Colorado Hiking Trips: A Classic Summit County Trail to Upper Cataract Lake

Upper Cataract Lake is a classic Summit County Colorado hike that affords outdoor enthusiasts camping areas and a more challenging trail

Kim Fenske
Special to the Daily
The view from the shore of Upper Cataract Lake, with Eagles Nest peak looming overhead.
Kim Fenske / Special to the Daily |

Upper Cataract Lake is located south of Mount Powell (13,534 feet), below the Eagles Nest for which Eaglesnest Wilderness Area is named and is the perfect trail for a Colorado hiking trip. It forms a tributary for the stream of Cataract Creek that flows down a series of steep, rocky cliffs to Lower Cataract Lake. The hike requires about six hours of hiking over 10.5 miles of trail, with an elevation gain of 2,000 vertical feet, from 8,600 feet to 10,740 feet.

While the ascent is fairly typical of the steep climbs throughout Summit County, the trail is rough, rocky and eroded across a couple of miles above the softer trail among the aspen meadows at lower elevations. The distance and elevation gain make this a rigorous day hike. Backcountry camping is available at several lakes in the vicinity, including Surprise Lake, Cat Lake, Tipperary Lake and Upper Cataract Lake, as well as Mirror Lake, located a couple of miles west of Upper Cataract Lake.

Due to heavy use in the wilderness area, no campfires are allowed near the lakes. Dogs are required to be on leash under wilderness recreation regulations throughout Summit County. Mosquitoes are fairly persistent in the boggy areas near the trail, and they’re especially annoying during the hot, wet days of early summer.

I froze 2 liter bottles of water to begin the hike to Upper Cataract Lake, the ice melting along the way to keep me refreshed with cold water throughout the challenging ascent. At Cataract Lake, I used a water filter for refills and easily drank a gallon during the hike.

With typical variations in the weather, from hot and sunny to cool rain with hail and lightning, I used layering to remain comfortable during the long day and early evening. I was very thankful to be caught in a brief rainstorm that knocked the mosquitoes out of the air.

As usual, I was prepared with the right hiking essentials including a couple of headlamps in the event that my arrival back at the trailhead was delayed. Actually, I arrived at the end of my afternoon hike with a few minutes of alpenglow remaining making this the perfect Colorado hiking trip for the day.

From the Surprise Lake Trailhead, I crossed Cataract Creek and followed the trail that winds south through beautiful wildflower meadows among aspen and spruce trees. My hiking pace dropped as I photographed scarlet gilia, one-sided penstemon, monument plants, blue Columbine, wild geranium, purple pea vine, creamy paintbrush, mertensia chiming bells, cow parsnip and wild iris.

After the first mile and a couple of stream crossings, the forest transforms into standing lodgepole and fallen beetle-killed trees on a steep climb through a hardened clay and rock-strewn gutter up a ridge. The trail levels off and meets the Gore Range Trail at 2.7 miles and 9,900 feet, about two hours into the hike. Hiking upwards for the next 1,000 feet is much more gradual.

Turn right and follow the Gore Range Trail past Surprise Lake to the next junction at the start of Upper Cataract Trail. Ten years ago, I cut a large dead and down tree that blocked the trail and rolled it down to the junction. This section of tree makes a great resting spot for a snack and water break.

Follow the Upper Cataract Trail west through some boggy sections with drainage gutters on the south side of the trail. Cut sections of logs that formed corrugated bog crossings are now rotted and displaced, so the trail is muddy during the wet season.

Beyond the bogs, the trail breaks into an open-rock slide that allows the first views of Cat Lake below and Elliott Ridge a few miles to the west. Descending the switchbacks, the trail arrives at Upper Cataract Lake, 5.4 miles and four hours from the trailhead.

Upper Cataract Lake lies directly north of the steep cliffs and rockslide chutes of Mount Powell. The south end of the lake is surrounded by a small table of rock that makes for the perfect Colorado hiking trip, offering several sites for dispersed camping, along with gorgeous views of Mount Powell.

How to get there

The Cataract Lake Trail is great for anyone hunting for hiking near Breckenridge. From the interchange of I-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 Cataract Creek Campground, proceed straight to reach the Surprise Lake Trailhead parking area on the left side of the road. If you reach the gate at Lower Cataract Lake, you have gone too far.

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 19, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily News and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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