Why we love it: The climb is just steep enough that you'll feel it in your calves the next day, but short enough that you can tackle it in the morning and spend the afternoon strolling around nearby Aspen.
When to go: The parking lot fills up quickly, so head out around 8 a.m. You'll nab a parking spot, and the trail will be yours (with the exception of a few locals that have the same idea).
My husband and I spend most weekends on some sort of trail. He takes times during the week to browse guidebooks and websites for a new route. (I offer moral support.) We tend to go for medium-length treks—ideally, about six miles—that boast mega-views. That length gives us enough time to explore a nearby town or a local brewery and still make it home in time to grill something in the backyard.
This summer, though, things have gone a bit differently. I'm pregnant, which means that our outdoor schedule has changed dramatically. Instead of six-mile calf-busters, my husband is searching for two-mile treks with long, flat stretches. A difficult thing to find in the Rockies. Every once in awhile, though, I gear up for a big trek, as long as I know it is worth the effort. The American Lake trail near Aspen, is one such hike. I know I'll spend most of the day on the couch afterward, but the sheer beauty of the climb is well worth it.
The 3.2-mile hike (one way) rises nearly 2,000 feet to an alpine lake. The first part of the trail is the hardest, as it climbs steadily—relentlessly so—through aspen groves and past wildflowers. Just about the time you become sick of switchbacks, the path smooths out for a bit through an area forested with spruce trees. Then it is back to climbing, through a boulder field and up to the lake. I can think of so many cliche ways to describe it (pristine, untouched, soothing), and every one of those words would be accurate. This is Colorado at its best. Tip: Pack a snack or lunch to enjoy lakeside. The breeze is a bit chilly once you've stopped hiking, but perch on a sunny rock and you'll stay warm.
Getting there: Take I-70 west to the Glenwood Springs/Aspen exit to CO-82 East. Just before town, at the roundabout near the Aspen Valley Hospital, veer to the second right onto Castle Creek Road. (If you see the high school, you took the first right. Return to the roundabout and follow signs to the hospital.) Drive about 10 miles. The trailhead's parking lot will be on the right.