Crystal Lakes – Rocky Mountain National Park
Crystal LakeDate: August 14, 2017
Elevation Gain: 3,560 ft
Start Time: 5:43 am
Duration: 8:23 hours
The Crystal Lakes trailhead is located near the entrance to the Old Fall River Road on the north side of the park. This is one of those hikes that doesn’t seem to really begin until six miles in at Lawn Lake. Prior to Lawn Lake there is a long walk through a thick forest with an occasional view of a stream that appeared to have signs of being completely washed out by flash floods. We learned later on that the dam at Lawn Lake had failed in 1982 causing a massive flood that took three lives and completely flooded the town of Estes Park. This information would have surely added to our interest in this deep gorge rather than the level of interest that we had in the barren lifeless hillsides of the gorge that we commented at the time as looking like a construction site.
The hike through the forest was quite pleasant and maintained a reasonable grade the whole way. There were areas of the forest that had sparse ground cover other than lichen covered rocks and occasional mushrooms which almost looked like a scene from a movie. There where a large variety of mushrooms in this forest including some of the most spectacular ones that we have ever come across. They were a very bright red with white speckles.
Near the end of this first section of the hike we passed a gentleman who was resting on a log. He was probably a little older than us. He told us that he was from the area and he liked to climb mountain peaks. He was on his way to climb up to Mummy Peak and then over to Hagues and Fairchild Peaks if he had time. These are the three peaks that surround the area we were hiking to and were all about 13,500 feet. We sure come across some impressive people sometimes on our hikes.
On the approach to Lawn Lake we noticed the “V” shaped groove notched into the otherwise flat berm on the east shore and commented at the time that it looked like the dam had failed at some point explaining the construction zone site to our left. Arriving at the lake we noted from the signs that there was a ranger station, camp sites and a privy to the north of the lake up in the trees. There were no signs of life. Sandy took the opportunity to find the privy while I wandered down to the lake shore. Once Sandy finished her business she came back down to the lake and explained that the privy up a steep grade and, although in the trees, was open for all the world to see.
We knew that Crystal Lakes were up a steep grade after Lawn Lake so we decided from the beginning that we would see how we felt as to whether to go on further. Sandy got hit by altitude sickness the day before hiking to Ida Peak so we didn’t want to push it too hard. She still had a slight headache but wanted to move on anyway. We then headed up the trail that left the lake shore and quickly started ascending up the side hill to the right. We could tell that this was a less traveled trail quickly because it narrowed and was overgrown. We made our way through several swampy areas where small tributaries made their way down the hillside. At some points we were pushing our way through thick bushes that were way over our heads while trying to find dry footing in the muddy trail.
We eventually made our way through the swamp thickets onto an open hillside which gave us views back toward Lawn Lake that was now shrinking below us. After a little more hill climbing we crested a small ridge that lead down into a meadow that was fed by a stream that cascaded off of the rocks to our right. As we approached the stream we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene. Cascading water was all around us and the wildflowers were as abundant and diverse as we’ve seen in the park so far.
A short way up the hill from the meadow was what we thought was the lake but it was a smaller unnamed pond. It was still quite beautiful and would most assuredly be granted a name anywhere in the mountains where we live. The trail lead us up through some rocks to the left where Little Crystal Lake appeared before us. If I didn’t know from studying the map that this was Little Crystal Lake I would have though that it was the main lake. It was larger than I thought it would be and the cliffs appeared to be rising from the far end of the lake.
A short distance further we found Crystal Lake. It’s shore was protected by some rather large rock formations. Sandy was feeling the headache so I told her to try and get in a small nap while I tried to find a route down to the shoreline through the rocks. It wasn’t as hard as it looked and as I was making my way back up to Sandy I noticed a marmot a few feet from my backpack which was on the rock near where Sandy was napping. He saw me and bolted before I could get a photo of him actually reaching my pack with Sandy in the same shot.
Crystal Lake was quite impressive. It had very good color and was surrounded by a massive cirque with rugged peaks. As we would learn from the other high mountain cirques that we hiked to in the park there was a steady wind channeling down the slopes into us. There was not a sign of any other person until our hike back down which was very nice for such a crowded park.
Here’s a video of our hike: