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A string of pearls

Bear Lake

Bear Lake

July 27. The entire state of Texas has only one natural lake: Caddo. And we can’t really claim it as our own because it sits on the border with Louisiana, so we’re sharing it. To add insult to injury, engineers altered the lake in the 1900’s, so today it’s only semi-natural.

But in Rocky Mountain National Park, just a small piece of Colorado, there are perhaps dozens of lakes, many of which can be seen from Trail Ridge Drive.

I set out early in the morning to visit a cluster of five: Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha. Bear Lake, the lowest of them at a lofty 9,475 feet, is where the trailhead begins. From there it’s all uphill.

I circumambulate Bear Lake on an easy .6 mile footpath. The trail has gentle grades and is with scattered benches to permit the visitor a rest or merely to sit in contemplation of the surrounding massifs, still streaked with snow-pack. The lake is billed as “Accessible.” A special shuttle bus brings its passengers virtually to the lake’s edge, and many folks who would otherwise be unable, because of physical infirmities, have the opportunity to see nature close up.

The next pearl is Nymph Lake, no longer accessible. The trail to Nymph Lake from Bear Lake

Mountain Lake

Another pearl

trends steeply upward and is fairly rough with rocks and protruding boulders. Only .5 miles long, it’s still enough to get me an aerobic workout. Nymph Lake is the smallest of the five lakes, covering perhaps five acres (about two football fields, for you Texans.) Part of its surface is strewn with scattered groups of lily pads, yellow blooming in the cool summer air. I rest for a while on a large boulder at the water’s edge, listening to the susurrations of the surrounding pines. With a name like Nymph Lake, I can imagine delicate water-sprites dancing from one lily pad to another, cavorting in the sun (meh, probably just altitude sickness….)

Rested, I rise and begin the ascent to Dream Lake, another .6 miles. To my mind, Dream Lake is the most beautiful of the five. Piercing, jagged peaks, laced with snow, rise directly behind the lake, framing it with stunning beauty. A lush green band of spruce and fir spill down from the treeline right to the water’s edge. Sheltered from the wind in the lee of surrounding peaks, the surface of the lake shines like glass; countless trout swim in the crystal water. From time to time one breaks the surface with a startling flash. Along the shore, several anglers are trying with some frustration to cast that perfect fly the wily trout are looking for today. A Dream Lake indeed.

Next, at around 11,000 feet, is Emerald Lake, a “mere” .7 miles farther, all uphill. Parts of the trail traverse snow-pack, from which rivulets of water course down the path, creating reaches of mud and wet rocks. Footing is treacherous.  Frequent small streams cross the trail at right angles as

view from mountain trail

A view from the trail between lakes

they plunge down the mountain side. They can be cleared by hops from one stepping-stone to another, usually no more than two. Approaching Emerald Lake—can you guess what color the water is?—the air becomes distinctly colder and the wind sets my teeth on edge. Prominent at this lake is a broad solid rock saddle that stretches several hundred yards between two high cliffs that stand to windward of the water. As the air pours between the cliffs, the saddle acts like an airfoil that slams the cold wind down onto the chaotic surface of the water. Here are found what the locals call “pennant trees,” because all their branches emanate from the leeward side of trunk. This is not merely from the force of wind—as we see in Live Oaks on the Texas coast near Rockport—but because any fledgling branch is literally blasted away by wind-born ice crystals during the long winter months.

Curiously, at this altitude I feel the sun’s ultraviolet heat beating into my skin, yet at the same time the wind is chilling me right to the bone.

One more pearl remains, strung together like the others by cascading tumults of water as overflow pours from the highest lake to the lowest. The last is Lake Haiyaha, another 745 feet of elevation gain at the end of a 1.1 mile trail. Unique among the pearls, Lake Haiyaha is surrounded to the water’s edge by a massive jumble of boulders ranging from boxcar size down to shoebox size, all tilted at crazy angles and nearly impossible to negotiate. But by climbing, stretching, reaching, sliding and leaping, I can work my way along the lake’s edge. On the far shore are what appear to be college-age kids, plunging into the frigid water amidst a pandemonium of wild shrieks and screams. Though wishing for a little more serene wilderness peace and quiet, I feel satisfied that I’ve made the trek to the topmost lake—the more so because I know its downhill all the way back.

Round trip: 6.8 miles

bear scat on trail

Oh, oh...break out the bear bells. Fresh bear scat on trail

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