As a perpetual vacation planner, it’s probably not terribly surprising that I started planning Colorado adventures months before our arrival in Denver. Nothing too in depth, because reality forced me to balance adventure planning with job applications and apartment hunting and the like. Nevertheless, I decided early on that we were going to spend as much time in Rocky Mountain National Park as possible. The America the Beautiful Pass that Pat gave me for my birthday only served to further solidify this decision.
We moved into our apartment on a Saturday, and my mom and I (she was nice enough to come down and help out while Pat began orientation for his new job) spent the entire week and into the next weekend assembling furniture and buying shelving units and all the other little stuff one needs when one moves into a new place.
But weekend #3 arrived and it was hot (96°F/35°C… maybe a little too hot) and sunny and we were itching to get up into the mountains.
We were on the road from Denver by about 7:20 am – parking in Rocky Mountain is notoriously ridiculous on summer weekends, and in retrospect I laugh at the fact that we didn’t leave our house until after 7 am – and pulled into the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead parking lot at 9:00 am. There were three cars immediately in front of us and by the time we all parked there were maybe 1-2 spots left. Ideally you should aim to be there by 8:00 am; I’m fairly certain our experience was an anomaly, because this is a popular trail and the parking lot isn’t huge. Otherwise you’ll have to park back down on the main road, adding at least 0.3 mile (0.5 km) each way to your hike.
There are multiple destinations one can reach from this trailhead, most of which are moderately long and/or steep hikes. But since we’d been living at altitude for just two weeks and pretty much everything in the park is 8,000 feet (2440 m) or above, we picked the easiest option: Gem Lake.
Located 1.6 miles (2.6 km) and 1000 vertical feet (305 m) up the trail, Gem Lake isn’t exactly an easy destination to reach. Especially for a couple of relatively non-acclimated sea levelers. We were huffing and puffing far more than we should’ve been in the first half mile. But we took it slow, stopping for frequent water and Gatorade breaks (which we could conveniently disguise as photo-taking breaks, thanks to the beautiful scenery), and by about the halfway point we seemed to have gotten our second winds.
My initial impression of Gem Lake: it’s aptly named. Small but shaped somewhat like a pear-cut diamond, crystal clear, and very calm, making for stunning reflections of the surrounding scenery.
Most people were hanging out near the trail so Pat and I immediately scoped out a spot around the east side, at the base of the towering rocks. About halfway to our intended destination, I managed to snap a photo without a single person in it – something that wouldn’t have happened had we arrived even ten minutes later.
After relaxing and watching others climb around on the rocks behind us, Pat decided that he too wanted to do some climbing. Bouldering, really. It wasn’t a difficult climb and, aside from a couple small spots, not overly exposed. Many people do rock climb in this area, but for this particular ascent ropes weren’t necessary.
About halfway to the top, we happened upon an absolutely perfect picnic spot!
We eventually made it all the way to the top of the rocks, and though you can’t really see the lake from up there, you can definitely see for miles in all directions!
Afternoon thunderstorms are always a concern in Rocky Mountain, a fact that you’re reminded of on every brochure and trailhead sign, so hiking early in the day is recommended. Indeed, we could see some distant storm clouds brewing from our vantage point and decided it was probably a good time to head down.
It didn’t actually rain until about 2 hours later, but better safe than sorry when it comes to lightning strikes. I’ve always thought it would be really cool to get struck by lightning and survive it, though in reality I have no desire to actually live out this particular fantasy.
Anyway, after arriving back at our car, we headed up the road for a few minutes to take in the amazing Rocky Mountain views before heading back home.
Hike #1 in Rocky Mountain National Park: check!
This will be an ongoing series as we complete more of the hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, so stay tuned!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: located off Devils Gulch Road in Estes Park, right on the eastern border of Rocky Mountain National Park
- Fees and passes: despite the fact that you don’t cross through an entrance station to reach the trailhead, the $25/car daily or $35/car weekly park entrance fee (or interagency pass) still applies. From May-Oct 2021, if you arrive after 9am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead
- Hiking: 3.2 miles (5.2 km) round-trip, 1000 feet (305 m) elevation gain; moderate
- Other: in addition to the ever-prevalent chance of afternoon thunderstorms, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re at high elevation meaning the sun is hotter, the UV rays are stronger, the air is drier, and oxygen is scarcer than you’re probably used to