Gem Lake is a true gem at Rocky Mountain National Park. Because it is accessed from a lesser-known area of the park minutes form Estes Park, Colo., it sees a lot less foot traffic than some of the park’s more popular trails. The Gem Lake trail starts at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, near the Twin Owls, two rock formations that look like large owls overlooking the town of Estes Park.
For summer and part of fall 2022, Rocky Mountain National Park has implemented a required timed-entry day use system, meaning you need advance reservations to get into the park, even at this outside-the-park trailhead.
Here’s a play-by-play view of the trail.
1. Lumpy Ridge Trailhead
This trailhead is actually outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s in Estes Park, Colo., off of Devil’s Gulch Road. While there is no park entrance station at Lumpy Ridge, you should display your timed-entry pass on your windshield, so rangers checking the parking lot can see your day pass.
The trailhead features vault toilets and bear-proof trash bins. Shortly after embarking on the trail, you will come to a T intersection. Turn right to continue. This is really the start of the Gem Lake Trail. In a short distance, you will see a sign saying, “You are entering Rocky Mountain National Park.” Enjoy the walk and stop at the several overlooks of Estes Park.
2. Paul Bunyan’s Boot
At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, after several steep switchbacks, you will come to a landing with a rock formation called, “Paul Bunyan’s Boot.” It’s obvious why the rock was named so, because it looks like a giant’s hiking boot with a hole worn through the sole. If you’re thin and petite, or hiking with children, it’s a favorite spot for a photo of someone crawling through the hole or sticking their head through from the back side.
After the boot, the trail becomes very steep. Gem Lake is 1.7 miles from the trailhead and over that distance you climb 1,000 feet. The stone steps in the trail can be 15-20 inches high. Unless you are very fit, I don’t recommend this hike for families with young children. You will need to lift kids up each step.
3. A Privy with a View
Right before you reach Gem Lake, there is a surprise! A privy is tucked behind a large boulder down a short side trail.
4. Gem Lake
Your next stop is Gem Lake. It’s a small lake flanked with large lumpy rock walls. There’s a small beach, perfect for a nap in the shade, or find a comfortable seat on the rocks and have a picnic lunch.
Gem Lake is at the top of this ridge, so if you continue on the trail you will be headed downhill another 2.2 miles to Balanced Rock. You will come onto a fork in the trail, at which you will turn left.
5. Balanced Rock
After a couple of miles on a shady, forested path, you reach Balanced Rock, the end of this trail. The rock looks like a huge golfball on a golf tee, and it’s a fun place to climb and explore.
The Gem Lake Trail is an out-and-back trail, but it does meet up with another trail between Gem Lake and Balanced Rock if you want to do a much longer loop hike.
Download an official Rocky Mountain National Park map for basic road and attraction locations. Want a detailed topographical map of trails in the park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Rocky Mountain National Park at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, lakes and much more. Or get the Trails Illustrated Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes map with 16 detail maps, trail mileages and difficulty ratings. Both maps are printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.