I headed up to the park with trepidation. Although tourist season was allegedly over, there were still plenty of out-of-state license plates around the valley. It was also a weekend. However, the park road was closed about 15 miles up, which might temper some people's enthusiasm, at least the lazy ones who didn't want to hike.
I really like the lake I was headed for. For only a small effort (5 miles round trip), it provides a huge payoff. The water is clear. Waterfalls cascade down the cliffs, where occasionally mountain goats can be seen climbing around. In the spring, avalanches sweep the mountainsides while you safely watch from a small beach. In the summer you can swim in the cold water; if conditions are right people bring ice skates here when the lake is frozen.
And yet. This hike is also frustrating, because it is overrun by people. All kinds of people, not just the hiker types. People in flip flops, Uggs, jeans, and high heeled boots. Some take dogs and drones (both not allowed) and music (annoying). Many hike very slowly, and in groups, making it hard to pass. "Influencers" and travel bloggers pose here, cropping other people out of their pictures, and write posts on "how to get here" (if you can't get here, your navigation and google skills are seriously lacking). If this park were the setting of the Hunger Games, this lake would be tribute, sacrificing itself to keep other areas more pristine.
I guess, although it makes me sad, that is necessary. As I circled the parking lot looking for a space, I realized these types of places need to exist. They will satisfy 95% of visitors' desires for a hike, while keeping the true wilderness for those who really value it and want to work harder for it. Maybe a small percentage of the city dwellers who visit this lake will be inspired to hike more and to protect these areas. I started up the trail feeling encouraged.
This trail and I have a long history. Years ago, as a college intern, I used to lead nature walks here. We were only allowed to hike one mile an hour, to accommodate most abilities. Along the way, I would stop and identify plants and animal sign. Once at the lake, the group was on its own, and the children on the hike and I would often run back down, happy to be freed from the slow pace.
I passed a few groups on the trail. Some were struggling on the ice, not equipped with cleats. They seemed nicer than the summer hikers, though, immediately pulling over to let me pass. At the lake, some people huddled against the wind, but it was easy to find a more secluded spot.
As I left the lake, two people I had passed on the trail finally arrived. The woman had seemed to be having a hard time on one of the hills, but she had made it. As she emerged from the woods to see the lake, she looked amazed. "Oh wow," she said. "Oh wow!"
Moments like that make the idea of a sacrificial place worth it. I'm so used to beautiful places that it's easy to forget what it was like when I first came to the mountains. I'm glad this lake was accessible to that woman and others like her.
Besides, winter is here. Soon the road will be closed even farther away, requiring a ski or snowshoe of about 16 miles round trip to get to the lake. Snow will blanket its surface until late spring. This area can rest until about June, when the hordes will again start to arrive. The lake has earned its sleep.