Highlights: Stunning views of four great cirques, carved side by side to crown a resplendent meadow, and higher up, two sparkling glacial lakes. This is a 9 on the 10 point “wow” scale!
Location: About 90 miles south west of Cheyenne, south from the Poudre River Canyon in Comanche Peak Wilderness.
Elevations: Trailhead at 8930`, Cirque Meadows, 9790’, Emmaline Lake, 10,988’
Distance: 3.5 miles to Cirque Meadows, 2.4 more miles to Emmaline Lake.
Maps: Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests; USGS quads Comanche Peak and Pingree Park; Trail Illustrated Rocky Mountain National Park
Getting There: From Cheyenne, WY, take I-25 south to exit 278 at Wellington. Follow Colorado 1 west and south, turning right (north) on US 287. Turn left (west) on Colorado 14 heading up the Cache la Poudre canyon. After 25.7 miles turn left toward Pingree Park on Larimer County 63E. Continue 15.1 miles on this well graded gravel road to Tom Bennett campground. Turn right here (FS 145), going 3/10 of a mile, past the campground, to the Mummy Pass – Emmaline Lake trailhead. Park and hike from there. Four wheel drive rigs can drive up the trail but only for a very rough half mile.
The Hike: This trek is best thought of in two parts. The first is pleasant, well graded 3.5 mile walk up to Cirque Meadows following the tread of an old logging road. Fourteen years ago the Hourglass fire swept the lower areas, signaling a race between aspens and ponderosa pines for the sunlight. Wildflowers abound in this sunny section. Down to your left is the picturesque Pingree Park campus of CSU.
Past the burn spruce and firs dominate and the shade is welcome. Log bridges cross Fall Creek, followed by a turn off to Mummy Pass and the northern reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park. Stay to the right.
As the trail reaches Cirque Meadows the sky opens to reveal the majestic tiara of great cirques, high granite walls painted with permanent snow fields. Fall Mountain is the left hand bookend of these cliffs, Comanche Peak the right. The meadows are marsh this time of year, cut by the broad serpentine meanders of Fall Creek.
There are seven primitive campsites spaciously placed around the meadow in the pines. Fires are allowed, season permitting, but there are no toilets or potable water. The remains of a logging camp can be found at the end of the road on the left.
The trail to Emmaline Lake is on the right, across the bridge. While the first part of this hike is a walk in the park, this second section is a tough climb, clamber, scramble and slog. The waters of Fall Creek and its tributaries rush all around. I counted 15 single log bridges. There are countless dead falls and blow downs to climb over and around. Not a place for short pants.
The last mile is steep and eyes need to be focused cairn by cairn to follow the route up and over the rocks. The reward? Two stunning lakes nestled in the glacial moraine, Cirque Lake, and the higher, Emmaline Lake. The shore lines are rock gardens, brightened with the miniature bouquets of the tundra. A water fall plunges from Emmaline. It’s breath taking in more ways than one.
Pointers: I suppose the most enjoyable way to take in this grandeur is to backpack the short distance to Cirque Meadows, spend the night and enjoy the view. Sunrise is really special.
While there are four campsites further up the trail they offer no vistas and camping is not allowed at Emmaline. The next morning scramble up the Emmaline trail free of pack, take in the wonder, and then hike down to get your gear and out to your vehicle by afternoon. Dinner on the deck at Mishawaka along the Poudre is always memorable.
Cirque and Emmaline Lakes host book trout and cutthroat can be found in Emmaline as well.
Some may want to camp from the car at the Tom Bennett campground and day hike to the meadows and possibly the lakes. There is a $10 fee per night here, providing pit toilets, picnic tables and fire rings in the trees along the South Fork of the Cache la Poudre River. No potable water. The area is a trailhead for several other notable hikes: Stormy Peaks Pass, Mummy Pass, Comanche Lake and Timberline Lake.