Gem Lake


Hike Details:

  • Mileage: 4 miles round trip
  • Elevation  gain: 1,090 feet
  • Altitude: 8,830 feet
  • To get there:  Take Highway 34 west to MacGregor ave. Follow the road to the Gem Lake trail head in the Lumpy Ridge area.

Gem Lake is one we seemed to just stumble upon. Oh we’re here. There it is. It’s small, but it has a certain charm and character that makes it twinkle in my mind. It’s flanked on either side by reaching rock walls, wrinkled and folded. Here, I truly can picture a cooling lava flow because of the way the rocks are stacked. On one of the final switchbacks up to Gem Lake, we are stepping over metal pipelines bulging up from the trail, joking about their origins.

“Those are naturally occurring,” my friend Ian says.

“Yeah, they’re maybe from an old lava flow, and they’re now solidified,” I tell him.

As we round the corner of an almost final switchback: “Those have been there since the ice age.”

We talk about dinosaurs and The Land Before Time and contrasting action-packed, new age Pixar animation. From the top of the switchbacks we can see a privy down below, off the trail. The beavers built it, Ian jokes.

When we come up on Gem Lake, we see that there’s a small gravel beach on the west and flat rocks for lounging on the east. We look at Gem Lake for a few moments, and I tell Ian I have a habit of swimming in lakes I’ve hiked to. There are a few of these instances that pop into my mind, mostly from Yellowstone. On my first two-night backpacking trip I jumped into CrescentLake with my best friend Sarah and came out with a bleeding knee from trying to scramble out of the freezing water and up onto a fallen tree. Lakes, Ian says, freak him out. Although he is scuba certified, he has always been afraid of swimming in lakes. Thinking of some of the leeches I’ve found on my feet and legs and some of the hypothermia stories I heard before swimming in Crater Lake, I can see where he’s coming from. I won’t swim in Gem Lake today, but I’m sure it won’t be long before I find an irresistible mountain lake to jump into.

“Should we climb up there?” he asks, pointing to the northeast rock face.

“Yes,” I say. I’m sure we should and no further explanation is needed.

We find a route easy enough, and begin to clamor.  We reach an open top to the face and can see the scattered hikers on the shores below. We take our packs off and perch on an edge with views. We are playing with the idea of settling right here during our visit to Gem Lake.

“Should we climb up there?” Ian asks, pointing higher up and further east.

“Yeah,” I tell him.

We take a short break at our low perch, then continue upward and venture to the edge of our elevated perch. There’s a pothole carved out in the granite and I designate it as the Cece Nook, a recliner. Ian shifts around, finding a spot with his legs across a granite crevice where two rocks are trying to wedge together. Again, we have views and, like every hike so far, I test my mountain-name knowledge. It’s okay, but I want it to be perfect. We sit up there for a long time. There’s no sense of time, no urgency. In fact, we never even mention descending until we feel the first signs of an afternoon storm.

When we’ve watched the people pass on the switchbacks below, watched one crawl up the rocks and do push-ups, and waved down to the last ones there, we finally start down.

Hiking details from “Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park,” by Kent and Donna Dannen.


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