Cathedral Lake is an iconic wildflower hike in Colorado. But, be warned – it’s not easy. Forest Service rates it difficult and I agree, mainly because of a brutal switchback section. The effort is worth it to see wildflowers, waterfalls, stunning views of the Elk Mountain Range and a beautiful alpine lake. Cathedral Lake sits at 11,866 feet above sea level. To do the hike with abundant wildflowers, go mid-July through mid-August. For fall colors, go mid to late September.
Trail Stats: 2.8 miles one way (5.6 round trip), starting elevation is 9,880’, ending elevation is 11,866’, elevation gain is 1,986 feet. Detailed trail information in White River National Forest PDF.
Getting There: From Aspen, drive 1/2 mile west on Highway 82 to the roundabout. From roundabout, turn right on to Castle Creek Road. Drive 12.2 miles. Shortly after you pass Ashcroft Ghost Town, turn right on to a gravel road. Drive 1/2 mile to the trailhead. The past 1/2 miles does get rocky and would be difficult in wet conditions.
My friend Lisa and I hiked to Cathedral Lake at peak wildflower season. I lost count as to how many times we said, “wow,” with the pops of color along the trail up Pine Creek Canyon.
The trailhead is at 9,880 feet above sea level. You immediately start go up through a lush forest filled with aspen and pine trees. The forest floor is covered with vegetation. It almost feels like you stepped into a storybook forest setting. This part of the trail would also be great in fall as the aspen leaves turn to a golden hue. Within a few minutes, you’re treated to wonderful views of the picturesque Castle Creek Valley.
The trail steadily climbs for the first three-quarters of mile as you follow Pine Creek into the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness. About 20-25 minutes into the hike, there’s a small waterfall. It’s a refreshing spot for a quick break if you need it. We found tons of wildflowers to enjoy along this stretch. Next you climb a short, moderately steep and rocky section and are treated to another cascading falls before hitting a few gentle switchbacks up to a meadow.
We caught our breath as we meandered across a meadow covered in wildflowers. Still following the creek, we saw a larger waterfall shortly after we passed an old avalanche debris field.
From there the trail alternates between spruce forests and rockslides or rock scree fields.
You’ll see an ominous series of short and very steep switchbacks well before you start your climb. These are tough and in full sun. No shame in taking breathing breaks in this section!
Once at the top of the switchbacks, you get back into a shady forest before going through willows and a water crossing through Pine Creek. Continue across the alpine meadow to the lake.
It takes about fifteen minutes from the top of the switchbacks to Cathedral Lake.
It took us about two hours up and a little over an hour back down with a 30 minute break at the lake. Afterwards, we spent a little time wandering around Ashcroft, one of my favorite ghost towns in the state.
Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across Colorado. She is considered an expert on travel and outdoor adventure in the state. Check out her blog Four Nights in Aspen for an itinerary including hiking, ghost towns and mining history. For a much shorter hike and one that is family-friendly, check out blog on the Grottos.