Emmaline Lake
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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    Distance: 10.6 miles (round trip)

    Walking time: 7 hours
    : 1,940 gain/loss
         Emmaline Lake Trailhead (start): 9,060 ft.
         Cirque Meadow: 9,800 ft.
         Emmaline Lake: 11,000 ft.

    Trail: Generally well marked and well maintained

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from November through early July.

    Vicinity: Poudre Valley, near Fort Collins

    Emmaline LakeEmmaline Lake


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    Emmaline Lake is one of those scenic alpine jewels that make hiking in Colorado so enjoyable. It is set in a deep mountain cirque on the northern side of the Mummy Range. The lake lies 1,700 feet below the summit of Comanche Peak, the highest point in the Comanche Peak Wilderness Area, and is fed by three permanent snowfields on the slopes below. At 11,000 feet, the shores of the lake are just above timberline, and the views of the rugged alpine country that surrounds Emmaline are unimpeded.

    The hike begins 1,940 feet lower on the northern edge of a large, open meadow called Pingree Park. The meadow was named after George W. Pingree who came into the valley in 1867. Pingree later established a logging camp and sold railroad ties to the Union Pacific Railroad for ten cents apiece. Later settlers included Frank Koenig, who was eventually employed as one of the first rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was Koenig who named Emmaline Lake after his mother.

    In 1914 the Colorado Agriculture College (now Colorado State University) was given a land grant that included most of Pingree Park, and today they maintain a campus in the valley. The university facility can be seen a quarter-mile below the trail near the beginning of the hike. CSU conducts nature studies and environmental education programs at the Pingree Campus during the summer, and you will notice several spur trails coming up from the buildings below to join the main trail.

    For the first 45 minutes of this hike you will be walking along the edge of a fire that roared through Pingree Park in 1994. The lightening-caused fire burned 1,275 acres of forest, including 13 buildings on CSU’s Pingree Campus. Fortunately the fire was extinguished before it reached the beautiful Cirque Meadow further up the trail, so most of the attraction of this hike is still intact. Actually, even the burned area has a certain appeal. The slopes are now covered with aspen trees and dense thickets of lodgepole pine saplings. Also, you will notice that many more birds live in the previously burned area than in the older forest.

    1.6 miles from the trailhead, above the west end of Pingree Valley, you will begin to hear the roaring sound of a waterfall on the left side of the trail. The forest is relatively dense here so it is hard to see where all the racket is coming from, but occasionally you can catch a glimpse of the water below the trail. Then, a few minutes beyond the cascade the trail breaks out into a small clearing where a crude log bridge takes you to the south side of Fall Creek. The trail continues on the south side of the creek for the next 1.3 miles to Cirque Meadow.

    By now you will have surely noticed that you are walking on an old jeep road. The road has not been used for many years and the vegetation is slowly reclaiming its sides, but it is nonetheless a road. The road goes as far as Cirque Meadow before ending near an old unused gaging station.

    Cirque Meadow is one of the highlights of this hike. The trail first enters the eastern side of the meadow and then crosses Fall Creek again on a footbridge before continuing along the north side of the meadow. The view is especially pretty early in the morning when the mountain ridge behind the grassy flat is in direct sunlight. The snowfields above Emmaline Lake form a perfect backdrop for the flower-covered meadow. There are several campsites on both sides of the meadow for anyone wishing to spend more time in the area.

    Soon after crossing Fall Creek the trail passes an immense pile of old rough-cut lumber, probably the remnants of an old lumber mill from the last century. Beyond the lumber pile the trail becomes much narrower, and within a few minutes you will see a sign marking the boundary of the Comanche Peak Wilderness Area.

    Over the next mile after entering the wilderness area the trail passes four primitive campsites that have been developed and marked by the Forest Service, but soon after campsite 4 you will see a sign that says "No Camping Beyond This Point". Wilderness managers do not like people to camp at the higher altitudes because the growing season is so short and the ground cover is so easily damaged. It can take many decades for the alpine tundra to revegetate itself.

    As the trail approaches timberline it crosses again to the south side of Fall Creek and soon enters a field of large granite boulders. The route is marked only by cairns in this area and in one or two places it may be difficult to follow, but within a few hundred yards the trail becomes obvious again. Over the last 0.7 mile the trail veers to the south and then bends back to the north again to cross Fall Creek for the fourth time just below Cirque Lake.

    Cirque Lake is almost the twin of Emmaline Lake. It is located just to the south of the larger lake, 200 yards distant and 50 feet lower in elevation. Many people think they have arrived at Emmaline when they first see Cirque Lake, but if you continue along the lower lake's eastern shore for another 3 or 4 minutes you will arrive at your final destination. There, elegantly situated beneath the towering Comanche Peak with white snowfields reaching down the slopes toward its western shore, is the picture-perfect alpine tarn that Frank Koenig named after his mother 90 years ago.

    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Emmaline Lake area
    we recommend:
    Poudre River (Trails Illustrated, map #112)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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