Anticipation was growing as our Airbus 360 descended into the thin Denver air. This was my third trip to the Mile High City, but my first time hiking Rocky Mountain National Park. I was anxious and excited. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more into hiking, but it’s mostly been the smaller stuff. This was different, this was the Rocky effn’ Mountains! The big time.
On the morning of our hike, the sun was shining, the sky was clear making this the perfect early autumn day to be in the great outdoors. We were all wearing light pants, comfortable shirts and light water-resistant jackets. Nothing too heavy that we’d sweat too much, but heavy enough that we felt prepared for some cooler air in the mountains. Coming from sea level in New York City, I’m always curious how the elevation is going to affect me when I visit cities in the mountains. So far on this trip I was feeling very acclimated to Denver’s mile high air. What was in the back of my mind was the next bump up. Our hike was set to start at 9,475 feet and go up to a peak elevation of 10,110 feet. I’m sure I’ll be fine.
The drive to Rocky Mountain National Park and its 415 square miles of trails and woods is about 70 miles from downtown Denver. I would have been happy if it was 170 or 270. The ride is breathtaking. Rivers and mountains are around every turn. The closer to the park you get, the more the mountain range comes into view, white caps and all.
We entered the park through Estes to hike the Emerald Lake trail. Estes, or Estes Park as it’s formally called, is a cool mountain town that is filled with restaurants, shops and hotels. It’s a little bit quirky and the town doesn’t take itself too seriously. We stopped for gas and grabbed some beef jerky. It may have been the thin air, or I might have just been really hungry, but this was the best damn beef jerky ever. After grabbing sandwiches at a nearby supermarket, we were on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park.
As we entered the uber clean park and paid for our tickets — $20 per automobile, not per person which is nice — it was all becoming real. We drove through, in awe. There was so much to see and explore. After parking, we boarded a park shuttle that takes people around to different hiking spots. A quick 15 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to our hike, where we we were welcomed by park rangers handing out maps and giving directions.
After a quick perusal of the map and double checking that we did in fact know where we were going — all the trails are clearly marked — we headed out, choosing the Emerald Lake Trail. It starts from the Bear Lake Trailhead and is a little over three miles out and back. The elevation increases only 708 feet, but it’s important to remember the trail starts out at 9,475 feet, almost double of downtown Denver. This is a very popular and highly rated hike, so we were prepared to have company. However, on this September day we didn’t find it to be crowded at all, but then again I’m used to being squeezed into a subway car every morning.
Along with the strong smell of pine wafting over us, the weather was perfect at the start of our hike, sunny and 75 degrees. But that can change quickly in the Rockies. (More on that later.) The first half-mile of the trail is paved, so the hiking starts out easy. Every so often we’d come to a clearing and get the most spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the changing leaves. There were so many frameable shots, picture taking added about 45 minutes to our hike, but it was worth it. It was total FOMO syndrome. After finally putting our cameras away long enough to do a little hiking we arrived at the first of the three lakes on the Emerald Lake trail. The first is Nymph Lake, the smallest one on the trail. Filled with lily pads, this little lake is peaceful and serene. It’s a great place to stop and enjoy a snack or rehydrate because our hike was about to get a little bit harder. And a lot wetter.
After spending some quality time at Nymph Lake sans actual nymphs, we headed back into the woods. The hiking got a little more challenging as we moved forward. It wasn’t too much to handle, but it was certainly tougher than the first half-mile of paved trial. There was also something else that was noticeably different: the temperature. It was starting to drop and the sunshine was starting to fade. Maybe it was because we were surrounded by the pine trees or maybe we got distracted by the small creeks and mini waterfalls they form. But before we knew it was starting to sprinkle. The Rocky Mountains are known as a dynamic climate. You can experience multiple weather events, or see different seasons in just one day. As we approached the second lake, Dream Lake, the sprinkle turned into a steady drizzle.
Surrounded by pine trees, Dream Lake, much bigger than Nymph Lake, is so crystal clear you can see all the branches and rocks below the surface. I snapped more photos around the oblong shore, but as the rain continued to fall, I stopped being a shutterbug and became more concerned with keeping the camera dry. We also started seeing fewer and fewer hikers continuing up the trail. However, we shoved on with a mix of determination, and ignorance that comes from being first timers at the park. As we were feeling the change in elevation leaving Dream Lake, our nightmare was only beginning.
The funny thing about hiking is that the trip out, or up for that matter, is always unknown. Is our next stop right around the corner or maybe we just have to climb this last hill? You never really know until you get there. As we grunted our way down the trail wondering how close we were to the finish line, the drizzle turned into a downpour and the temperature dropped even further. Picture taking time was over. And everything we were wearing was absolutely soaked. The light North Face jacket I had on was working diligently to propel the rain, but remember: water-resistant is not waterproof.
After an hour into our hike, the rain turned to hail. We were cold, wet and out of breath. And to make things even more challenging, we were at an altitude and temperature where water was actually freezing, particularly on the big stones we were climbing over. So each step was taken with extra caution, unless you wanted to land on your cold, wet backside. We kept hiking probably because no one wanted to quit and be the one that made us turn back. At least that’s how I felt, bringing up the rear, cursing under my breath to keep from completely losing my sanity.
Suddenly we were the only hikers on the trail. We were all by ourselves, colder and wetter, and just as we didn’t think the elements would improve, we saw it! Emerald Lake. The joy and relief that went through my body is hard to describe. I have lived in the cold most of my life, but I do not like it one bit. I especially don’t like being cold, or wet, or far away from a heat source. But in that moment, standing in the freezing rain, on the shore of Emerald Lake I was completely content.
We hung out by the lake for about 20 minutes, relaxing under a tree, smiling through the shivering chills. The view was beyond words. Emerald Lake is surrounded by jagged, white-capped peaks that make the Rockies the most amazing mountain range in the U.S. And we were met by the local welcoming committee. A group of ducks flew onto the lake and paddled over to us along the shoreline. A few minutes later a few more birds showed up and the weather began to suddenly improve. I pulled my camera out of my drenched backpack and snapped a few shots of our new feathered friends. The hail had now stopped and the clouds were clearing. Before we knew it the sun was shining again. We were alone and that may have been nature’s way of rewarding us for trudging through these harsh conditions.
The hike back was easy and fun. We took it slow where we had to, picked up the pace when we knew it was safe. We strutted our stuff down the trail in soggy clothes like we were on a victory lap. As we passed Dream Lake again we started to really hit our stride and made quick work of it down to Nymph Lake. We found a little bench on the north side of the lake and took five for lunch. We passed around the deli sandwiches and feasted like we had never feasted before. I’m sure these subs would have been delicious under any condition, but after the last two hours, they were divine. We polished off every last morsel, took in one last view of our surroundings and headed back towards the shuttle.
The park had one more unexpected encounter. When we were exiting the park, we joined a caravan of cars all gawking at a herd of elk. These massive deer were casually roaming in the field right next to the road, going about their daily grazing giving no attention to us humans. Now it’s likely they see quite a few more people than we see elk, so I imagine it was a pretty routine day for them.