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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