Nomad by Trade

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Hiking the Gem Lake Trail

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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.

Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

There will be a lot of stairs along the way.

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.

Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

This was the easy part.

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.

Rock formations along Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Gem Lake in all its glory

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.

View of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Rock Formations along the Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado, USA

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.

Rock formations along the Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Rock formations along Gem lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

This one looks like a little hut on top of the mountain.

Tips:

  • 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.

Stay tuned for more posts about our adventures in the Rocky Mountains!

Looking for a challenging hike in Rocky Mountain National Park? The Gem Lake trail may be just right. Located in Colorado, USALooking for a challenging hike in Rocky Mountain National Park? The Gem Lake trail may be just right. Located in Colorado, USA

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21 Comments

  1. 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 😅

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. ada

    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.

  7. I love hiking and my list of hiking trails is contstantly growing! Sounds like you had a nice adventure. The scenery is beautiful,

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. Wow Rocky Mountains is an amazing place. I wish I can go there too.

  11. simonastanescu843896706

    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!

  12. dmehtaTheELT

    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 😊

  13. 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!

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