Cirque Lakes

Cirque Meadows, Comanche Peak Wilderness
Cirque Meadow - September

Cirque Meadows, Comanche Peak Wilderness
Cirque Meadow - April

Location: Roosevelt NF, Comanche Peak Wilderness, north central Colorado
Maps: USGS 7.5' Quads: Commanche Peak, Pingree Park; Trails Illustrated 1:40K: Cameron Pass #112
Access: From Ted's Place at the Poudre Canyon entrance, drive 25.1 miles and turn left onto Pingree Park Rd (CR 63E). Drive south 14.5 miles to the Tom Bennet Campground, drive just past the campground and park at the signed trailhead near a bend in the road.
Fees: None
Trail: 5 miles, one-way. Elevation gain of around  1900 ft. Trail begins in lodgepole pine forest, ends in alpine tundra.
Dog Regulations: Voice Control in National Forest (up to Cirque Meadows), leash control mandated in wilderness.

The Comanche Peak wilderness borders Rocky Mountain National Park on the north, and is most easily accessed via the Pingree Park Rd. Pingree Park is Colorado State University's mountain campus. Both lie within Roosovelt National Forest. The trailhead is clearly marked  on the south side of a logging road just past the Tom Bennet Campground. The first part of the hike follows a narrow path through lodgepole pine and a forest floor covered with Kinikinik and rocks. After only 1/2 mile, the trail crosses a property boundary into Colorado State's Pingree Park Campus. It joins an old logging road that heads west up a steady grade. Trails to various locations cross the road. The Hourglass fire burned this area in 1994, and many of the charred trees are still standing. Aspen colonies are booming, and wildflowers carpet any leftover space. Lodgepole pine, most not more than thigh-high are also populating the area. The old road continues on, fairly straight, on the north side of the valley and affords great views of the meandering bends in Fall Creek below and an old ranch house. On the southern horizon lay Stormy Peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. The trail crosses a bridge over a pooled section of Fall Creek at around 2 miles, and continues on as a smaller trail to the west with Fall Creek to the north of the trail. Thick lodgepole pines line this section of the trail, with occasional aspen stands. Snow typically persists beyond this point until late May. About 1/4 mile past the bridge is the left turn up to Mummy Pass and into RMNP. The right fork continues on to Cirque Meadow in another mile. Cirque Meadow has campsites on the east end of a large wet meadow. Looking west, you are confronted with the magnificent Mummy Range. From certain angles, you can see from the meadow what might be considered the profile of a mummy, stretched out along the range with head to the south, hands folded on chest, etc. Use your imagination. Camping regulations are relaxed in this area, but beyond Cirque Meadows, camping is only allowed in designated sites (of which there are many). The trail skirts the north side of Cirque Meadow and heads more steeply uphill through spruce and fir towards the Cirque Wall which is in site at almost all times. After about 6 miles, the trail rises above timberline and enters the rocky boulderfields that surround the series of lakes and tarns at the foot of the Cirque Wall. 

In the fall of my sophomore year at Colorado State, I was fortunate enough to go on a Biology retreat to Pingree Park for a long weekend. The first day, our Biology Prof, Murray Nabors, led a hike for those interested up to Lake Emmaline. Only about a dozen participants in the class volunteered, and we stayed together, more or less, in an amorphous group of ever-changing dynamics spreading out over perhaps a 1/4 mile section of the trail. I hiked with Molly and April much of the time, but managed to make it around to see all groups. The day started out sunny, but fulfilled the typical late-summer weather pattern of clouding up around 1PM and threatening to rain around 3. We all made it to the lake at different times, and probably some never did quite make it. I wore only sneakers, and I recall that my feet really hurt at the end of the day. At Lake Emmaline, one other fellow and I decided to climb still further towards a pinnacle of rock I later learned is called the Emmaline Spire. You can see this spire from a very long way off as a cone of rock set in front of the main wall on the far right side. We navigated a steep boulderfield and made it to the base of the almost vertical rock. Clearly, there was no way to continue upwards without climbing equipment, so we turned around and headed back. I can't recall that fellow's name. I don't think I ever saw or talked to him again. When we all returned to our cabins at Pingree Park, we had until 6:00 to rest before the rest of the retreat participants arrived and we had our first session. I collapsed on my bunk bed at 4:00 and slept until the other guys in the cabin woke me at 6:00. Nice day, that. Later that night, as if I wasn't tired enough, some people organized a night hike through the woods nearby. We started out as a large group, but once again we all broke into small groups of 2 or 3 and went in various directions. I ended up hiking with one girl, although nothing romantic was implied, and we hiked up the road towards Cirque Meadows in the bright moonlight, enjoying the eerie atmosphere created by the black skeleton trees. It was very beautiful. It reminded me of the forest scene in The Nightmare Before Christmas. We had hiked perhaps 20 minutes up the road when a loud crunching noise caught our attention. We froze at the sound of a very large animal lurching slowly through the short aspen, and as our eyes adjusted to the object situated just off the left side of the trail, we could see it was a large black moose. We had been hiking sans-flashlight, but really wanted to see this guy, so the girl I was with flipped on her light and we beheld the largest ungulate I've ever seen. A bull moose with eyes like cue balls and antlers that spread out like a dining room table went on with his ripping of the aspen, paying us not attention. He didn't even look at us. Despite his apparent disinterest, we did not dare continue up the trail while he stood so close to it, and the tangled web of downed timber off the trail convinced us to turn around and head for the cabin, where we joined the majority of the group melting smores around the bonfire under the stars. 

After a 7-year absence, I tried backpacking up to Cirque Meadow in March of 2002 with Frank, but bad weather rolled in and I retreated to lower elevations to camp for the night. It wasn't the cold I worried about so much as the thought of getting stranded in the backcountry behind a wall of snow. It ended up not snowing, but was well below freezing even at 7K feet. I had taken a brand new one-person tent with me, the kind that is ultra-light and has only 2 small half hoops to hold it up and relies mostly on taut stake-outs to keep it upright. The fabric expanded with the moisture from my breath at night and the cold and by morning it was laying on top of me. Some tent.  Later in the spring I took an early morning hike to the Cirque Meadows, starting out before dawn. In the cold April darkness, I hiked quickly to keep warm, yet missed sunrise on the Mummy Range by about 15 minutes. I could see the warm alpenglow on the mountains through the trees, but I could not make it to a clearing for a good photograph until after the real color had left. I took some photographs anyway, and they turned out nice, but not as nice as they could have if I'd been 20 minutes sooner to the Meadow. I spent the remainder of the day exploring the upper areas around the meadow since the trail beyond the meadow was too deeply buried in snow to hike on. 

I took yet a third trip in 2002 during the month of October with Andra, Frank and Makenzie. That day started out cold and cloudy but turned sunny. We were quite lazy, stopping to nap by a waterfall for awhile, and then napping at the meadow in the sun behind a windbreak. We walked to the Cirque Meadow and back, not feeling quite up to a day hike all the way to Lake Emmaline. Something about the day induced grogginess, and the desire only to sit by a warm fire and snooze while a pot of spicy chili simmers over the wood stove. I've read that sunlight inhibits melatonin, the chemical that makes you tired. In the absence of sunlight, melatonin is produced abundantly and you get tired, which may explain why the overcase sky seemed to sap us of all energy and send us off the trail searching for cozy, protected nooks to nap in. The dogs enjoyed that trip immensely. 

The most successful trip to the area took place in July 2003, when Andra, Frank, Makenzie and I backpacked up into the wilderness area for a July weekend. We got a late start on a Friday afternoon after work, so we could not go far by the time we completed the 1.5 hour drive from Fort Collins. Our first camp was just south of the Cirque Meadows, and I finally caught sunrise on the Mummy Range with my camera. I froze my butt off standing in the pre-dawn darkness, and clicked away an entire roll on the event.  Diabolically, the camera shop LOST that roll of film. Unbelievable. The Curse of the Mummy? We shouldered our packs around 9 and hiked up to our second camp, which was a designated spot halfway between Emmaline Lake and Cirque Meadows. We set up camp and then took only a few items with us up to Emmaline Lake. There are actually a couple of lakes right next to eachother, seperated by about 100 vertical and 200 horizontal feet of rock. We lazed around near both lakes, enjoying the warmth of the sun, and the sparkle on the water. A few other hikers milled around, but it was very quiet. I walked with Frank up the slope towards Lake Emmaline Spire, but decided it was taking too long, so I retreated back down through the maze of boulders. Late in the afternoon, we returned to camp and played hide-and-seek with the dogs in the thick forest. The next day was also very sunny, and we hiked out after sleeping late and a leisurely breakfast. 

Lake Emmaline Spire Cirque above Lake Emmaline
Frank waits for a stick to hit the water. Lake Emmaline
Cirque Meadow - July Cirque Lake, Comanche Peak Wilderness

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This Page Created July 26, 1999
Updated January 23, 2006