|Location: Emmaline Lake and Cirque
Lake, Comanche Peak Wilderness, Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado
Maps: USGS 1:24K Comanche Peak; Pingree Park; Trails Illustrated 1:40K: Cameron Pass #112.
Access: From Ted's place at the junction of Hwy's 287 and 14, drive 25.1 miles west and turn south onto Pingree Park Rd (CR 63 E). Drive south 14.5 miles to the Tom Bennet Campground, and go just past it to park at the signed trailhead at a bend in the road.
Trailhead: NAD83 zone 13 450537e 4491904n Elev: 8959'
Trail: 5 miles, one-way. Elevation gain of 1900 ft. Trail begins in lodgepole pine forest, ends in alpine tundra.
Dogs: voice control in forest, leash control in wilderness
Webcam: Pingree Park 5 miles east (spring-fall only)
Weather: Current and recent conditions Local Forecast
September 19, 2007
It was a beautiful Thursday with only a few days left in the summer season. I had ditched work to satisfy the call of the wild, and get my feet dusty on rocky mountain trails. After cavorting around in the Buckhorn area for a couple of hours, I finally got down to business and drove the car over to the Lake Emmaline trailhead around 12:30. Frank and Makenzie, the two pointers who joined me on the trip, hopped out eagerly when I parked the car and began sniffing around, checking things out and gathering such information as apparently only dogs appreciate. I loaded up my green pack and, under a brilliant blue sky completely unimpeded by cloud, set off along the flat stretch of trail through lodgepole pines. Frank and Makenzie followed suit, and quickly passed me, each vying for "lead dog" position.
After a short stretch through the forest, the trail broke out into the open regrowth of the 1994 Hourglass Fire that destroyed buildings of the Colorado State mountain campus at Pingree Park, in the valley to the south. In this area, aspen dominate, and most were in full yellow blaze on this hike. Occasional young lodgepole pines showed themselves in the aspen tangle, and in another 50 years, they will have overtaken the aspen as the dominant species. I felt my nose and lips drying out from the dessicated fall air, and I stopped to apply sunscreen to my arms. Below in the valley sat the many buildings of Pingree Park, and many of them I think are new since I was last there in 1997 on an honors program retreat. I thoroughly enjoyed each visit up to Pingree Park, and noted with satisfaction that even though the new dormitories were complete, the small cabins in the trees that we always stayed in were still there.
The trail was wide and flat, and I made pretty good time through the burn. We shortly passed back into the conifers, shade, and shortly after we crossed the pole bridge over Fall Creek. This portion of the trip took about 45 minutes. Beyond the bridge, the forest grew a little wetter, reflecting its higher elevation, and spruce trees became more abundant. Another 15 minutes, and we had reached the fork to Mummy Pass and a few minutes more hiking brought us to the Cirque Meadow. The clearing before the meadow was empty. The view across the meadow to the Mummy Range is fantastic from this point, and was no different on this day. I stopped to photograph the site, and used my tripod to get a nice clear shot. The meadow is a destination all to itself, really, and a few years ago Andra and I (and Frank and Makenzie) camped here. I rose at dawn that morning, freezing, to photograph the alpenglow on the range across the meadow, but the photo developer lost the roll of film, giving me instead a package of photos apparently taken by a college student and his drunken buddies freewheeling around Old Town late at night. From the meadow, the shape of the mountains and the perennial snowfields conspire to create the illusion of a mummy laying on his back, head to the south, hands folded on chest. Use your imagination. The Arapahoe called this range the Snowy Owl, because it also looks like a large owl flying away from you.
After dallying at the meadow clearing for awhile, I picked up my pack and the shoulder strap snapped in two. Given that the pack is about 40 years old, this wasn’t too surprising. The strap had been frayed for quite some time. I pulled out the cord I normally hang my food with, cut off a 6-inch section, and roughly sewed the strap ends back together using the leatherpunch on my multitool. Surprisingly, this fix stayed intact for the remainder of the trip.
The trail west of the meadow passes into the Comanche Peak Wilderness, as well as a designated travel zone where backpackers must camp in one of four designated sites. The first site was plainly marked near the meadow. We walked past it and on up the increasingly primitive trail. I had begun daydreaming and watching my feet when I heard a soft growl from Frank, who was walking just ahead of me. I looked up to see that we had just about walked right into a female moose and her calf. A shot of adrenaline hit me at seeing such a large animal so close to us, and I instantly changed direction and called the dogs after me. We all walked back down the trail about 20 feet, whereupon I turned and watched the moose staring me down. I took a photograph of her, and seconds later, she and her calf disappeared off the trail. I waited for a couple of minutes where I was, then resumed my walk with no sign of the moose from them on. I’ve heard moose can be dangerous, especially males during the rut or females with calves. I’ve encountered 3 male moose in rut, 4 female moose in summer and 2 female moose with calves, and have never been charged or chased. In every instance, the moose’s reaction to me was either decided indifference, or casual fear resulting in ambling retreat.
The excitement for the hike was over, and the next hour was spent slogging up the increasingly rugged and steep trail. I figured I had missed camp 2, and was looking for camp 3. Andra and I had camped at camp 3 before, though I couldn’t recall exactly where it was. I never did find it, because I came upon camp 4 abruptly. This was where I was aiming for anyway, so I turned off the trail to the south and followed a faint path to an open rock area. To the east I had a nice view of the Cirque Meadow, and the site was airy and sunny. The Stormy Peaks rose up in jagged rock barrenness to the southwest, and in all other directions the forest hemmed in the view. I liked it. Camp 3 is down in the trees and no nearly so cheerful. The only disadvantage to camp 4 is that there are few flat spaces large enough to pitch a tent. I pitched mine between two boulders, and had to squeeze the tent a little to get it to fit. Since I was alone, this was no problem. Two people would’ve been pretty uncomfortable in this setup. It took about 2 hours to reach camp 4.
After unpacking gear, and relaxing for about an hour with the third installment of Harry Potter, I roused the doggies and we made a push for Lake Emmaline. It was farther than I thought. We first crossed the day-use boundary, and then the trail got really steep for about half a mile. I huffed and puffed up some of the steeper sections, watching carefully for cairns that marked a trail almost wholly invisible at this point. I took a few wrong turns, and remembered making the same wrong turns before. My advice when hiking this trail is to just keep your eyes peeled for cairns at all times. We reached Cirque Lake in about 35 minutes, and a few more moments of hiking brought us to the edge of Lake Emmaline. The sun was warm, and had that wonderful orange cast it only gets in the fall. We lingered on the rocks above Lake Emmaline, enjoying the calm afternoon and brilliant blue sky. Sunny fall afternoons are so wonderful because there are so few of them to enjoy. There's something about fall afternoons that always cause me to delve into the memory banks. I sat and pondered some good times I've had on this trail.
In the fall of my sophomore year at Colorado State, I was fortunate enough to go on a Biology retreat to Pingree Park for a long weekend. The first day, our Biology Prof, Murray Nabors, led a hike for those interested up to Lake Emmaline. Only about a dozen participants in the class volunteered, and we stayed together, more or less, in an amorphous group of ever-changing dynamics spreading out over perhaps a 1/4 mile section of the trail. I hiked with Molly and April much of the time, but managed to make it around to see all groups. The day started out sunny, but fulfilled the typical late-summer weather pattern of clouding up around 1PM and threatening to rain around 3. We all made it to the lake at different times, and probably some never did quite make it. I wore only sneakers, and I recall that my feet really hurt at the end of the day. At Lake Emmaline, one other fellow and I decided to climb still further towards a pinnacle of rock I later learned is called the Emmaline Spire. You can see this spire from a very long way off as a cone of rock set in front of the main wall on the far right side. We navigated a steep boulderfield and made it to the base of the almost vertical rock. Clearly, there was no way to continue upwards without climbing equipment, so we turned around and headed back. I can't recall that fellow's name. I don't think I ever saw or talked to him again. When we all returned to our cabins at Pingree Park, we had until 6:00 to rest before the rest of the retreat participants arrived and we had our first session. I collapsed on my bunk bed at 4:00 and slept until the other guys in the cabin woke me at 6:00. Nice day, that. Later that night, as if I wasn't tired enough, some people organized a night hike through the woods nearby. We started out as a large group, but once again we all broke into small groups of 2 or 3 and went in various directions. I ended up hiking with one girl, although nothing romantic was implied, and we hiked up the road towards Cirque Meadows in the bright moonlight, enjoying the eerie atmosphere created by the black skeleton trees. It was very beautiful. It reminded me of the forest scene in The Nightmare Before Christmas. We had hiked perhaps 20 minutes up the road when a loud crunching noise caught our attention. We froze at the sound of a very large animal lurching slowly through the short aspen, and as our eyes adjusted to the object situated just off the left side of the trail, we could see it was a large black moose. We had been hiking sans-flashlight, but really wanted to see this guy, so the girl I was with flipped on her light and we beheld the largest ungulate I've ever seen. A bull moose with eyes like cue balls and antlers that spread out like a dining room table went on with his ripping of the aspen, paying us not attention. He didn't even look at us. Despite his apparent disinterest, we did not dare continue up the trail while he stood so close to it, and the tangled web of downed timber off the trail convinced us to turn around and head for the cabin, where we joined the majority of the group melting smores around the bonfire under the stars.
I took 4 subsequent trips to Emmaline Lake over the next decade, two of them overnighters, all great fun. Emmaline Lake is a place that is just as magnificent as anything in Rocky Mountain National Park next door, but somehow escaped being incorporated into the park, and thus it has also largely escaped the crowds.
We arrived back at camp around 5:15 and I filtered water in the creek, fed the dogs their bag of kibbles and read more from Harry Potter while seated on a comfy rock in the waning afternoon sunshine. Makenzie brought me rocks to throw in the absence of any rubber balls, and I was pretty impressed at her ability to always bring back the same rock. She takes it very seriously. As the sun went behind the trees and cast the camp in shade, the temperature dropped fast. By 7:00 I was in the tent with two tired dogs, reading my book and enjoying the cozy quiet of the woods. By 8:00 we were all asleep.
I expected it to get cold during the night, as we were camped above 10,000 feet, but it never really did. The wind blew all night, however, so it’s a good thing the mercury didn’t drop too much. Of course, I also had two big dogs practically sleeping on top of me to help keep me warm. Nevertheless, I slept very well, and 5:45 came around before I could turn over twice. In the darkness of pre-dawn, I opened the tent flap and dogs poured out like worms, eager to walk. The stars twinkled overhead in the blackness and the moon had already set. It was extremely dark. I flicked on my headlamp, lowered my food from the nearby tree, stuffed it in my pack and set off up the trail. It was lucky, perhaps, that we had hiked up to the lake the evening before, because Frank and Makenzie seemed to know where I was going and were able to follow the trail better than I, even with my headlamp. I simply followed them, although they did lead me on a little detour through one spot that I only realized was a detour on the way back. By degrees, the sky to the east was brightening, and by the time I reached the final heart-thudding hill before Cirque Lake, I was able to flick off my headlamp and navigate by dawn’s light.
When we reached the lip of the cirque and emerged from the trees, the wind announced its presence. Sweeping gusts of 60 mph exploded across the lake at random intervals, rippling the water and blasting the trees. The gusts would come up suddenly and you could hear the hiss as they swept across the water. Once they passed, however, calm would reign for a minute or two before another would come along and rake whitecaps across the lake surface. As we arrived before sunup, I sought a sheltered place to wait for sunrise. I found a bowl in the rocks above the two lakes, and that provided some shelter, but the wind seemed to swirl around and catch us from behind. I had brought along Frank’s fleece jacket, and I think he was glad to be wearing it. Makenzie was only interested in what rocks I might toss for her, and seemed completely oblivious to the cold.
I kept an eye on the cirque wall, and very suddenly it turned pink. I snapped photographs as the morning lightshow progressed, first of the cirque wall and then of the waterfall pouring out of Lake Emmaline. The talus on Comanche Peak lit up in a pinkish hue, and all around the fall colors were brought out by the red sunlight streaming in from the east. I walked all around with Frank and Makenzie, snapping photographs and soaking up the glinting orange light of the morning. All the while, those wind gusts kept hammering us, at one point knocking over my tripod (thankfully my camera wasn’t attached) and nearly knocking over Frank. We took a break by climbing down the east face of the mountain and sitting in a sheltered cove with full sun on our faces. I actually dozed off for several minutes, and then woke up to continue shuffling around the cirque. By 8:30, despite the rising sun, I could take the cold in stride no longer, and we retreated from the windy exposed rocks into the woods. Instantly I grew warm, and shed my windbreaker, hat and gloves. We took the trip back to camp slowly, checking out areas of interest off the trail, including a pond with little tufts of grass growing through it, as well as several small waterfalls in streams that intersected the trail.
By 9:15 we were back at camp, where the sun was hitting the tent and the cold wind up top was quickly forgotten. Rather than immediately pack up camp, I herded the dogs into the tent and we took a 30-minute nap. At least, Frank and I did; I think Makenzie stared at me the whole time, waiting to get back outside and start running around. The tent finally became too hot around 9:45, and I got up and packed up camp in the strong breeze, at one point nearly losing the tent before I could get the poles out of it.
The hike down was enjoyable, though it was quite windy until just before we reached the car. I noted with pleasure the wonderful smell of aspen on the breeze as I passed back through the Hourglass Burn. The aroma, though faint, reminded me of the simple days in college when I worked in the plant lab on aspen samples, grinding twigs and buds for analysis. The smell of aspen is a very nice smell that most people probably never consider, but next time your in a big grove of aspen, take time to notice the pleasant fragrance.
The hike back to the car took around 2 hours, and upon arriving at the car, I still felt great. Hiking in the cool days of fall gives me extra energy, it seems, and keeps the blisters and the sunburn at bay.
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