Alpine lakes are a sweet destination
I love to hike, but more than anything I like to see and feel. I like to visually absorb the beauty of ragged rock ridges contrasting with billowing clouds and blue sky. I feel invigorated by cascading water and moist air as I stand in the mist of a hidden waterfall. I relish lying back in soft grass on the shore of a glistening alpine lake, feeling deep relaxation. Alpine lakes make great destinations as most everybody is able to connect with water. The rhythm of small waves lapping the shore soothes your soul. The lake reflection of snowfields clinging to the raw peaks above inspires newfound awe. A cutthroat trout gently rising to the surface displays color, grace and balance.I enjoy getting out on longer hikes, to lakes where I feel immersed in nature and wilderness. The easiest alpine lake hikes are about 3 miles long, with elevation gains of about 1,500 feet. The longer ,more strenuous lake hikes are five or more miles, and have elevation gains of about 3,000 feet.
Alpine lakes often lay in cirques at the head of mountain valleys where alpine glaciers once resided. During the Ice Age, glaciers carved depressions in the raw rock leaving basins that hold lakes of deep blue or emerald green water. Snowfields now cling to the mountainsides where the glaciers once were, and along with the snow in shady crevices, melt to provide fresh water to the lakes below.From the lake, the water makes its way down the mountain valley beginning as a small stream. Several streams emerge from nearby snowmelt and spring water and join together to form a larger, faster running creek. Creeks finally make their way into major rivers such as the Eagle and Colorado, and the water continues draining toward the ocean.High rocky peaks typically surround an alpine lake, but often the valley floor is lush with grasses, sedges and wildflowers. Because there is a lot of water in these basins, the plant life is often lush, stunningly beautiful and diverse. Stream banks are lined with magenta Parry’s primrose, the delicate pink flowers of queen’s crown and the snowy white of bittercress.Nearby trees are dwarfed in size, gnarled by age and weather. As the landscape rises above tree line, the specialized alpine plants become miniature. These same species grow in the extreme north on the arctic tundra. Local high mountain plants grow similarly in alpine tundra where winter is long, and summer short.
Tundra is a land of extremes in terms of weather, temperature and sun. Gravely soils host stunning bouquets of wildflowers, while intense sun melting snow and occasional rains feed the flowers’ rampant growth. Alpine plants must hurry up and bloom soon after the snow melts to complete their reproductive cycle before winter comes again.I can now see a green tinge when I look up at the high peaks, something you don’t see every year. Although rain up until now has been limited, the temperatures have been very warm and consistent. Combined with last winter’s heavy snow, the warmth and sunlight makes plants grow, and the wildflowers are now popping out like crazy. Take time to set aside a special day and take yourself back to your favorite alpine lake, or discover a new hidden jewel high up in a mountain wilderness.
Writer Tom Wiesen and photographer Tanya Wiesen are the lead guides and owners of TrailWise Guides. Privately guided wilderness hiking and backcountry mountain biking tours are available daily. Call Trailwise for more information at 827-5363. TrailWise Guides in an equal opportunity employer that operates under a special use permit in the White River National Forest.Vail, Colorado
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