The Gem Lake Trail is a good moderate hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), just a short distance from the little town of Estes Park, Colorado.
It’s an uphill walk all the way to Gem Lake Colorado, but the hike is not too long or difficult and you’re rewarded with a nice lake surrounded by granite boulders, plus the occasional panoramic view of Estes Park in the distance.
This guide will explain how to do the Gem Lake hike, how to get permits and parking, where to find the trailhead by Estes Park, and everything else you need to know before you go!
Where To Stay In Estes Park
- Distance: 3.5 miles (5.6 km) round trip
- Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet (305 m)
- Start Elevation: 7,860 feet (2,395 m)
- End Elevation: 8,830 feet (2,690 m)
- Duration: 2 – 3 hours round trip
- Difficulty: Moderate
Gem Lake Trail: What To Expect
The Gem Lake Trail is short but strenuous, with an uphill walk that starts immediately and continues almost all the way to the lake.
This is still a family friendly hike, and it’s great for acclimatizing in Colorado because the elevation and overall difficulty aren’t as tough as some other popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Pine trees and granite boulders scattered along the path give you some nice scenery on the way to the lake, but there’s not much shade from the sun so you’ll probably want a hat or sunscreen.
Along the way to Gem Lake, the trees will occasionally clear and you’ll get some great panoramic views of Estes Park and the ridges of Rocky Mountain National Park in the distance.
One of these viewpoints, about halfway to the lake, is especially nice.
Near the 1.3 mile mark, you’ll see a unique looking rock with a hole in the middle, which has been nicknamed ‘Paul Bunyan’s Boot’ because it looks like a giant hiking boot with a hole worn in the sole.
When you reach this rock formation, you’re already near the Gem Lake. The only thing left is to climb a staircase of giant rock steps. This is the toughest part of the hike, and it’s pretty exhausting.
Right before Gem Lake, there’s a little toilet on a side trail to the left. It’s a plain old vault toilet, but the background scenery is exceptional, so it’s the perfect place to take care of business before you get to the lake.
Gem Lake Colorado
Congratulations, you’ve arrived at Gem Lake Colorado!
To be honest, the lake is kind of small (more like a pond) and maybe not quite as photogenic as some other lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), but I still think it’s a pretty nice one.
If you go early in the morning like we did, you can capture some great reflections on the lake and it looks quite a bit more photogenic in my opinion.
The Gem Lake pictures on this page were taken at about 9 AM in the summer.
Balanced Rock (optional)
Once you reach Gem Lake, there’s an optional path leading to a Balanced Rock that looks a bit like something you’d see in Utah or Arizona.
If you hike to the Balanced Rock, it’s an extra 2 miles (one way) from Gem Lake, but the path is comparatively mild. There’s a bit of descent from Gem Lake to the Balanced Rock, so you do have to gain some elevation on the way back.
On the way to Balanced Rock, the trail is much less crowded than at Gem Lake, and you’ll probably have it mostly to yourself. It’s a shaded path to the rock, but not particularly scenic since you’re surrounded by trees.
The total hiking distance from the Gem Lake trailhead all the way to Balanced Rock (and then back to the trailhead) is about 7 miles roundtrip.
For most months of the year, you need a national park pass AND a timed entry permit to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, which also applies to the Gem Lake trail since it’s part of RMNP.
The national park pass is easy to get and you can buy it online or in person. We normally get the annual pass and visit several U.S. parks in a year, but they also have daily passes. More information and current fees can be found on the RMNP website.
A timed entry permit is also required to do the Gem Lake Trail. This one is a bit annoying, but it’s intended to manage crowds at RMNP. Thankfully Gem Lake is not part of the Bear Lake Road Corridor, so the permits are easier to get.
There are some exceptions to this rule if you arrive early in the morning, or late in the afternoon. You can read more about the timed entry permit and how to get it on the RMNP website.
Gem Lake Trailhead: How To Get There
The Gem Lake trailhead is located right outside the town of Estes Park, Colorado. It’s part of the Rocky Mountain National Park, which has lots of other good hikes.
Here are the GPS coordinates: 40.3975803105196, -105.51325913032832
You can also use the Google map below to navigate you directly to the parking area, which is a 5 minute drive from the town of Estes Park, or 1.5 hours from Denver Colorado.
On maps, it’s called the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, because some other hikes start from this same location.
The road is paved and in good condition all the way from Estes Park to the Gem Lake trailhead, so you don’t need high clearance or anything special to reach it.
When you arrive at the trailhead there are some vault toilets, trash bins, information signs, and a trail map. There’s no park ranger booth or fee collection, although you’re supposed to have a permit and pass for this hike (more on that later).
The trailhead has quite a bit of parking space, but it may fill up on busy days. We came at 8 AM on a weekday and there was still loads of parking. This was in late August, so your experience may vary.
U.S. National Park Regulations
The Gem Lake trail is part of Rocky Mountain National Park, so the usual U.S. national park regulations apply.
As always, please remember to keep the trail clean, be considerate of other hikers, and leave no trace. Thanks and happy travels!
Estes Park Hotels
Best Time To Visit
Gem Lake Colorado is nice at any time of day, but I personally think it’s best to go in the early morning.
By going in the morning, you avoid a bit of the crowds and heat, and it’s also good for photography because you can see reflections on the lake.
The Gem Lake hike is open all year, but the best months to visit are from May to October, when there isn’t snow or ice on the trail. You can check current trail conditions on the RMNP website before you go.
More Colorado Hiking Guides
Thanks for looking! I hope you enjoyed this guide for the Gem Lake Trail in Estes Park, Colorado (Rocky Mountain National Park).
Don’t forget to check out my other Colorado hiking guides before you go!