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.

How do I get there?

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 left Denver by 7 am on Labor Day weekend and 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 west is, not a part of the male anatomy) Park. The trip is easy now that all the highways have been repaired from 2013 flooding, and is super scenic. You 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.

Where do I go?

Once you arrive at the trailhead, the trail is basically straight up from there. Make sure you follow the signs for the Gem Lake Trail – you parked at Lumpy Ridge, but you don’t want to go to Lumpy Ridge.

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. Drink lots of water and take plenty of breaks to help combat this!

Before you leave, hit the toilets at the trailhead. They are non-flushing toilets, aka “vault toilets,” which is a polite way of saying, “We put a shell of a toilet over this very deep hole in the ground.” By the time you come back there will likely be a line, and you’ll have a very full bladder, so don’t make matters worse by not at least emptying it before you start out.

While I was waiting in line, 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.

What is the trail like?

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
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

What should I pack and bring?

Four miles will take a few hours, and because of the elevation, you’re going to want to bring plenty of water. I never leave the parking lot without snacks, either. See my list of what to pack here. There’s a Safeway in Estes Park if you need to stop for any supplies.

Most of the trail is in the sun, and I was such a newbie at the time of this hike I didn’t think I needed a hat or sunglasses. I don’t recommend following in my footsteps.

In summer, make sure to check the weather since thunderstorms are very common. Otherwise, on a sunny day, you’ll be good to go in a t-shirt and shorts. You can wear hiking boots if you have them, but sneakers would be fine too.

Is it crowded?

In the summer, YES. Always. Estes Park is the main “gateway” to Rocky Mountain National Park, so it’s a very popular summer destination. Plus, it’s just over an hour from Denver and Fort Collins, and even closer to Boulder. That’s a lot of people who live close by!

But, that doesn’t bother me. Just don’t go thinking you’ll have the place to yourself. Be courteous and yield to people coming uphill, and let faster hikers by you.

Anything else I should know?

Estes Park is a great mountain town with lots of fun little places to check out. I personally love Ed’s Cantina for Mexican food, or you can stop in Boulder at Sun Mountain Brewery on your way back from hiking.

The views from Gem Lake are worth the huffing and puffing, just make sure to leave Denver early to beat the heat and (some of) the crowds. If you’re looking for other options or general tips, stop into the Estes Park Visitors Center for local information (and to hopefully see some elk!).

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