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Gem Lake sits high in the jumbled rock formations of Lumpy Ridge, within Rocky Mountain National Park.
The trail begins outside the national park, however, so it requires no entry fee.
That fact, along with its proximity to the town of Estes Park and year-round access, makes Gem Lake one of the area’s most popular hikes.
It’s not too long or strenuous, but just the right workout for fit hikers adjusting to the altitude. The trail leads up a steep-sided canyon that’s crowded with boulders.
Using many log and stone steps, it works its way ever upward through the rocks and scattered trees.
At about 1.5 miles, it steepens at a set of tight switchbacks, then reaches an obvious rock formation called Paul Bunyan’s Boot, which resembles a giant shoe with a hole in it.
This is a popular spot for photos and to take a breather.
The rest of the trail is even steeper and requires high-stepping some tall stone steps. Once at the lake, you can lounge in the shade and dip your feet.
You may notice that this small lake sits in a peculiar depression near the top of a ridgeline, not in a carved-out bowl like most alpine lakes.
If you care to hike farther, you can continue on the trail, which goes over the ridge and down the other side, eventually reaching another notable formation called Balanced Rock.
The trail mapped here turns around at Gem Lake, however. In summer, this hike can be hot, with only intermittent shade from the trees and rocks.
Most of the trees are conifers, but there’s also aspens that turn gold in the fall, making this a popular autumn hike as well.
Because it’s mostly south-facing and lower elevation than most of the park, this trail stays comfortable in winter, too.
It gets snowy but usually melts quickly, so you may not need snowshoes or other special equipment if it hasn’t freshly snowed. Sources: http://www.rockymountainhikingtrails.com/gem-lake.htm https://www.mycoloradoparks.com/things-to-do/hike-gem-lake-balanced-rock-paul-bunyans-boot