Over the last two summers I’ve written about different camping styles to help readers find their favorite summer hangouts in our nearby mountains. There’s the Best Campgrounds in Poudre Canyon Guide, and How To Go Dispersed Camping in Northern Colorado. Now I’m getting started on a Northern Colorado backpacking guide. I’ve never gone backpacking before this summer, and our backpacking season is fairly short around these parts, so I’ll be working on getting some experience under my belt for this new guide to publish in the 2016 summer camping season, including gear lists and food prep.
But for now, we’ll chat about Cirque Meadow, a great place for new backpackers to start exploring and where I went on my first backpacking trip.
Cirque Meadow is part of the Emmaline Lake Trail in the Pingree Park area (now known as CSU Mountain Campus due to the name change this year). It’s a tricky trailhead to find since it’s not exactly labeled anymore. The trailhead sign is simply a large, blank wooden sign. So, this is where you need to have your Canyon Lakes Motor Vehicle Use Map and find forest service road #147.
After driving up Poudre Canyon and turning onto 63E up Pingree, you’ll turn right toward Tom Bennnett Campground. The trailhead is just around the corner from there and before you reach the Lutheran Sky Ranch Camp.
It’s best to park at the trailhead here and hike the short distance to the official Emmaline Lake Trail gate. The forest service road conditions change from year to year and there’s only room for four cars. It’s perfect for Jeeps and trucks/SUVs with high clearance. Not so good for compact cars that can bottom out. And, it’s only an extra half-mile to hike in; not a big deal.
The hike in to Cirque Meadow isn’t bad at all, which is what makes this a great area for novice backpackers. From the trailhead it’s 3.5 miles to Cirque Meadows, with a gradual incline on an old forest service road. There are some gravel parts that you need to watch for ankles and stability, but you’re not climbing or stepping over anything. It gives you a chance to realize how your pack weight impacts your hiking abilities without being too far off the grid. My pack was 40 pounds and let me tell you – that takes some getting used to. I’m not aiming for ultra lightweight so I can work on increasing my pack weight for hunting this season. I’d suggest going ultra light if you can and you’re not training for heavier weight.
You’ll hike through aspen groves with beautiful views of the Comanche Peak Wilderness and CSU Mountain Campus in the background. The ecosystem drastically changes as you get deeper into the forest and find yourself in the lush green subalpine.
Cirque Meadow is absolutely breathtaking. It is the most gorgeous spot I’ve ever camped – period. There are seven designated campsites around Cirque Meadow, each one numbered and labeled with a tree name. Poudre Wilderness Volunteers has the location points, but they aren’t hard to find. Although, if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss #1. We hiked right by it without realizing and didn’t notice until we hiked by it on our way back home.
Everyone has their opinion on which campsite is best, and each have their pros and cons. We went up on a Sunday afternoon and stayed until Tuesday. We ended up being the only ones there for a full day, and had our choice of all of the sites. We picked #5. It was close to the meadow with spectacular views, had plenty of trees to hang our hammocks, privacy for doing our business, and options for firewood. We wanted to stay in Cirque Meadow instead of higher up in the Travel Zone because a campfire was important to us. There are four additional campsites farther up Emmaline Lake Trail in the Comanche Peak Travel Zone. In travel zones there are fire restrictions and you can only use camp stoves. I’m not down with that yet.
I highly suggest you remember to pack a backpacking saw if you’re staying at a site near the meadow. There are plenty of downed trees and dried kindling for fires, but moderately sized branches have been picked over. On the north side of Fall Creek near campsites #6 and #7 there’s an old (and huge) pile of wood that you can pick over and haul back to your campsite, though.
Each campsite has a metal fire ring and grate welded to it, with reminders to keep your fires small. It’s important to remember this – there’s so much dried kindling on the forest floor that it would be easy to let things get out of control if you end up making a bonfire.
While site #5 was the best in our opinion, it is the closest to the meadow, so we got hit with early morning mist that made a morning fire considerably challenging, dramatically lower temperatures from the moisture, increased mosquitos swarming around us, and being right next to some moose ponds and trails. There was a huge bull moose that hung out right by our campsite on the second day that ate his way through the meadow. It was a little too close for comfort, but we had plenty of trees to stay safe in.
I also liked the idea of camping at Cirque Meadow instead of higher up in the travel zone because Fall Creek was an excellent and easy water source. Backpacking makes you realize how important those water sources are.
Once camp was set up, we hung out there for the rest of the night intending to hike to Emmaline Lake the next morning.
We tried out hammocks instead of tents, and it sucked tremendously. I’ll write a whole post about hammock camping later. But, needless to say, we had a terrible night’s sleep and I was flat out exhausted the next morning. It made our hike up that much more challenging.
While the hike to the meadow is easy, the hike up to Emmaline Lake becomes more strenuous due to elevation gains. My body was giving me a thorough middle finger between exhaustion and asthma, and I felt like I was hiking inch by inch, mile by mile. Honest to god, it was the most difficult hike I’ve done all year because of that.
We started a little late, and I was slower than usual, which impacted our timing to treeline. It was our goal to be up there and ready to come down below treeline by noon to avoid the ever prevalent high country lightning storms. We started the hike with clear blue skies, and after the slow slog up the trail, the clouds moved in. We had just made it above treeline and right around the corner from upper cirque lake as the clouds grew darker. It was almost noon and we weren’t there yet.
With a heavy heart, and choking back tears, I made the call to turn around. We weren’t going to make it to the lake in time, and have enough time to rest and enjoy the scenery before getting back down below treeline before the rain hit. It was the smartest call, but one of the hardest ones I’ve made in a while. We made it back down just in time, and then when we were at camp we watched the storm roll over the peaks dropping sheets of rain. We were glad to be off and by the fire.
Even though the length of this trail is relatively short, I do recommend backpacking it instead of hiking. It’s nice to break up the milage, but it’s even nicer to get a head start at the break of dawn. Unless you like waking up in Fort Collins at way-too-early o’clock to make the drive up Poudre and swing into Pingree in hopes of getting off the alpine tundra by noon. I’d rather just wake up at the trailhead and do it.
Emmaline Lake, I’ll be back. I will get a victory on this turn around. Oh yes, I will…
One Way Length: 3.5 miles to Cirque Meadow, 5.7 miles total to Emmaline Lake
Beginning Elevation: 8,931 ft.
Peak Elevation: 10,982 ft.
Rating: Moderate to Strenuous