Rocky Mountain National Park is full of gorgeous scenery and offers all kinds of hiking trails, from an easy stroll around Sprague Lake to a climb to the summit of Longs Peak. As Midwesterners (aka from low elevation) of average fitness level, we stuck to the easy/moderate rated trails. Mostly. Our last hike of the weekend challenged us a lot more than we expected, and left us so exhausted that we barely made it out for dinner that night.
Hiking the Gem Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park taught us a very important lesson: always be very clear about your level of fitness when inquiring about hiking trails in the mountains. We were pointed toward Gem Lake by a NPS volunteer at one of the visitor centers and eagerly headed off to check out the views he talked about. The problem: when we told the first park volunteer that we were looking for a moderately easy trail to fill up the rest of the afternoon, she called over this other guy and didn’t relay the message that we weren’t looking for something strenuous. Based on his enthusiastic recommendation, we set off to hike to Gem Lake, with stomachs full of elk and bison burgers, fries, and pop.
The Gem Lake trail can be accessed from outside of the National Park. If you’re looking to explore without paying the $20/car (possibly increasing soon) for a day pass, you can hike Gem Lake and Lumpy Ridge for free. It’s also important to note that at one point, the trail crosses through an easement on private property, so be sure to stay on the path.
The trail is an out-and-back path that’s about 1.7 miles each way. AllTrails has it rated as “hard.” I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t in decent shape, though taking it slowly with a lot of breaks would make it a lot easier. It ends at Gem Lake, which isn’t particularly spectacular, though it is interesting because it’s formed completely from snow melt and collected rain, as it has no inlets or outlets.
What makes this trail so difficult? It’s almost completely uphill. Right off the bat, you start heading up into the mountains and you gain over 1000 feet in elevation over the course of your hike through stairs and switchbacks. About a quarter of the way up, my boyfriend wondered aloud if we were going all the way to the top of the mountain, but I was sure that the trail would level off at some point and get easier. It didn’t.
Towards the end, the steps carved into the mountain become quite large. They make it easier to ascend, but their height definitely slowed me down. My 6’4″ boyfriend handled them a bit better than I did, but we were both pretty exhausted by the end. There were definitely a couple of points where turning back was tempting, but by that point, we’d come much too far to give up.
Though the helpful volunteer at the visitor center was careful not to oversell Gem Lake itself, he did rave about the views along the trail. Those did not disappoint. Plus, the various overlooks provided a great excuse to pause to “take pictures” and totally not just to catch my breath.
We took a few breaks along the hike to enjoy the panoramic view of Estes Park laid out in front of the towering mountains in the distance. There are a couple of spots higher up where you can climb out onto some larger rocks and get a clear look at the valley. The beautiful little mountain town is dwarfed by the peaks and it offers a fantastic perspective on the power of nature versus human creations.
There are also some rather interesting rock formations along the way. The volunteer who pointed us to the trail said that the ones nearest the lake are called the Gem Stones by locals. Wandering amid the strangely shaped formations caused by millions of years of erosion is fascinating.
By the time we made it to the end of the trail, clouds had rolled in and started the faintest little sprinkling, so we hustled back to the car afraid that we’d get soaked if we stayed out any longer. Going down was definitely easier, but still put a lot of strain on my knees.
Would I do the hike again? Probably not. I also don’t regret going though (now that my legs aren’t sore anymore). The views of Estes Park and the cool formations are worth the trip up, but don’t expect to be wowed by Gem Lake itself. If you’re in good shape, and acclimated to the altitude, it’s worth a trip up to the top. Learn more about the trail here.
- Come full of energy
- Bring lots of water (and snacks if you want)
- Take as many breaks as you need
- Look behind you as you’re climbing to see the best views
- Check the weather before beginning so you don’t get caught out in rain/snow/lightning
What’s the hardest trail you’ve ever hiked? This one is definitely tops for me.
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Really good job on completing this hike! I’m sure you came off with lots of wonderful memories of the views and the experience!
I haven’t done a lot of hiking in my life but in my memory, the hardest to go up was Mt Batur in Bali many years ago in the darkness and steep steps! My fitness level was pretty bad too lol. Since then, I’ve hiked a few times and the a most vivid one that challenged me was downhill for Mt Ulriken in Norway. My knees took a lot of pressure conquering the rocky way down, super glad I made it! I wasn’t wearing proper shoes too 😅
Hiking in the dark sounds pretty tough. Were you going up to see the sunrise? I’ve heard that’s fantastic.
That was pretty bad advice from the ranger..Gem lake should be a brief stopover while on your way to doing some of the more technical climbs behind the lake in that are. Don’t give up on RMNP…there are a ton of other prettier hikes that are suitable for beginning hikers!
Don’t worry, we did several other hikes that we loved!
Even though I am not a hiking type of person, I am starting to embrace new activities and adventures! The Gem Lake Trail looks amazing, every picture is breath-taking. Thank you for sharing this experience!
It’s a lot of fun. It can be really relaxing if you don’t pick an overly hard trail like we did on this afternoon.
Wow, I am sure that even though it was a challenge and a tough hike…it was worth it. Your photos are amazing! That nature just looks so incredible.
Thank you! The mountains are so incredible. They really make you feel small.
I love going for hikes and am notorious for finding myself hiking a trail more difficult than my fitness level. However, it is always a great reminder of what my body is capable of, even if I’m not in peak physcial condition for the hike, my mind will persevere! lol
It definitely took a lot of willpower to get up this mountain. It’s a pretty good hint that I should think about getting back into running on a regular basis lol.
I love hiking but unfortunately I dont do it quite often, as its hard to find anything good near London where I live. I am not in best shape but I like challenges so I would probably give it a try. The lake looks stunning.
I know how that goes. I’m from Michigan, which is pretty flat, so I’d have to go pretty far to find a trail with great scenery.
I love hiking and my list of hiking trails is contstantly growing! Sounds like you had a nice adventure. The scenery is beautiful,
This hike looks great! Although I always hate them at the time, the view you get at the top of a climb is always so worth the pain. I think the hardest hike I’ve done was probably Mount Roy in New Zealand. It’s 3 hours straight uphill and we decided to start at 2am for sunrise so I felt sick the whole way. Luckily the view made it worth it!
That sounds really intense! I’m not sure I’d be able to get up and moving that early. I hope the sunrise was rewarding.
Congratulations on completing a difficult hike! The views definitely look like it was worth the effort. We’re headed to Rocky Mountain National Park later this summer and I really appreciated all of your advice. Thanks for sharing!
Have fun! It’s so beautiful there. Stay tuned for more posts about the other (easier) trails we hiked.
Wow Rocky Mountains is an amazing place. I wish I can go there too.
What a great hike! My hardest one was climbing a montain in Romania. Took around 5-6 hours, but the lansdcapes were just amzing and worth it!
Wow! The trail looks so stunning and thanks for letting us know that it is pretty strenuous but then I guess you guys nailed it 😊
The reflections in your Gem Lake photo are just so pretty! I’m from a suburb of NYC where we’re just 5 feet over sea level so I have the same issue with high elevation trails (and also have a bum knee which makes anything over an easy/moderate trail just physically impossible) but this looks totally do-able for me! I just added it to my (never-ending) bucket list – stairs on the trail make it a lot easier for me!
I’m guessing you are new to hiking at elevation. I do remember my first few years huffing and puffing when I hiked in the park. But now, 24 years after my first visit, I consider Gem Lake to be one of the easiest hikes in RMNP. I can complete the entire hike without stopping once to rest.
I hiked the Gem Lake Trail a few years ago and found it challenging, too. The most memorable part was hiking back to the car in the pouring rain. It was a beatiful hike though and I may do it again this month when visiting the area. The toughest hike that I have ever done was Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah. My mom (75 yrs) and I (53 yrs) found it to be more of a mental challenge than a physical one, although it wasn’t a walk in the park. 🙂 Another hike that kicked my butt was a short hike in Glacier National Park. The Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail climbs 900 ft in .9 miles (Of course to get there you have to hike the 6.9 miles on the spetacular Highline trail first). We did this hike after a goodnight’s rest at the Granite Park Chalet(highly recommended). At any rate hiking up to the overlook took me about 2 hours!! It was worth it for the spectacular views and of course the hike down was much faster! Thanks for your information about hikes in the Devner area. area!
Thanks for the recommendation for Glacier! I haven’t made it there yet, but I’m hoping to soon.