This is a gem of a hike – Estes Park Trail-Gazette

  • The sun hangs over the granite wall on the northeast side of Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

  • A golden-mantled ground squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) stands up and begs...

    A golden-mantled ground squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) stands up and begs for food at Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. (Dawn Wilson/courtesy photo)

  • Hikers can enjoy unobstructed views of Longs Peak along the...

    Hikers can enjoy stunning views of Longs Peak along the Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Dawn Wilson/Estes Park Trail-Gazette)

  • Estes Valley photographed from the Gem Lake Trail in Rocky...

    Estes Valley photographed from the Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. (Dawn Wilson/Estes Park Trail-Gazette)

While the fall colors dissipate at higher elevations, there’s still time to catch the golden tones of the Estes Valley. And what better way to do it than taking in the beauty of the valley from the Gem Lake Trail.

A moderate 3.4 mile round trip trail that leads to Gem Lake in Lumpy Ridge, the views from this trail are some of the best in the area to see all of the features that make Estes Valley one of the most scenic spots of northern Colorado. Views from this trail include Mount Olympus, Estes Lake, Kruger Rock, Longs Peak, and the Continental Divide.

Gem Lake is one of the few lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park that was not created by glacial activity. Instead, this lake is actually a shallow pond in the middle of granite outcrops that has no inlet or outlet and is filled strictly by snowmelt and trapped precipitation.

Starting at the Lumpy Ridge trailhead off Devils Gulch Road on the north side of Estes Park, take the trail that leads to the right (east). The trail skirts the parking lot for a short distance, then crosses a narrow opening in a wooden fence. The trail begins to head north through a slight climb through forest and a narrow canyon before climbing more steeply.

At 0.5 mile there is a junction in the trail with the trail on the left towards The Twin Owls and MacGregor Ranch. Keep right at this intersection and continue on the Gem Lake Trail.

The trail continues to gain elevation passing along weathered boulders and granite outcrops. Follow the rocks and logs laid out to mark the trail, which stays to the left, taking note of identifying objects along the trail to help you navigate this section on the way back.

In a sandy area with some pine trees, hikers will begin to get their first unobstructed views of the Estes Valley. At 0.9 miles the rocks and trees really open up to views of Longs Peak and other mountains surrounding the Estes Valley.

After taking some photos of the valley, continue up the trail, which now passes some interesting rock formations. At about 1.4 miles, look for the unique boot-shaped rock with a hole.

The next and last section of the trail before reaching Gem Lake becomes very steep with large rocks to climb on the trail and several switchbacks. Although this section takes some effort, with hiking poles being a great accessory to bring on this hike to help climb those high rocks, the effort is well worth it once you reach the sandy shore of Gem Lake. Be sure to look south for views of Longs Peak and the Continental Divide.

The climb to Gem Lake from the trailhead is nearly 1,000 feet in just 1.7 miles. Hikers therefore deserve some time to take a break, have a snack or have lunch by the lake. Be sure to watch out for greedy chipmunks and ground squirrels looking for a document.

The southern exposure and lower elevation—at 8,844 feet—than most lakes in the park means the trail stays clear of snow longer, giving hikers the opportunity to explore this trail year-round . There are plenty of shady areas that can freeze over in the winter, but this time of year offers hikers plenty of stands of golden-hued aspen and a trail laden with wildflowers in the summer.

For the nature photographer, start this trail before sunrise. When you reach a flat area in the weathered rocks about a mile away, find a spot to compose your shot with Estes Valley and Longs Peak in the scene, then wait for the sun to rise to your left as it illuminates the peaks in tones pink and purple. This spot can also be good for sunset if the clouds are right next to Longs Peak to the south, but be aware that the mountains, which face east and north from this vantage point, will be at The shadow.

Effective October 10, timed entry reservations are no longer required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park until May 26, 2023.


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