Continuing with my conditioning for the Kumano Kodo hikes, I met up with Mark in Loveland (not Longmont, not Lakewood) around 7a at the Coffee Tree, where we enjoyed our choice of beverage and a breakfast sandwich. After sufficiently caffeinating ourselves, I grabbed my gear, hopped in Mark’s Porsche, and we set off winding through the canyons of Rt. 34 towards Estes Park.
I had never been on this trail before, but Mark asserts that it’s his favorite. We got on the trail around 8:45a; a little later than usual, but the temperature was ideal and there was plenty of parking. It seems the further away from Denver you are, the later you can get started. After Mark first told me about Gem Lake, I did my research and learned it was only 3.5 miles round-trip. I was somewhat skeptical about driving that far to hike that short of a distance, (I had been averaging around ~5.5 miles on previous hikes). As we started climbing the man-made stairs, I quickly realized that I had underestimated this venture – we would be climbing ~1,000 feet of elevation in 1.75 miles at roughly 8,000 feet above sea level!
There were many scenic places to rest and catch our breath, many of them looking south towards the northern end of Estes Park. It was a perfect day with only a few clouds littering the beautiful blue sky. We were fortunate enough to see some lingering wildflowers (namely fireweed) on our ascent. The trail got steeper and the rocky steps became higher and wider the closer we got to the lake. When we passed the open-air privy, we knew it was nearby.
Gem Lake is more of a medium-sized pond and the lack of a spring or stream suggests that it’s filled by snowmelt draining off the surrounding cliffs early in the season. There were five other groups seated around it’s shores, taking in the scenery and enjoying the cool breeze. Mark and I made our way along the boulders to stake our spot in the shade. Sitting in silence, we watched dragonflies and a solitary bat devour the bugs above us as we chomped down on Cliff Bars while the resident scavengers begged their hardest for a bite. I let my senses absorb all they could; it was reminiscent of my time doing observational requirements for the Environmental Science merit badge at Camp Sequassen almost twenty summers ago.
After some time, a group of noisy teens and their chaperone arrived and set up nearby. They fed a couple chipmunks some of their snacks, which prompted all of the nearby rodents to investigate, further winding up the teens. Mark and I got up to stretch out our creaky joints and continued down past the lake a little to see the all valleys to the north. It was starting to warm up, so we began our descent.
The closer we got to the parking lot, the more people we passed on their way up. We concluded that our arrival was timed perfectly. I heard odd screeching noises and wondered if that were a type of raptor that we had read was nesting nearby, but it turned out to be squealing children. Time to go! We got back in the car and returned to Estes Park to find lunch.
The crowds had arrived in town from the prairie. Not wanting to deal with traffic or the hordes of tourists, we turned down a side road and stopped into Himalayan Curry and Kebab for a delicious chicken curry dish before making our way back through the canyons to Loveland.
I could see why Mark liked this hike. It wasn’t some piddly 3.5-miler; this kicked my ass! Combined with Mark’s excellent company, it was a pretty great day in the mountains.