Boulder is a true haven for hikers. Not only do we have 145 miles of trails within city limits, but just a short drive away are countless other incredible places to explore. And if you’re a Boulderite looking new adventures, look no further than Rocky Mountain National Park.
Just an hour north of Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park offers alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, and skyscraping summits. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the country’s most popular national parks. But summertime crowds can be challenging when parking lots fill up by 7:00 am and Estes Park traffic slows to a crawl. Fortunately, winter is an entirely different scene.
In wintertime, the tourists disappear and the park becomes a true locals’ spot. Traffic is a breeze. Ample parking is found at the trailheads. The trails are quieter, having been transformed by sparkling snow. Winter is, indeed, a special time at Rocky Mountain.
Many hikers will still head to Bear Lake, the park’s most popular trailhead at any time of the year. But what if I told you there’s an equally beautiful spot that’s 20 minutes closer and just a little less traveled? Bonus: You don’t even have to pay park fees to access it.
Enter Gem Lake. This classic Rocky Mountain hike clocks in at a mere 3.6 miles round trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. But don’t be fooled – this little hike packs a very big punch. Views of the Continental Divide, awe-inspiring geological formations, and a pristine alpine lake await you. In the summer, this area is bustling. In the winter, it’s pretty much yours for the taking. So gas up the car and grab your friends, we’re going on a field trip to Gem Lake.
Please note: Weather and trail conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park may be very different from those in Boulder and they can change rapidly. Please consult the official park website for current conditions and possible closures. Snowshoes may be needed or desired on this trail, but many hikers prefer to simply wear foot traction (such as Kahtoola microspikes) if there hasn’t been a big snow in the past 24 hours.
Gem Lake is accessed from Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. Take US 36 to Estes Park. Go through the light, past the Stanley Hotel, and turn right onto MacGregor Avenue. From MacGregor, turn right onto Devil’s Gulch Road and you’ll see the sign for Lumpy Ridge Trailhead on your left.
The trail to Gem Lake is easy to follow and filled with surprises along the way. It climbs rather steeply in a couple sections, but overall this is a moderate hike.
Begin hiking into the forest of mixed confiers and aspen. As you ascend, views will open up to the high peaks of the Rockies and the town of Estes Park below. The unusual rocks rising up around the trail are part of the aptly named Lumpy Ridge formation. This stunning granite backbone is 1.8 billion years old.
About ¾ of the way up, you’ll encounter one of the hike’s most delightful features – a large pile of boulders known as Paul Bunyan’s Boot. The boot makes for incredible photos and the clearing around the boot is a great spot for a snack.
Just beyond the boot is a privy worth visiting. This isn’t your typical trailside potty – it offers a fantastic view. From here, the trail steepens and begins switchbacking. At about 1.8 miles from the trailhead, you’ll arrive at gorgeous Gem Lake.
In the winter, the water level is low and makes the surrounding ridge even more dramatic. If it isn’t too windy (though it often is), you’ll want to stay a while. Take some photos, explore the area, and maybe eat lunch. Once you’ve had your fill, simply turn around and return the way you came to Lumpy Ridge Trailhead.
Looking for a longer, more strenuous hike? Bridal Veil Falls and the Twin Owls Loop may also be accessed from Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. For these routes and others, consult the Lumpy Ridge trail map.
Happy trails, Boulderites!
Photo credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — all rights reserved