The fact that the Ranger didn’t think horses could traverse the Gem Lake trail should have been my first clue. In fact, he was not correct. But I understand why he wasn’t sure… However, I am getting ahead of myself.
I remembered doing the Black Canyon Trail when I lived here 7 years ago. I am also certain that I have hiked the Gem Lake Trail. What I am not sure about is if I have ever ridden the Gem Lake trail before. Nevertheless, I have now!
I researched options the night before and transferred a route to my Garmin. The Gem Lake Trailhead is a lesser-used area of the park (but still busy!) Therefore, it is subject to different entrance pass regulations. There is a pull-off area right before the parking lot designated for horse trailers only. This space would accommodate one long stock trailer or two 2-horse bumper pulls, but it isn’t very long. The entrance to the trailhead is on the north side of Devil’s Gulch Road, also known as Highway 43.
There was a ranger stationed at the trailhead. He actually went over to the sign to confirm that horses were allowed on the Gem Lake Trail. The hiking trail starts right by the pit toilet, but the stock trail is east of the main trail. Horses have to pass through a gate to get started.
The trail splits about ½ mile from the trailhead. You can turn right and head to Gem Lake, or turn left and head clockwise on the Black Canyon Trail. While researching our route, I heeded the suggestions made by previous hikers that doing this loop counterclockwise was the best option.
It is a little over a mile from where the trail splits to Gem Lake. It is an uphill mile, reaching the highest elevation of about 8470 feet. There are stone steps and log steps for a large portion of the way. Some of the stone steps are as high as 18 inches, and the trail is significantly uphill at that point. Our horses handled it just fine. However, my biggest fear is getting a hoof wedged between stones. I was far too busy riding to take any photos.
Once you get to Gem Lake, there is an awesome little beach to water and rest horses. They will appreciate the break. The trail after that is more “normal”, with some elevation changes, but nothing like the trek to Gem Lake.
From Gem Lake, it is about 3.5 miles to a trailhead leading to Bridal Veil Falls. We plan to head there for our next ride, going clockwise this time. According to my calculations, that will be a 13 mile, out-and-back trip.
About 40 minutes after passing the split towards Bridal Veil Falls, you’ll start heading south on the Black Canyon Trail. This part of the trail is easy, winding through beautiful woods on easy dirt paths. At the trail junction, we encountered a mom and her son hiking to Bridal Veil Falls. She was quite surprised to learn we came up past Gem Lake. “How was that?”, she inquired. “Technical!” was my response. She bounced back with, “It is technical for people!”
At this point, we were pretty hungry. There just hadn’t been a great place to stop for a while. I am very picky where I tie up the horses, having had Kadeen poke a stick in his eye years ago when tied to a tree. Alan was getting “hangry” so we found a place to sit on a rock and hold the horses.
I brought Lemonade Girl Scout cookies for Alan. He didn’t get any! Kadeen decided he needed a treat. After giving Kadeen the first cookie, he nearly crawled in my lap for more. I have taught him to “kiss” me for a treat… you can readily see his willingness to comply!
We only had 2-3 miles to go after lunch. Our total distance was 11 miles. This is really a beautiful ride and one we will do again. We are of the opinion that the technical part going to Gem Lake is not dramatically different than the more challenging aspects of the Chiricahua’s.
I find riding in the Rocky Mountains to be one of the most sensory-rich experiences of my life. The smell of the forest is amazing. The views are breathtaking. The sounds of hooves on dirt and rock are familiar and comforting. The feel of a great horse beneath you… well, I don’t have to explain that to you folks.
The day after this ride, we had an early-morning entry pass to the Bear Lake Corridor of RMNP. We headed up to Bierstadt Lake, another one of my favorite rides. I’ll tell you about that next week. In a period of fewer than 28 hours, we put 21 miles on the horses. Even our Energizer Bunnies were a bit tired!