Gem Lake is a local’s favorite in Estes Park, Colorado. It is part of Rocky Mountain National Park but doesn’t have the crowds of Bear Lake and other popular lakes in the park. I’ve hiked it multiple times, and well, it’s a true “gem” of a lake. It’s a 3.4-mile round trip hike that starts out on wide, well maintained, gentle incline, but as you wind through the trees the path narrows and the steps get bigger. Fall is my favorite time of year to hike to Gem Lake. You don’t have to fight the crowds and seeing snow covered mountains in the distance make it even more special.
For a big portion of the trail, you get to enjoy the boulder-strewn scenery. Plus, the trail is filled with spectacular views of Estes Park and Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, including the iconic Long’s Peak. Along with the views, you’ll likely also get breezy to windy conditions so make sure you wear layers. That crisp fall wind can be cold!
The rounded granite domes of Lumpy Ridge have been untouched by glaciation. Instead, the backbone-like ridge of 1.8 billion-year-old granite has been sculpted by wind and chemical erosion. You see signs of the erosion in the pillars, potholes, and balanced rocks that start to appear about midway along the trail to Gem Lake culminating in the granite bowl known as Gem Lake.
My favorite unique rock formation on the trail is a balanced rock with a big hole. It’s called Paul Bunyan’s Boot. You’ll can’t miss it since the rock has a huge hole in it. Look at it straight on and it looks like just a rock with a hole in it. Glance at it from the side and you see the boot.
One of the biggest surprises to me along the trail is that there is a privy, or bathroom, that is about 10-15 minutes from the top. Just look for the well marked “Toilet” sign.
The bathroom also marks where you start to tackle the toughest part of the hike. The big stone steps are definitely the thigh burner part of the hike. Elevation gain on this trail is 1,000 feet and you definitely notice the gain on the stone stairs. I affectionally call this section the “butt buster.” You’ll feel the burn on this stretch to the top.
Gem Lake is unique in that it doesn’t have an inlet or outlet spring. Instead, it’s a shallow granite bowl capturing snowmelt and rain water at an elevation of 8,800 feet. The sandy area at the lake is what locals call “The Beach.” The trees are fascinating. They are weathered, too, so you’ll find some unusual twisted and braided tree formation.
If you want an extra challenge, continue hiking up above the lake. Plan on doing some scrambling and finding your own trail, but the view from above Gem Lake is fantastic.
Hike the locals’ favorite. You’ll be treated to a real gem!
The Lumpy Ridge Trailhead is north of Estes Park, off of Devil’s Gulch Road. From US 36 in downtown Estes Park, drive north on MacGregor Avenue. Shortly after crossing US Highway 34, MacGregor Avenue turns into Devil’s Gulch Road. Continue on, bypassing the gateway to MacGregor Ranch area. Less than a mile away, you’ll see the trailhead marked with an NPS sign.