From the Pine River Trail #523
, a steep grade takes its lead from Lake Creek. At 8,700 ft. the basin walls retreat, allowing for a more gradual gain. Continuing another 0.7 miles, the trail breaks out into a meadow. This is just below Hell Canyon, now at about 9,000 ft.
The trail closes in on the creek, and eases through a stretch of heavy deadfall. In the surrounding slopes, you can really see the devastating effects of Colorado’s pine beetle epidemic. After 1.2 miles, the canyon walls narrow again, and switchbacks clamber up an avalanche chute. Gaining a hefty 380 ft., the chute provides access to Little Emerald Lake at 10,057 ft., then finally Emerald Lake just 3 ft. higher. Aspen and a number of different coniferous pines carry through the terrain.
Deep in the canyon, formidable walls striped with steep drainages and avalanche chutes rise above both shores. Dropping through a scree field, the trail stays above the lake, not straying very close and barely offering a view. Teetering with the terrain for 1.5 miles, the thick canopy overhead offers protection from both the heat and the rain. Emerald Lake is one of the largest natural lakes in Colorado, and is a popular spot for fisherman and overnight backpackers.
Where Emerald Lake finally comes to a close at the onset of a swampy stretch, the views really expand. An easy grade wraps slightly eastward with Lake Creek. Vegetation thins, but small campsites pepper the surrounding pockets from here until treeline.
About 2 miles north of the lake, now nearing the head of the basin, an island of trees grow sheltered inside a deep valley surrounded by a string of 12,500ft peaks. Beside the Lake Creek gorge, switchbacks gain 1,200ft. Then at treeline, the trail peters out at the shores of an unnamed lake.
Turn right and follow the faint line through a wide band of willow thickets as the route wraps northeast into the heart of the basin. Continue to a rocky spine east of the creek where the tundra gives way to the scree. I lost the trail here, but trace the drainage and make a general line north to Half Moon Lake, where the trail comes back full force.
Here, a solid class-2 route veers west towards a 12,500 ft. pass between Half Moon Lake and Rock Lake. After gaining 275 ft. across 0.18 miles, the trail levels on a false summit. Look right, and a large cairn denotes the true pass, about 35 ft. higher. An easier descent loses 660 ft. to Rock Lake. The Emerald Lake Trail ends just above treeline, 0.2 miles north of Rock Lake.