Beginner’s Trail Guide: Gem Lake in Estes Park

This four-mile out and back trail was the first hike I ever did after moving to Colorado. The elevation in Estes Park is no joke, so if you’re new to town like I was, plan on taking lots of water and lots of breaks. It was slightly demoralizing that a very small fluffy white dog lapped me on this trail, but the views along the way helped ease that pain.

You hook up with the Gem Lake trail after parking at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. As with every Colorado trail in the summer, you’re going to need to wake up early. We hit it pretty early on Labor Day weekend and still found parking, but it was jammed by the time we got back.

Lumpy Ridge is an hour and a half away from Denver, right outside of Estes Park, pronounced EST-is (rhymes with Park. The trip is easy now that all the highways have been repaired from 2013 flooding, and is super scenic. You also get to go through Lyons, which is a super cute mountain town. It’s your halfway mark to Estes, and a good place to stop for food or gas.

Before you head up to Estes for any reason, make sure you check the Visit Estes Park website for festival schedules. We narrowly avoided getting trapped in a McDonald’s parking lot because the streets were closing down for the Scottish-Irish Festival.

Estes has an awesome visitor’s center with tons of trails, and actually a very nice path to just walk along the creek/river that runs through town. I saw lots of elk in this area too, which is always a fun moment to screech at my husband to pull over so I can take pictures bonus.

Hiking in Estes Park is nice because you have everything you need fairly close to the trailhead. There’s obviously a McDonald’s, which is where we usually stop for second breakfast after waking up at the crack of dawn. There’s a Subway if you want to be Healthy, as well as a Safeway if you want to stock up on snacks. All the amenities are in Estes, so you don’t have to worry that you’re driving anywhere remote.

Once you arrive at the trailhead, the trail is basically straight up from there. I moved here from outside of DC, elevation 36 feet, so I found myself wheezing and sputtering for air about 20 feet into our hike. Estes Park sits at 7,522 feet compared to Denver’s 5,280, so even if you’ve acclimated to Denver you may still be out of breath.

Before you leave, you may want to hit the toilets at the trailhead. They are non-flushing toilets, aka “vault toilets” and by the time you come back there will be a line. While I was waiting in line last time, I tried to get to know the teenage girls in line with me – excitedly commenting that we had the same hiking boots!!! They were not impressed. I started to realize I’m an Old in their eyes.

Anyways, bottom line there’s no running water, so be prepared for that emotionally and make sure to bring hand sanitizer. If you want to know what else I pack in my backpack for hikes, click here.

Once you’ve got going, prepare to zig-zag up for about two miles. Again, don’t be discouraged if you have to stop a ton. There’s no shortage of spectacular views along the way.

view from gem lake trail of the town of estes park, lake estes, and the Rocky Mountains

Once you reach Gem Lake, it’s very pretty, but make sure you go around it to look back from whence you came. We were such Colorado noobs that we didn’t realize the REAL view is if you hike up around the rocks that surround the lake and then look out over the incredibly scenic vista of the Rockies.


couple standing in front of gem lake in estes park colorado
Wowwww I forgot how terrible iPhone cameras used to be. But make sure to climb up on the rocks for the REAL view.

The way back down is equally beautiful (it’s the same trail, you’re just obviously facing the other direction) with lots of views of Rocky Mountain National Park.

vista of the rocky mountains with pine trees in the foreground

Estes Park is convenient to Denver, and the views from Gem Lake are worth the huffing and puffing. Because of those things, make sure to leave Denver early. Stop into the Estes Park Visitors Center for more local information and to hopefully see some Elk.

If you hike Gem Lake, tell me! I’d love to find out what you thought of it.



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