Emerald Lake

A buddy of mine and I decided to take a weekend off from climbing mountains and try a local out and back hike.  The decided upon hike would be 10 miles out to Emerald lake which lies in the Weminuche wilderness, the largest wilderness area in Colorado.

The Pine River trailhead begins just east of Vallecito reservoir off of forest road 602, which is a convenient 25 minute drive from Durango.  The trailhead is located towards the north-east end of Vallecito reservoir and is 3.7 miles from county road 501.

The sound of my alarm going off at 7:00am was a blessing compared to the typical 4:30am wake up call for hiking 14ers, or any mountain in Colorado during the summer for that matter. (We live by a rule to be off the summit and on our way down no later than 12:00 but typically we start our decent closer to 9 or 10.  Storms roll in like clock work in the mountains and will unleash a torrent of rain/hail and lighting at any moment.)  I had packed my gear the night before and was shooting for a little lighter setup than my last overnight trip into Chicago basin (I’ve listed my gear and food below.) I met my friend, Boden, at the trailhead and we were off by 9:20.

Pine River Trailhead
at the trailhead looking east up the pine river valley

The pine river valley is an amazingly beautiful valley with 11,000 and 12,000ft peaks towering on either side.

Pine River Valley
just entering the Wiminuche Wilderness area 3 miles in

The trail is relatively easy-going for the first 6.5 miles gaining only about 400 feet in elevation.  6.5 miles in you will cross a bridge that spans the Cave Basin Creek.  Once past the bridge you will come to a trail junction and will want to take a left to stay on the Emerald Lake Trail (trail #528 on the Nat Geo Weminuche Wilderness map #140). If you take a right turn at this junction and stay on the Pine River Trail it will take you further up into the valley.  We stopped and ate some food and rested a little past the bridge as the next 4 miles are a lot rougher than the previous 6.5.

From the trail junction the trail cuts back west and then heads north up towards Emerald Lake.  This portion of the trail can be grueling and once you start-up the trail be sure you have plenty of food and water because it’s a long way back out to the car. Over the next 4+ miles you will gain close to 2000ft of elevation.  The trail follows the Emerald drainage for some time and there are a couple of opportunities to refill on water.

After about 2 hours of continuous uphill hiking Boden and I finally laid eyes on Little Emerald Lake and boy what a sight for sore eyes!  There are only a handful of camping spots around the two lakes and there is no camping within a 1/4 mile of either lake and a 1/2 mile from the north end of Big Emerald Lake. We were getting rained on off and on for the better part of 30 minutes and after trekking almost 2 miles past Little Emerald Lake we decided to head back and camp south of the lake.

first glimpse of Emerald Lake and all her glory

We set up our tents just in time for the rain to really start coming down, which was nice because it cooled everything off and gave us some time to get horizontal and rest our aching legs and feet. The storm blew over probably 30 minutes later and left us with some awe-inspiring views.

Little Emerald after the storm
moments after the storm passed Little Emerald showed her true colors

Boden and I went down to the lake to fill our water bottles and camel backs and headed back up to make dinner.  Ramon noodles and dehydrated meals have never tasted so good. That’s one thing I love about hiking and camping, you really begin to enjoy the small things and food that you typically wouldn’t eat tastes better than ever. After dinner the whiskey came out and our camp fire took on a life of its own.

Fire dancer
whiskey makes me dance. photocred: Boden Abbott

We stayed up taking pictures of the stars and saw some incredible shooting stars.  There was also a lighting storm off in the distance that put on quite the show of purple and white flashes that illuminated the sky. We ended up going on a mini adventure around 11 that night to the other side of Little Emerald and wound up getting lost, damn whiskey.

Milky Way
late night adventures. photocred: Boden Abbott
Milkyway w shooting star
you can barely see the tail end of one of the most intense shootings stars I’ve ever seen. photocred: Boden Abbott
Sky fire and Trees
our campfire glowing off the trees with the milkyway in the background. photocred: Boden Abbott

The next day we woke up around 8 and hiked to the north end of Big Emerald Lake.  The trail takes you along the east side of the lake and crosses several streams that during high rain seasons will flow down the trail making it a b**ch to pass.  For the most part there are logs and rocks that make passing the creeks and muddy sections of the trail a walk in the park.

emerald pano east side
panorama taken from the east side of Emerald Lake

The north end of the lake doesn’t disappoint and offers its own awesome perspective on the lake and surrounding peaks. A short time spent on the north end and we were headed back to Little Emerald to pack up our camp and start heading south back towards the car.

pano from the north end of Emerald

The hike back down was pretty uneventful minus a few storms that blew in around us and kept us on our toes. A quick dip in the Pine made for a refreshing break from the hiking and helped ice our sore bodies. After trekking the 10+ miles back to our cars we high tailed it to the closest restaurant which just happened to be this little Costa Rican themed cafe.  One green chili and gravy smothered chicken fried steak and a funky monkey (fresh banana, coconut cream, rum, and chocolate syrup) later and we were ready to call it a weekend and head home for some much-needed couch time. 27 miles later and another great weekend in the Colorado backcountry was in the books.

All of this was to get our butts in shape for Chicago basin, which we will be jumping on the train on August 28th en route to tackling 14ers #21 and #22. Stay tuned!

Gear List:

-60L pack

-11L day pack w/ 3L reservoir

-2 person tent

-30 degree sleeping bag

-self-inflating sleeping pad

-extra change of socks, pants, long sleeve shirt, and underwear

-rain jacket

-zip up fleece


-water filter

-camp stove w/ fuel


-(2) Mountain House freeze-dried meals

-(1) pack of ramen noodles

-(2) honey stingers

-pack of shot blocs

-bag of trail mix

2 thoughts on “Emerald Lake

  1. Ross, I started to read this a few weeks ago and then life distracted me. Your “nailed it” comment reminded me I needed to come back, haha. Great report man. Looks like a sweet place to camp for sure. The little things…! and whiskey… oh man! well done.


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