and arrived in the alpine valley that Dream Lake resides in. Unlike Nymph Lake, which is small and ringed by gradual slopes, Dream Lake is long, narrow, and undoubtedly alpine. The long side of Dream Lake points like an arrow to the gap between Flattop and Hallett Peaks, which on a clearer day provides a beautiful photo opportunity. Meanwhile, the left and right side of the lake are ringed by steep, tree-lined cliffs that terminated in bare rocky faces. It’s not hard to tell you’re deep into the mountains at Dream Lake, unlike Bear and Nymph.
It was beautiful and haunting. The three of us were the only signs of life at Dream Lake. No animals or wind interrupted the silence. It was so quiet that I could literally sit on the thick ice of the lake and listen to snow hitting my head.
High above us on the continental divide, clouds churned. Visibility dropped even further, reducing our ability to see the mountains at all. The three of us huddled up and discussed whether it would even be worth it to continue on to Emerald Lake. The detour had cost us time and energy, and it appeared even the hard-core hikers were turning around when they reached Dream Lake. I was for pushing on while Elizabeth was for turning around, and James just wanted us to choose. I finally prevailed on Elizabeth to continue a bit further. The trail followed the creekbed up from Dream Lake, giving us a punishing few minutes before cresting not a moment too soon to keep Elizabeth from giving up. The last stretch was relatively flat and even sloped back down a little bit toward Emerald Lake. Even better, the clouds were just breaking a little bit when we got into a clearing. All of a sudden, the view was breathtaking.
While I whooped in glee at the sudden improvement of our fortunes, a group came snowshoeing the other way from Emerald Lake. They said they had been the only ones down there, and the view at the lake itself was even better. One of the guys took a picture of the three of us framed up against the scenery behind:
And then we bid them a good day and wandered the few hundred yards down to the lakebed. This was truly surreal. The mountains were like a literal cathedral on a scale that humans could never imagine building on. Clouds churned up near Hallett and Flattop Peaks. The lake itself was completely smooth, terminating in a moraine with beautiful pines rimming the lake. It was once again completely quiet. I was torn between wanting to scream at the top of my lungs to match the giantness of the scene, and wanting to whisper so as not to disturb the grandeur.
We spent about 15 minutes marveling at the view. In that time, nothing disturbed the 3 of us except for the clouds. There was no evidence that any other human being existed other than footprints out on the lake. It was exactly what I could have hoped for on the hike. I was smiling broadly when the 3 of us reversed course and began the downhill trek back to Bear Lake. A group came walking up to Emerald Lake right as we were leaving. Remembering the exhortations of the guy before us, I made sure to let them know that they were getting everything they’d bargained for in a few minutes.
Without missing a turn, our return to Bear Lake went a lot faster than the hike up. There was a little more opportunity to see down into the valleys from the higher terrain hiking this way:
And, most importantly, the snowshoes really made us feel more comfortable with the downhill portion of the hike. It’s hard to feel out of control when your shoe bites into the snow every step. The only real issues that we had were the occasional moments where a snowshoe went out of alignment and one of us had to sit down to adjust it. Otherwise, it was a smooth couple of miles back down to the trailhead.
I hope James enjoyed the afternoon he got to spend with us in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although it wasn’t my longest visit to a park, the hike itself terminated in one of the better views I’ve seen. I also enjoyed the company of Elizabeth and James among the lonely wilderness along the continental divide. I’d like to see this trail again in the summer, but there’s something special about being there when the entire area wasn’t overrun by tourists.