- Mileage: 11 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: unknown because of the traverse across various trails
- Altitude: unknown because of the traverse across various trails
- To get there: Take the Highway 34 bypass to McGregor Ave. Follow McGregor Ave. to the Gem Lake trail head.
We are surrounded by lush, green forest, with sprigs of classic periwinkle Columbines reaching far out of the groundcover. I grew up looking at Columbines in my mother’s garden and in the manicured gardens of my neighborhood parks. But I have never seen them like this before: sprouting out from underneath fallen trees, from the middle of bushes, big, small, grouped, paired, wild. About halfway through our longest day hike yet I am amazed not by the grandiose views we are always getting in RMNP or by a raging waterfall, but by the smallest of gems in the park: the wildflowers. Wildflowers, I remember, are the reason I love July.
Not far up the trail we find three wood lilies, red and speckled and flawless. I never even knew lilies grew in the mountains of Colorado. This is a baffling thought, still. Lillies, to me, are the things of botanical gardens and wedding bouquets, but they seem happy and healthy on this shady mountainside. Today, we also see my very, very favorite wildflower, the Indian Paintbrush, in a variety I have never seen it in before. The petals are a familiar magenta but looking down into the flower, those petals are streaked through the middle with their stem’s green.
There’s something about wildflowers that takes us away from civilization for a short time. To me, the growth of them is a sure sign of things in their natural order. Simply put, where the wildflowers grow is where things are able to be as they please, without being plucked, pruned, or pulled out. If I’m so impressed with these, Alex says, wait until we get up on the tundra (stay tuned!).
The Lumpy Ridge Loop, as we called it, takes us up the Black Canyon Trail, across the back of Lumpy Ridge, and down past Gem Lake. Setting out, we get good views of Long’s Peak and Meeker Mountain to the south for a couple of minutes. After that, our views are limited. Like everywhere in RMNP so far, we are ascending for so long that I get to wondering if there’s any national park more vertical than this one. For the first 4.5 miles, we intermittently check our topographic map, looking for relief.
“It looks like this climb should be about over,” Alex says.
After ten more minutes of moving uphill I look and say something like, “The trail isn’t as perpendicular to the elevation lines here.”
It isn’t until we reach the junction of the Black Canyon Trail and the Lawn Lake Trail, that we start to head east and get some time on flat land. Between there and the junction with the Bridal Veil Falls Trail, we see only two runners on the trail. We are alone on the hike for a little bit, which is a state we like to linger in for at least a few hours a week. When we reach the junction with the Bridal Veil Falls trail, about 6.5 miles into the hike, the wildflower reverie begins and we also start hauling ourselves up steep inclines to Gem Lake.
“Do we have to go up much more,” I ask Alex.
“We can see where Gem Lake is,” he says, pointing through the trees to rock faces high above us. “Those rocks are the rocks on the sides of Gem Lake.”
I can’t believe how much we dropped down after all that climbing at the beginning of the hike, and I can’t believe how steep some of the sections to Gem Lake are, but we make it in less time than anticipated. We come upon the lake from the north side, giving me a different view of it than the last time I hiked to it from the south. It is overcast now and only a few hikers dot the shores of the small lake. Alex and I walk around to sit on the eastern, rocky banks, to rest and celebrate the fact that it’s all downhill from here. Earlier today, as my every pore was sweating in the midday mountain sun, I was daydreaming about swimming in Gem Lake when we got there. Now, raindrops are plopping on the surface, making rings in the water to match those of a little boy throwing pebbles in on the other side. I am crazy about swimming in lakes, but Alex, always the voice of logic, assures me that I’ll be cold on the way to the car if I take a dip now. With this, and his insistence that Gem Lake is so shallow I’d be rubbing my belly on the bottom, he convinces me not to swim.
“We’ll get into some high alpine lakes soon,” he assures me. “That’s when you really get to know the meaning of cold water.”
“Like Crater Lake,” I say, reminding him of the time we swam there, in the 40 degree water.
Despite my restraint on the shores of Gem Lake, I am dripping wet in no time, caught in an afternoon rain in the last half mile of our eleven mile day.
Source for hiking details: Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park, A Falcon Guide by Kent and Donna Dannen and Rocky Mountain National Park map by National Geographic.