Gem Lake is a short but strenuous hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only do you get to visit a pretty lake but you also get sweeping views of Estes Park with Longs Peak in the distance. If you are looking for a short, family-friendly hike, and don’t mind a bit of a stair climb at times, this is a good hike to add to your to-do list.
Gem Lake Hiking Stats
Distance: 3.4 miles out-and-back
Starting Elevation: 7,870 feet (Lumpy Ridge Trailhead)
Ending Elevation: 8,830 feet (Gem Lake)
Total Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
Length of Time: 2 to 3 hours
When to go: The trail is open all year, but it is best from May to October, when the trail is clear of snow. Get updates on the National Park Service website before you go.
Permit: You will need a Park Access permit (the permit that does not include Bear Lake Road) to do this hike.
Gem Lake Elevation Profile
Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
How to Hike Gem Lake
Step-By-Step Trail Guide
Lumpy Ridge Trailhead
The hike to Gem Lake starts at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. This trailhead is located just north of Estes Park. To get here, you will take Devils Gulch Road to Lumpy Ridge Road. You will not pass a park ranger booth to get to the trailhead.
Next to the trailhead are toilets. Two trails start at this trailhead. Go right to hike to Gem Lake. The trail to the left is the Lumpy Ridge Trail.
Hiking to Gem Lake
From the trailhead, it is an uphill walk almost the entire way to Gem Lake. Some sections are rather steep and you need to be prepared to hike up long staircases made from giant rock steps. This is a short hike but it is tiring. It will have you stopping to catch your breath occasionally.
The trail starts climbing immediately. Over the 1.7 miles to get to Gem Lake, you will be hiking in and out of the forest and along giant granite boulders and walls.
Occasionally, the trees will break and you will be treated to wonderful views of Estes Park. There is one wide clearing, about halfway up the trail, where you get amazing views of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
The final third of this hike is the hardest. The trail gets steeper and through most of this section you will be hiking up and over large rock steps. It’s tiring on the way up but it can also be tough on the way down, since the steps are so large. If you have bad knees, consider bringing hiking poles to help you on the way back down the trail.
The trail ends at Gem Lake. The water that fills this lake is from snowmelt from the cliffs and higher land that surround the lake. There is no stream or river leading into or out of this lake.
Walk around the lake for photos. There is a sandy, beach-like area on the western side of the lake. During our visit, kids were climbing and playing on top of the cliff walls that surround the lake.
If you want to go further, you can continue on the trail until you reach Bridalveil Falls and the Twin Owls Loop.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
Even though it is a tough hike, this is a good trail to hike with kids. We saw kids as young as 5 and 6 at Gem Lake, playing on the rocks.
Trail updates. As you plan your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and just before doing this hike, check the National Park Service website for updates on trail and road closures.
What to Bring on the Hike
Hiking shoes or a good pair of walking shoes. As long as there is not snow on the ground, a good pair of walking shoes or running shoes are sufficient. The trail is rocky and uneven but hiking shoes are not necessary for this hike.
Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. For most of the hike you will be walking through a forest but once at Gem Lake you will be exposed to the sun.
Camera. Even a smartphone will do. For great photos of the trail and the mountains, use the panorama feature of your smartphone.
Hiking poles. Due to the steep nature of this trail, hiking shoes are beneficial if you suffer from any knee or leg pain on hikes with steep descents or stairs.
Mosquito repellent. There can be mosquitoes, primarily around the lake. When we did this hike in early July, we did not encounter any mosquitoes, but I have read other trail reports of mosquitoes in the summer months.
If you are new to hiking or are curious about what you should bring on a hike, check out our Hiking Gear Guide. Find out what we carry in our day packs and what we wear on the trails.
If you have any questions about hiking to Gem Lake, let us know in the comment section below. Happy hiking!!
More Information about Rocky Mountain National Park
Learn more about Rocky Mountain National Park by visiting our Rocky Mountain National Park Travel Guide or by reading these articles:
BEST OF ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK: For a list of top experiences, read our article Best Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. We also have a guide to the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and how to spend one day in RMNP.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY: How many days do you need in RMNP? Get the answer to this question and learn how to plan your itinerary in our Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary Planner.
ESTES PARK: In our Guide to Estes Park, learn about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do.
Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide and for more information on things to do in Colorado, visit our Colorado Travel Guide.
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I don’t need to enter the RMNP to access the trailhead?
Is there ample parking at the trailhead?
Thank you for info!
This is still part of the national park so yes, technically you will be inside the park, even though you won’t pass through a park entrance booth to get to this parking lot. As far as timed entry permits, you do need one for this hike. I just looked on the RMNP website and they state that a permit is necessary for the Lumpy Ridge trailhead (on this page, scroll down the FAQ section and read the answer for Does the Timed Entry Permit System Apply to All Areas of the Park?). However, I do not know how this is being enforced but you should have one, just in case. On Google Maps, you can see how big the parking lot is. It is a good size but it can fill up mid-morning. Cheers, Julie
I just did this trail last year. I felt like it was a really good way to acclimate to the park and its hikes while I adjusted to the elevation. The trailhead isn’t too far from Cinnamon’s Bakery and I found the extra boost of sugar helped recovery after the climb.
Sweet!! 😊 I agree, this is a great acclimitization hike for RMNP. Happy travels! Cheers, Julie