Summit County hiker: Surprise Lake is one hiking place with Aspens and wildflowers
Explore this intermediate hike near Denver that offers a diverse number of wildflowers
August 18, 2016
Surprise Lake is one of many local hiking places located north of Dora Mountain (12,119 feet) on a tributary to Otter Creek that flows into Green Mountain Reservoir. A day hike to the lake and back to the trailhead is 6 miles and takes only three to four hours. The elevation profile goes from 8,600 feet at the Cataract Creek crossing near the Surprise Lake Trailhead to 10,040 feet at the lake (1,400 vertical feet) for a typical intermediate hike in Summit County and of a Colorado hiking trail.
An alternative loop hike to Tipperary Lake on the Gore Range Trail, crossing the upper portion of Cataract Creek and descending on the Eaglesmere Trail, involves 9 miles and six hours of hiking. Despite the good quality of the trail and a nearly level plateau once Surprise Lake is gained, only high-endurance hikers should attempt the full loop.
Since the hike to Surprise Lake passes into the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, dogs must be on leash. Campfires are not allowed at the lake because of heavy use. Mosquito repellent is useful at this hiking place due to the stagnant wetlands near the trail. Hikers should carry at least one liter of water and a water filter, snacks (fruits and nuts), a headlamp and layers of clothing to respond to changes in the weather.
In the lower meadows near the Surprise Lake Trailhead, hikers can expect to find the blooms of diverse wildflowers — as many as 100 species of wildflowers have been found among the aspen trees near the valley making this one of the best hikes in Colorado for wildflower enthusiasts. Look for cornhusk lily, cow parsnip, lovage, green gentian (or monument plant) and wild geranium. Lupines, blue Columbine, penstemon, groundsel, common flax, yellow arnica, paintbrush and Aspen aster are also common in the area. In late summer, fireweed, false Forget-Me-Not and Northern bedstraw are frequently found among the aspens of this local hiking trail.
The trail winds through fertile meadows and aspen groves, crossing a couple of brooks. After the first mile, the forest transforms into lodgepole pine forest, with a steep climb on a rock-strewn trail of hardened clay. The trail levels off and meets the Gore Range Trail at 2.7 miles and 9,900 feet, about two hours into the hike.
This is a good junction to rest and take a water and snack break on the fallen logs lining the trail. Continuing west on the Gore Range Trail (a right turn at the junction), watch for trails to the shore of Surprise Lake about a tenth-mile farther up the trail at 10,040 feet. The western side of the lake has a large backcountry campsite.
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In order to complete the longer loop of 9 miles at this hiking place, continue west on the Gore Range Trail for about a mile to the junction with the Upper Cataract Lake Trail. Proceed north on the Gore Range Trail for 45 minutes to Tipperary Lake, crossing Cataract Creek 1 mile later. Then, continue on the Gore Range Trail to the junction with Eaglesmere Trail. Descend east on the soft trail through dense fir and spruce, which leads to open aspen meadows and the Eaglesmere Trailhead. From the trailhead, follow the road out to the junction leading west back to the Surprise Lake Trailhead.
How to get there
From the interchange of Interstate 70 and Highway 9 in Silverthorne, drive north for 17 miles to mile marker 118 and turn northwest onto Heeney Road. After passing mile marker 5 (22.5 miles from Silverthorne and 5.6 miles from the junction with Highway 9), turn west onto Cataract Creek Road. Travel up a gravel road for 2.4 miles. When you reach a junction past the Cataract Creek Campground, proceed straight to the Surprise Lake Trailhead parking area, found on the left side of the road. If you reach the gate at Lower Cataract Lake, you have gone too far.
Map: Trails Illustrated, Green Mountain Reservoir, Ute Pass, 107. Latitude 40°, Summit County Colorado Trails.
Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties" and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," available from Amazon Kindle Books.
Originally published in the July 25, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily and is regularly vetted for accuracy.
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