It's a bit of a pun, but Gem Lake is one of the gems of Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake is very small, but it's a nice treat after a steep, short trail.
The trek starts at the Lumpy Ridge trailhead on the north side of Estes Park (directions below). There are signs at the trailhead directing visitors right for "Gem Lake, 1.7 miles."
The hike passes the bathroom, a fence, the trailhead map board, then begins to climb up. This trail may be short, but you'll gain about 1,000 feet, so it's not easy.
As you hike, enjoy the rock formations in the area.This area is popular with rock climbers and scramblers, though you'll likely see more of them in the summer, than the winter.
As you climb, the trail builders have provided some help. There are lots of stairs along this trail.
About a half mile from the trailhead, you'll come to a sign letting you know you're entering Rocky Mountain National Park. That's the reason the trailhead is free, it's not really "in" the park. A short distance past the sign, you'll come to a trail split, turn right for Gem Lake.
As you climb here, occasionally the trees open up and you'll get a view south. Look for Longs Peak and the other main peaks in the park. If you look below, you may see Lake Estes and the town of Estes Park. These vantage points are great places to take in the views and take a break from the steep trail. While you will see many families with children and seniors on this trail, take your time. The elevation gain can be tough on a lot of people.
About 1.3 miles from the trailhead is a rock formation called Paul Bunyan's boot. It's a granite rock in the shape of a boot with a hole in the bottom. Because it's so large, it's been nicknamed for Paul Bunyan.
From the boot, it's another 0.4 of a mile of switchbacks and stairs to get to the lake. At one point, you may spot a small building. That's a privy -- a backcountry bathroom. There's a sign along the trail that points the way in case you miss it in the snow.
A short distance later, the trail levels out and it's just a few steps to Gem Lake.
Gem Lake is small. It's not even a half acre in size. Because it's only 1-5 feet deep, it tends to stay frozen longer than other lakes in the area. However, be careful walking on the ice. It is ice -- it can crack and break and you can find yourself in the icy water.
The lake is surrounded by rocks. Pick a sunny spot, have a snack, then return the way you came.
Details: The roundtrip hike to Gem Lake is about 3.4 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From U.S. 36, pass Lake Estes. When the road suddenly curves to the right, go through the light at Big Thompson Avenue. You're now on Wonderview Avenue. Pass the Stanley Hotel and turn right on MacGregor Avenue. Take MacGregor about 1.3 miles to a signed turnoff to the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead.
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