Loch Vale
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
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  • 305 full color photographs
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    Distance: 11.5 miles (loop)

    Walking time: 7 1/2 hours
    : 2,120 ft. gain/loss
      Bear Lake Trailhead (start): 9,475 ft.
      Emerald Lake: 10,080 ft.
      Sky Pond: 10,900 ft.

    Trail: Mostly well marked and well maintained

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trails to the upper lakes are usually covered with snow from November through early July.

    Vicinity: Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park

    Hallett PeakSky Pond


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    With over 350 miles of trails to choose from Rocky Mountain National Park is truly a hikerís paradise, but in my opinion the greatest concentration of beautiful alpine scenery lies in the vicinity of Bear Lake. Four trails leave Bear Lake in different directions to explore the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide. The hike described here uses two of these trails to complete a loop south of the lake with side trips into three glacial canyons on the edge of the Divide. The route passes by no fewer than seven icy lakes, fed by the melting snow in the upper canyons. Five of the lakes lie above 10,000 feet, surrounded by a few stunted Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir that somehow manage to survive in an environment that buries them in snow for six months of every year. It is a harsh, unforgiving environment, but it also has a stark beauty that is hard to forget.

    To begin take the trail on the south side of Bear Lake near the ranger station, and follow the signs to Dream and Emerald Lakes. The trail immediately starts gaining altitude as it winds through a dense forest of lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, but the assent is gradual. Over the next 1.8 miles to Emerald Lake you will gain a total of only 605 feet. There are usually many people along this section of the trail, but beyond the first mile the crowd thins considerably.

    After walking 0.5 mile you will come to Nymph Lake, the first lake on this hike. This tiny lake is only about 250 in diameter; nevertheless it is quite scenic with a fine view of Hallett Peak behind it. 0.4 mile beyond Nymph Lake you will see a trail junction with a sign marking the way to Lake Haiyaha on the left. Bear right at the junction, into the Tyndall Gorge, and within another few minutes you should catch your first glimpse of Dream Lake. Dream Lake is a long skinny lake, about 150 feet wide and 300 yards long; the trail follows closely along its north side. After continuing eastward up the bottom of the drainage for another 0.6 mile the trail comes to an end at Emerald Lake. Beyond Emerald Lake the Tyndall Gorge is very steep; at its head is the Continental Divide, only 1.1 mile away but 2240 feet higher in elevation. Looking up the gorge you can see Flattop Mountain (12,324 ft.) on the right, Hallett Peak (12,713 ft.) on the left, and the Tyndall Glacier reaching downward between the two. It is an impressive sight.

    From Emerald Lake you must backtrack to the trail junction below Dream Lake and turn south. After walking 0.9 miles on this trail you will come to another junction where a short spur trail leads into Chaos Canyon for 0.2 miles to Lake Haiyaha. This junction, like all of the trail junctions in this area, is well marked with signs, so you shouldnít have any trouble finding your way. Lake Haiyaha is just slightly larger than Emerald Lake. Roughly circular in shape and about 250 yards in diameter, it is located at the foot of a huge pile of granite boulders, obviously deposited by the ancient glacier that once filled Chaos Canyon. Again there is a permanent snowfield at the top of the canyon, but the view is not quite as dramatic as Tyndall Gorge.

    Back on the main trail below Lake Haiyaha, you must continue south for another 1.0 mile to the next trail junction at the mouth of Loch Vale. This is a major junction with four trails branching off from it, but again the trail signs will tell you which way to go. You should bear right at the junction and proceed in an easterly direction into Loch Vale. This is the longest and, in my opinion, the most interesting glacial valley you will explore on this hike. You must walk 2.3 miles from the junction to reach the end of the trail at Sky Pond, but the walk through the sub-alpine valley is well worth the time and energy spent.

    After you have walked about 20 minutes from the junction you will come upon the Loch, a 450-yard-long lake that is the largest of the seven lakes encountered on this hike. From the Loch the trail meanders up the valley along the north side of a small stream called Icy Brook before reaching a minor obstacle: Timberline Falls. Timberline is not really a waterfall, but rather a cascade. It lies directly in the center of the canyon, and there is no easy way around it; consequently the trail goes straight up the streambed. You might get a little water splashed on you at this point, but unless there is a lot of snow this is not normally a problem.

    Almost directly above the fall you will run into Glass Lake, where at first the trail seems to end. But donít give up. If you climb about 20 feet above the right side of the lake you should see a faint trail skirting around its western side. If you canít find the trail just continue working your way upstream through the stunted forest and after about 15 minutes you will reach Sky Pond. Sky Pond is the last of the seven lakes visited on this hike and, at 10,900 feet, it is also the highest. It lies just on the edge of timberline near the bottom of the Taylor Glacier. Taylor Peak (13,153 ft.), the highest point on the horizon west of the lake, marks the crest of the Continental Divide only a half mile behind the lake.

    When you are finished savoring the view from Sky Pond make your way back to the 4-way trail junction below the Loch, and from there follow the eastern trail that leads to Glacier Gorge Junction. From the 4-way junction it is only 2.2 miles back to Bear Lake, but there is one more point of interest along the way: Alberta Falls. This much-photographed waterfall is located only 0.6 miles from the Glacier Gorge Junction parking lot, and it is a very popular short hike among park visitors. Expect a dramatic increase in the number of hikers you will encounter on this last section of the trail.

    Once you reach Glacier Gorge Junction it is a short 15-minute walk back to Bear Lake where the hike began. Alternatively, you may want to end your hike at the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead. The Park Service shuttle to Bear Lake also stops at Glacier Gorge Junction, and during the summer the buses run about every 15 minutes.


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

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Loch Vale area
    we recommend:
    Rocky Mountain National Park (Trails Illustrated, map #200)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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