As chronicled in A Rocky Mountain Story, Bear Lake was “closed” when we attempted to visit it the first time. Our second try was more successful, but the start of our day made one wonder if we were in for a disappointment. First, we had a bit of trouble getting ourselves in gear. The day before, we hit the ground running, which some younger people might mistake for a fast walk. Nevertheless, we were in the park before it officially opened, which means we got in for free. That is always a nice perk.
Our second foray in the world of national park tourism started a bit later. By the time we made it to the entry, all gates were staffed, and there were moderate waiting lines. Thankfully, the wait was not lengthy, and there was time to dig into my wallet for the $25.00 per day rate entry fee. When our turn came, the nice looking and very professional young park ranger looked us over and asked if we had a pass. Since I had money in my hand, that seemed a bit strange, but the ranger was just setting up the next question.
When I admitted, this was our first visit to a national park in some time, the ranger nodded and smiled. She then asked, very diplomatically, if either of us might be older than 62 years of age. Bingo! Discount bells began to ring in my head. When we admitted, we were indeed at least that age, the ranger explained that for less than the cost of a day pass, we could purchase an annual pass good throughout the country. We left her booth, pass in hand, ready to start planning our visits to other parks.[i]
Okay, enough with the public service message. We left the gate in good spirits, and shortly had our mettle tested again. Bear Lake was open, but the parking at the Bear Lake Trailhead was full. We were diverted to remote shuttle parking along with hundreds of other visitors, one of the consequences for being a bit tardy. After seriously considering turning around and taking in some other sight, we chose to wait it out. That was a wise choice, and not as boring as we feared.
Our quest for this day was the Emerald Lake trail. This is a hike of just over 3 miles, with an increase in elevation of 650 feet. It was labeled as a “moderate” hike, and suitable for all visitors. I think the same folks who labeled it “moderate” work part-time at one of our favorite Tex-Mex places making the “medium” hot sauce. It was a moderate hike for kids, millennials, and people who trained at high altitudes. For us, and dozens of other hikers of middle age or later, it was a test. In fact, as you headed up the trail, you knew who was in the same climbing condition you were by looking uphill a few hundred feet to see the next informal rest stop.
Pretending to be the “little engine that could” we made the trek. It took a while, but we made it. Then, the first lake left us wondering if the exertion would be worth it. Oh, it was pretty, in its way. That is, it was cute if you liked the look of something about the size of a large stock tank in west Texas covered with Lilly pads. The mountains behind it were pretty, but it was surrounded by trees, limiting much of the view. It was not that exciting.
Thankfully, a text from our daughter and the encouragement of a park volunteer about the beauty of the final lake kept us going. The second objective, Dream Lake, was everything one expected a small mountain lake to be. The water was deep blue, and it was surrounded on three sides by majestic mountains. It was surrounded by trees to some degree, but they were simply the buffer between the mountains and the lake. They added to the beauty rather than masked it. It was here we had another up close and personal contact with wildlife.
While taking a well-deserved break near the head of the lake, we were surprised to see a duck suddenly appear out of the reeds, almost at our feet. It waddled up, looked at us for a moment, nestled down next to the grass, tucked its head under a wing, and took a nap. We might as well have been part of the landscape. As I attempted to take a picture or two, a more inquisitive local showed up, a hungry little chipmunk.
The little fella, or gal, scampered down a rock near my pack. For a moment, I thought the little sucker would crawl into it. However, it looked at us for a minute and then noticed some crumbs dropped during another hiker’s stop. It munched a minute before scurrying past me to some rocks near the duck. For the rest of our brief stay, the little character checked on us regularly to see if we had anything to share.
The next leg of our journey was a challenge. We could not tell how far we needed to climb, but we could quickly gauge the slope we were climbing. Our progress slowed to around 100 feet laterally and 15-30 fifteen vertically every time we turned a corner. That may not sound like much, but every little climb put us that much closer to 10,000 feet.
In my self-talk, I kept saying, airliners are pressurized to the 10,000-foot level, and I handle that okay. In spite of the positive vibes, my body kept reminding me the longest walk I made on an aircraft was from my seat to the toilet. Those were short and level. Still, the hikers returning from the lake kept encouraging us, saying it’s just a little farther, you’re almost there. They were, for the most part lying.
Be that as it may, we made it! Was it worth it? Probably, if for no other reason than to say we did it. Still, Emerald Lake itself was somewhat of an anticlimax. As the pictures illustrate, it looked a bit like a pool of water at the bottom of a damaged cement catch basin. Yet, as with cognitive dissonance similar to the fraternity initiate who tells himself the hazing was a good time because he made it, we were convinced it was beautiful because we survived.
Oh! By the way. I kept thinking the hike down would be less demanding than the hike up, not noticeably.
Next stop, 12,000 feet and windy!
[i] Just in case you might be interested, there is more to this story. If you are not familiar with the national park senior annual pass, as of that day, it was $20.00. A lifetime pass was $80.00. The ranger also explained purchase four annual passes would allow you to trade them in for a lifetime pass. She was helpful, and the system seems to have some advantages if you like visiting national parks. Additionally, there may be fast access gates for pass holders at some entrances.
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