Hiking to Gem Lake and Balanced Rock
My husband and I have been searching for trails that provide great panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, and this trail certainly did that.
At 7.5 miles with about 1,800 feet elevation gain, it is an intermediate-level hike. However, if you only hike to Gem Lake, it is a more accessible hike at only 3.4 miles round with an elevation gain of only 1,029 feet. We saw plenty of families walking to Gem Lake.
In order to do this hike you must park at Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, which is only a 5-minute drive from downtown Estes Park. The parking lot is relatively big and was not full in the morning at 8:30 am, nor in the afternoon when we got back at 4 pm.
It was a lovely, clear day that promised to be warm, but it was still cool in the shade when we started out in the morning. Even close to the parking lot, we were amazed by the variety of beautiful landscapes we were hiking through.
Gem Lake Trail
We passed by an interesting rock formation to the right –
A close-up of the rock formation –
There were other interesting rocks that we passed by as well. It was easy to see why the area is called “Lumpy Ridge” with all the lumpy, round boulders and cliffs.
Views on Gem Lake Trail
On the way up to Gem Lake, there are two areas in particular that have excellent views of the Rockies. The better overlook spot is located 0.9 miles up the trail. The picture below is from a higher point closer to Gem Lake.
Because we wanted to get to Gem Lake to take pictures, we waited until our return journey in the afternoon to take more photos. It turned out that the conditions were clearer in the morning for photography. We are learning this is usually the case in the Rockies. Especially as we move into summer, rain and thunderstorms are common in Rocky Mountain National Park in the afternoon. However, the pictures we captured later had excellent moody clouds to accent the mountains (see later in this post).
Gem Lake is located 1.7 miles from the trailhead. In early May the snow was already completely melted. This alpine lake is small, but serene and beautiful.
When we arrived around 9:30 am there were already several people hanging out by the lake, and there were many more later. If you want to take pictures of the lake, the earlier you arrive, the better. We had to wait a short while for people to move in order to be able to take a picture.
This is also a nice spot for a picnic. On our way back we saw a few groups hanging out on the sandy banks, which you can see to the left of the picture. One group even brought a hammock! It looked like a peaceful place to relax.
Continuing to Balanced Rock
The next feature on the hike, Balanced Rock, was about another 2 miles from Gem Lake. You have to continue along Gem Lake Trail, which passes along the beach and behind the rocks.
The trail here goes up and down, providing a bit of additional exercise in both directions.
At one point on Gem Lake Trail you can start to see the mountains on the other side.
At mile 2.8, you turn left onto Balanced Rock Trail. There was still some snow on the ground in the woods here. We also saw some Pasqueflowers blooming.
I took a close-up of some mountains we could see in the distance from Balanced Rock Trail to the north.
After about a mile on Balanced Rock Trail, you will reach the trail’s namesake. It is a boulder balancing up high on a narrower rock. The spot is relatively remote, and when we arrived, as well as for a while after, there was no one else there.
Wide-angle view –
Telephoto lens close-up –
The view around Balanced Rock was a bit limited, and there wasn’t a comfortable place to sit, so we decided to check out a side trail located to the right of Balanced Rock that went up on to a hill to an area with several large rocks that you can sit on.
There weren’t any sweeping views of the mountains, but relaxing in the sunshine on the sun-heated rocks after eating our PB&J sandwiches was pure bliss. We put our hats over our eyes and took a short nap here.
The Return Trail – Gem Lake Trail Views in the Afternoon
As you can already see from this first picture that the sky was filling up with puffier clouds and darker areas in the distance, indicative of rain. The following few pictures were taken at the overlook location 0.9 miles from the trailhead.
Panorama of the Rocky Mountains –
Zooming in on Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak –
The Twin Sisters Peaks –
This mountain is located to the left of the view of the panorama above. The symmetry of the peaks was interesting to see.
Twin Gem Trail
On the way back, instead of going all the way down Gem Lake Trail back to the parking lot, we took a bit of a detour onto Twin Gem Trail and the Lumpy Ridge Short Loop in order to explore more of the area. This only added about 1 mile to our trek and provided more solitude than the Gem Lake Trail, which had become quite busy.
It also provided better views than the lower half of Gem Lake Trail. I was pleasantly surprised by the gorgeous views of the Rockies we could see from this trail.
Along the trail –
Getting closer to the viewpoint –
Panoramas from the best viewpoint area –
Close-up of Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak –
The sun came out a bit, dappling the mountains in sunshine –
A close-up of one of the mountains, brightened with sunshine –
At this point, the afternoon rain clouds started to approach us quickly. The wind picked up and it suddenly became chilly.
We had to put on our rain jackets before continuing along the trail. It’s always good to be prepared with weather-appropriate layers when hiking.
Twin Owls and Other Climbing Rocks
The spattering of rain did not last long, and neither did the cold wind. Perhaps 20 minutes tops. Soon the sun was out again and it had become hotter than at any point during the day.
We turned down onto the Lumpy Ridge Loop and took some photos of the rock cliffs from there. The area features several climbing routes, including Twin Owls, although several areas are closed into July to protect the environment for raptor nesting.
Recommended as a Moderate Hike
This hike was an absolute pleasure that reinforced to us what an amazing place we live in, with such a variety of beautiful scenery to enjoy. Along the trail you can see Rocky Mountain views, interesting rock formations, an alpine lake, and refreshing forests. Even if you only make it to Gem Lake, you can see all of the above. It is definitely worth the trek uphill to see.