Due to severe fire danger, almost of New Mexico is currently closed to hiking and camping. Lucky for me, I can still take my daily hikes on private land around Cerrillos, but for serious weekend miles, I’ve been heading to southern Colorado. I spent the 4th of July weekend scaling Summit Peak and Square Top in the San Juans and this past weekend, I headed to the Weminuche Wilderness for a backpacking trip to Emerald Lake.
I’m actually not a huge lake person. Given the choice between trails that feature mountains, overlooks, big trees, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, I’ll take them in that order. Don’t get me wrong, pristine lakes are awesome, but they are rare. Too often lakes are altered, manmade, polluted or full of speed boats and I’m just not into sharing the scenery with all that noise.
Emerald Lake, a day’s hike deep in the Weminuche Wilderness, is a gem of an exception: the waters are crystal clear, the fish are as long as a fisherman’s arm and the soundscape is unmarred by man and his motor boats.
Emerald Lake is pristine because the only way to reach it is on foot: a 12-mile hike with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gained from the trailhead at 8,000 feet to the 10,200-foot lakeshore. And since a 24-mile round trip at altitude is a bit more than most people can undertake in a day, most who huff it all the way to Emerald do so with a 30-pound pack on their backs so they can spend at least one night. As a general rule, most backpackers abide by Leave No Trace principals: take only pictures, leave only footprints and thus, Emerald Lake has remained wild.
I hiked into Emerald Lake with a few fellow backpackers from the New Mexico Backpackers Meetup Group. I do a lot of solo hiking and backpacking, but I’ve also met some great friends through Meetup groups, including my adventure pal Amy, who is the only woman I’ve ever met who hikes as much as I do. If you’re looking to get into backpacking or meet fellow hikers, I highly recommend looking for a Meetup in your area!
One of the great pleasures of backpacking with other people is unwinding and eating dinner together around the campfire. As hikers from New Mexico, where the largest wildfire in state history is currently chewing through the Jemez Mountains, fire has taken on new significance. Watching the flames we all told stories about some of the beautiful places we’d been hiking in the Jemez that have burned: Valles Caldera, Cochiti Mesa, Macaulay Hot Springs. Every time a spark escaped the fire pit, we jumped up and stomped it out.
As much as I like meeting fellow backpackers, I also relish spending time alone in remote places. So Sunday morning, when the rest of the group was packing up to head back to the trailhead and a victory meal in Durango, I elected to stay at the lake for a few hours and hike out by myself.
I found a great sitting spot on a pink granite boulder on the lakeshore and spent the morning sitting, thinking, writing and taking photographs of Emerald, which I quickly declared to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The second largest natural lake in Colorado, Emerald sits in a bowl surrounded by 12,000 foot peaks, old growth woods and fields thick with wildflowers. It’s an incredible place.
While I was sitting there, two backpackers stopped for a few minutes to fill their water bottles with lake water before continuing their hike north. Their plan was to climb 13,684-foot Mount Oso and then link up with the Flint Creek Trail to make a loop back to the trailhead, a 45-mile trek. I jotted the route down in my notebook, for another day.
Another even wilder way to see Emerald was touted in the May issue of Backpacker magazine in a story called “Going To Extremes” as one of the most remote treks in the lower 48 states. Start with a ride on the Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad and hop off at the Needles stop. From there trek from Chicago Basin to Columbine Pass and down the Johnson Creek drainage to the Vallecito Creek trail. At Rock Lake Basin you’ll be in the very heart of the Rockies, 20-miles from the nearest road. The 50-mile trek then connects with the Lake Creek trail over Half-Moon Lake Pass and descends past Emerald Lake, emerging at the Pine Creek trailhead, where we started.
So much to see! Colorado, I will be back.
To see Emerald Lake: From Bayfield, Colorado (18 miles east of Durango) drive 20 miles north past Vallecito Lake to the Pine River campground. Hike north along the Pine River Trail for 6.5 miles to the bridge over Lake Creek. At the trail junction soon after the bridge, turn left (west) and follow the Lake Creek Trail for another 6 miles to Emerald Lake. See Trails.com for detailed instructions and maps.
See more photos of Emerald Lake here.