Lower Cataract Lake is a favorite destination for wildflowers in Summit County. More than 100 species of flowering plant reside in the montane fields, aspen stands, and evergreen forests surrounding Cataract Lake. Mule deer, elk, bear, marmot, coyote, Canada goose and mountain lion are a few of the wildlife species in the vicinity.
The loop around Lower Cataract Lake is 2 miles, with an elevation gain of a bit more than 100 feet, from 8,650 feet to 8,770 feet. Although this is one of the easiest hikes in Summit County, give yourself two hours to complete the hike because the beauty of the area will distract you from returning to the parking area.
Proceed through the wooden swing gate or the wooden maze opening in the fence, a guard against cattle that roam up from the ranches lower in the valley. Bearing left, follow the wide, rocky path as it dips toward the shore of Lower Cataract Lake. A short distance ahead, you can catch your first view of the lake at a small picnic area.
Continuing clockwise around the lake, cross Cataract Creek on a broad wooden bridge. On the hillside above, fireweed, scarlet gilia, peavine, monument plant, one-sided penstemon, Columbine and wild geranium fill the field. Rounding the lake, the trail enters the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Carefully pick a route from among several unmaintained paths through heavy undergrowth on the southern shore. There are small sections of the route that can be boggy and gullied without improved crossings.
Asters, subalpine larkspur, saxifrage, cinquefoil, wild rose, false Forget-Me-Not, groundsel, goldenrod, arrowleaf balsamroot, paintbrush and harebell line the path. Anise hyssop of the mint family stands in higher wetland areas near cow parsnip and cornhusk lily. Even higher up on drier slopes, stonecrop hides among the sagebrush. The invasive weed, oxeye daisy, continues to resurge and spread, competing with native plants. Feel free to pick the daisies for your table centerpiece, and then send the blooms to the landfill.
Enter the dense evergreen forest at the southwest edge of the lake. Cross Cataract Creek on stepping-stones and a wooden bridge to view the tumbling waterfalls as the stream enters Lower Cataract Lake. Then, continue north and cross a wetland filled with cornhusk lily, cow parsnip and asters for an expansive view of the lake from the western shore.
The trail ascends into an aspen grove, climbing onto a bluff on the north shore. From openings in the forest, you can see the Eagles Nest rock formation of Mount Powell (13,534 feet) looming in the distance above Lower Cataract Lake. The trail then descends through an aspen grove and into the lush meadow at the east side of Lower Cataract Lake to complete the loop.
Andy Arrance, a local Eagle Scout candidate, is responsible for building the protective fence and entryway to the Lower Cataract Lake day use area, as well as tent pad improvements at the nearby campground. He designed the swing gate a decade ago to allow wheelchair access to the lake, and I hoped that others would subsequently prepare a plan to level the pathway to the eastern shore of the lake.
One of my regrets was being unable to negotiate the uneven terrain with my invalid mother to show her the lake where I worked, found at the edge of the untouched Eagles Nest Wilderness, before she died. Someday, when my hiking boots are placed to permanent rest on a shelf, I hope someone can drag me on a travois to the edge of Lower Cataract Lake for one last survey of the shore.
How to get there
Lower Cataract Lake is 25 miles north of Silverthorne. 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 Cataract Creek Campground, proceed straight to reach the Cataract Lake day use area and park south of the locked gate at the end of the road.
Map: Trails Illustrated, Green Mountain Reservoir, Ute Pass, 107. Latitude 40°, Summit County Colorado Trails.
Author 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.