Great Lakes

We drove 1,762 miles, hiked 15,594 vertical feet (sometimes in the dark!), and spent 14 days on the road seeking out Colorado’s most magnificent alpine lakes. Here are seven stunners that will leave you breathless—and not just because of the altitude.

June 2011

Cathedral Lake

White River National Forest

  • Nearby city: Aspen
  • Ranger district: Aspen-Sopris, 970-925-3445
  • Trail length: 3 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 2,000 feet; lake sits at 11,866 feet
  • Skill level: Strenuous
  • Side trip: Ashcroft Ghost Town, www.heritageaspen.org/ac.html
  • Camping: There are free, no-permit-required backcountry spots near the lake. Pitch your tent on the southeast side of the lake. Campfires are permitted when there are no restrictions in White River National Forest.
  • Lodging: The Annabelle Inn in Aspen offers beautiful rooms for far less than other downtown accommodations. www.annabelleinn.com
  • Getting there: Take I-70 west to Glenwood Springs. From Glenwood, take CO-82 toward Aspen. Nearing Aspen, you’ll reach a roundabout: Take Castle Creek Road out of the roundabout. Drive 12 miles, past Ashcroft Ghost Town (worth a visit!), until you see a sign for the Cathedral Lake Trailhead on the right. Drive three-quarters of a mile on a dirt road to the trailhead. Get there early; parking is limited.

We’re sitting on a pair of flat-topped boulders wedged into a rare shady crook of the otherwise sun-exposed trail. Sweat has soaked through my T-shirt; the bandana my hiking partner wrapped around his forehead is saturated. We’re spent, yet we still have a mile and a half to go—including the right-at-the-end set of eight monster switchbacks.

The trail to Cathedral Lake rises through aspen groves, scrambles over boulders, and skirts Pine Creek. Although we know the trail is three miles long, we are still duped time and again by geography that suggests it could cradle a body of water. But the air is warm, waterfalls gush around every bend, and with each incline we savor the fact that our journey is not yet complete.

And then, just as we reach our exhaustion point, we see the spires of Cathedral Peak jutting high into the azure sky. Our eyes slide down the gray rock to its base, where scree collapses into a sheer lime-green lake. With sweat still dripping down our backs, we flip-flop into the northeast end, where trout swim in the shallow water. Even in August, the water is breathtaking—so cold that after a dunk we once again find ourselves crouching on flat boulders, this time basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun.