July 2016 – We spent three nights in Denver and used our rental car to explore cities and trails nearby. Estes Park is about an hour and twenty minutes northeast of Denver and was a great introduction to the state a few hours after we landed. We parked in the main area of public parking for Estes Park and walked about half a mile to the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. Tickets were $12 per person, and the line was very short. The back of the cart was open, so we stood there and enjoyed the open air as we rose to an elevation of 8,708 feet.
We arrived at the mountain and spent about an hour exploring among the rocks and enjoying the views and gift shop. There were several chipmunks hanging around, and people would occasionally feed them.
The gift shop was pretty large and had a variety of souvenirs. The building also had a small cafe at the back and seating outside to enjoy the view.
When we finished exploring, we got in line to head back down. We waited less than five minutes for an available car and were back on the ground very quickly. This was a great introduction to the mountains, and I recommend it to everyone!
Our next stop was the Gem Lake Trail, located about twenty minutes from downtown Estes Park. The trail is 3.5 miles roundtrip and has an elevation gain of 1000 feet. It is rated as moderately strenuous (which I would definitely agree with). The top of the trail has an elevation of 8,860 and a “picturesque” lake (it was pretty rewarding to see after the climb, but I wasn’t that impressed with the beauty of the lake). The parking lot was quiet when we arrived, and there were plenty of spots to choose from. There are toilets located at the trailhead.
The trail has some amazing scenery with beautiful views of the mountains. The trail was wide enough to step off for a few rest and picture stops along the way, and we only saw a handful of other people during our hike. This was a great trail to begin at, but our mistake was not bringing water with us. Even though the trail isn’t very long, it does have a few very steep areas. The temperature was very nice, in the seventies at the start of the trail (cooled off dramatically the further we hiked), so we thought we would be ok without water. However, we were not used to the dry air and high elevation, and we regretted the decision to not bring any. It was very nice being able to hike without being smothered in bug spray, though (doesn’t happen in Florida).
A few people coming down the trail told us repeatedly that we were “almost to the top,” but the closer we got the longer it seemed to take. The ground got steeper closer to the end of the trail, and there were many loose rocks underfoot. We saw a couple of elk along the way, but we didn’t see much wildlife other than that. I had been hoping for a bear sighting but never found one.
Near the top, we passed a rougher version of a port-a-potty (the top was open, so planes passing overhead could see in). We continued up just a little further to a sign announcing the Gem Lake. A couple of more steps and we found it. We had it all to ourselves. It was nice but not really a magnificent sight. We spent just a couple of minutes there before starting our descent. We passed several people who were obviously out of shape and struggling quite a bit. Going down was so much easier and faster, but the rocks are pretty loose so we had to be careful how and where we stepped or we would slide.
We were back down the trail in about half an hour, whereas it took us an hour or more to go up it (we also stopped for pictures along the way, though).
I recommend this trail to anyone who wants something more challenging than a paved road to walk but not extremely tough climbing. I advise any hikers to bring plenty of water and take breaks as needed on the way up.