High Country Birding: Flora, fauna abound at Lower Cataract Lake
August 4, 2014
Midsummer in Summit County is nature's time to shine: Wildflowers are in full bloom, fledglings are leaving their nests and northern migratory birds are passing through on their way south. Although there are many places to enjoy this, few are quite as satisfying as Lower Cataract Lake.
In addition to birds and blooms, this gorgeous lake offers picnic tables, a moderately easy 2.5-mile loop trail around the lake and a stunning waterfall. Furthermore, the lake is easily accessible by family sedan, at the end of a short dirt road just 25 miles from Silverthorne. To reach the lake from Silverthorne's intersection with Interstate 70, drive 16 miles north on Highway 9 and turn left onto Heeney Road. Follow Heeney Road for 5 miles, and turn left onto Cataract Creek Road. Follow this unpaved (and at times narrow) road 2.6 miles to the Forest Service pay station and parking lot. A gate at the end of the parking area leads to a pit toilet and a trailhead. The loop trailhead is to the left, or you can follow an optional trail straight ahead to the picnic tables at the lake, where you can also join the loop trail.
The picnic area is shaded by large pines and offers a shallow lake entry for those willing to wade in icy water. The high cascading waterfall on the far side of the lake is easily visible and hard to ignore. Birds love this area, as well, and a few quiet moments at a shaded table may reveal violet-green and tree swallows, pine siskins, evening grosbeak and pine grosbeak.
To walk the loop trail, follow it left from the picnic tables. Elevation at the lake is 8,600 feet, and the 2.5-mile trail is an easy ramble most of the way around the lake, climbing only a couple hundred feet along a rocky slope after you cross the cataract bridge at about the halfway point. Starting from the picnic area, you soon cross the outlet stream, entering a mile-long expanse of wildflowers that persist until a forested area near the inlet. Broad-tailed and Rufous hummingbirds feed on the brilliant scarlet gilia and penstemon, which are soon overpowered by sweeping swaths of Colorado columbine. Western paintbrush, common harebell and Mariposa lily scattered through the columbine add to the multicolored spectacle.
If you are a birder, pause at the series of beaver ponds not far from the outlet bridge, where yellow warblers, song sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, green-tailed towhees, American robins and cedar waxwings are often found.
A flotilla of Canada geese is usually seen at the far end of the lake, and a circling osprey is not uncommon. Coming into the forested area near the halfway point, look for dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, red-naped sapsucker, brown creeper, mountain chickadee and ruby-crowned kinglet, among others. A bridge crosses the crashing inlet near the halfway point; it's a good place to turn back if you want to avoid the exposure and higher elevation of the loop's second part. If you choose to make the complete loop, keep an eye out for northern flicker and western tanagers, which seem to favor this side of the lake.
Aptly named, Summit County ranges from 7,957-foot Green Mountain Reservoir to 14,270-foot Grays Peak. Known as Colorado's Playground, 20 percent of its 600 square miles are water. Of all those water-based options, it would be difficult to find one more beautiful and rewarding than Lower Cataract Lake. This is particularly true for birders, photographers and wildflower enthusiasts.
Bob Bowers is a naturalist and freelance writer specializing in nature and travel. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, lives in the foothills near Tucson and spends much of his summer in Keystone. He writes a birding and travel blog, http://www.irdingthebrookeandbeyond.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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