From Lumpy Ridge Trailhead we hiked to Balanced Rock, passing by the highly trafficked Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park, Colorado. December 6th 2020.
8.3 Miles hike round-trip | 1,870 feet total elevation gain
Hiking to Gem Lake in December
A grueling off trail hike to Fay Lakes yesterday had us aching for a well trafficked trail as a recovery hike; we opted for Gem Lake. We visited Gem Lake last winter but a return trip was in order to improve GoPro footage; today we also tacked on an extra 4 miles round trip to see Balanced Rock. I found it comical that our recovery hike was eight miles round trip with 1,715 feet of elevation gain. We were the only vehicle in the spacious Lumpy Ridge parking lot, again we had the trail to ourselves.
Though the distance to Gem Lake is 1.7 miles, the 900 feet of elevation gain is difficult. There are a series of rock-hewn staircases that which were seemingly build for people with long legs. It was a concentrated effort to get up some of them. For the third day in a row there were no clouds in the sky and again Dave lamented the lack of mind blowing sunrise.
About 0.7 miles in, take a break at one of the many overlooks; Estes Lake is snuggled in the valley while Longs Peak and Mount Meeker command the background. Twin Sisters can also be seen as the Gem Lake Trail grows in elevation.
Another unique formation is the unofficially named ‘Paul Bunyan’s Boot’, a large boot shaped rock propped on its heel with a hole in the sole.
Gem Lake is the only lake in Rocky Mountain National Park that is not formed by glaciers, nor fed by mountain run-off. This small lake is nestled near a large boulder formation with trees scattered on the opposite bank. Driftwood and rocks sat upon the frozen surface (these materials must’ve been moved there by humans, I’m not sure how else a large branch came to rest atop a frozen lake). Dave and I spent half an hour at Gem Lake for photography reasons before entering uncharted trail territory toward Balanced Rock.
Hiking to Balanced Rock from Gem Lake
From Gem Lake, it’s a 1 mile hike to the intersection with Cow Creek Trail, then another 1 mile to Balanced Rock, at which point the trail ends. Adequate signage is easy to follow to this destination. The elevation change on our phones looked negligible, but there were a few steep downhill and uphill sections. I was especially wary of the downhills, as we would have to climb back up on the way back. Though the trail was a mixture of snow and dry loose dirt, extra traction was not needed.
After a final downward slope, we caught a glimpse of Balanced Rock, a large granite boulder poised atop a narrow strip of rock. The full beauty of the rock can be attained by clambering up a jumbled rock wall to the left, but I was content to stay on the ground and crane my neck up while Dave chased the money shot.
The surrounding views in the Lumpy Ridge of rolling hills was a beautiful backdrop to this stunning work of erosion.
We retraced our steps through the woods towards Gem Lake and encountered our first company of the day; we would see more and more hikers as we descended past Gem Lake. This trail is a popular one for a quick day hike and is also great for children. It was an excellent day for hiking, clear and warm, we were not surprised to see a full parking lot when we reached the car. Another great weekend in Estes Park in the books, as always we can’t wait to make a return trip.