6 miles out and back ( Elevation Gain: 2,135 ft. (total)
Max Elevation: 9,945 ft. Min. Elevation: 11,907 ft.
The leaves were already beginning to change the week before as we made our way to Mt. Flora and visited Rocky Mountain National Park. We felt the sense of urgency in the air as the cooler temperatures were settling into the mountains. It was time for our annual trek to Aspen to bask in the abundance of color and enjoy the great outdoors in luxury and style. Instead of staying in downtown Aspen, we chose the Westin in Snowmass Village to be close to all the exciting balloon festival activities that happened to fall on our weekend of travel. While our weekend was filled with great food, beautiful balloons, and a failed summit of Castle Peak this post will detail our trek to Cathedral Lake, a highlight of the weekend.
The trail to Cathedral lake can be found about 12 miles down Castle Creek Rd. from the roundabout in Aspen. There is a post signaling the turn-off on the right side of the road. After turning right, follow the dirt road for about 3/4 of a mile to the actual trail head. The road is rough, but a 2WD passenger car can make it all the way. Since it was a fall Saturday, the trail head was quite crowded with cars and people when we arrived at 2:00 pm. However, due to our later start on another gorgeous bluebird day most people were returning to their cars instead of starting the trek. The trailhead was well marked with clear signage. The signage estimated our trip to be about 2.8 miles to the lake. We mapped GPS along the way and ended up tracking about 3 miles to the lake. Immediately upon stepping foot onto the trail, we were immersed in the orange and yellow foliage of an aspen grove. Seen below are photographs of the start of our hike.
The first 3/4 of a mile led us through forests of aspens and Lodgepole pine. It snaked up along the Pine Creek offering glimpses of the river and waterfalls as it gained elevation on the way into the upper valley. At about this point, we noted a sign indicating we were entering the Maroon Bells Aspen Wilderness. The trail now led us away from the dense forests and into the Pine Creek Gorge. Sweeping views of the valley surrounded us. Color change was variable among aspen groves. Some had already changed and others were still hued a light green offering us a colorful landscape of green, blue, yellow, and orange.
We gained over 800 feet in the first mile of the hike before the trail leveled off a bit through the valley. We eventually came to a large boulder field at mile 2. Passing through was easy enough in trail runners and proved to be no real challenge. After passing through the scree, we were presented with the only real challenge on the hike. A set of switchbacks awaited us. The switchbacks were very short, loose and steep. One gentlemen slipped on his way down as we were heading to the top. We got our heart rates up and quickly made it to the top where the trail splits for Electric Pass. Make sure and head left at the sign unless planning a longer high altitude hike to the pass. (It’s another two miles up).
We followed the trail another quarter mile through willow patches and tip toed across perfectly aligned rock steps to cross a creek. The trail lost a little bit of elevation through the final approach. It sloped down among reeds, and several social trails led different ways to the east bank of the waters. To our right we could see Cathedral Peak (a centennial peak) to our right which is shown below. The east ridge of Cathedral Peak looked jagged and daunting, but we heard that the difficulty level to her summit shouldn’t exceed class 3.
The brilliant deep turquoise of the lake startled us as we emerged from the thick willows. It was
exquisite in nature, a huge bowl of deep alpine water situated below surrounding 13ers. We drank in the views and immersed our feet in the cold waters. We had excellent views of Malemute and Cathedral Peaks. The sky remained a brilliantly clear blue as it had the day before, and we relaxed in the mountain air.
We stayed on the banks of Cathedral Lake for about 30-40 minutes soaking in the sun and views before hunger invaded our thoughts. We also planned to get ready for the evening balloon glow at Snowmass Village. The views through the aspen grove were even more beautiful in the late afternoon sunset as they had been on our journey earlier in the day. The orange and gold leaves glowed as we walked through thick forests. We glanced up to see a beautiful bird skirting across the top of the forest canopy. In no time at all, we were back at the car and thankfully so. We had just run out of our water supply. It’s surprising how much water we really need and want at high altitude in the Colorado sun. Another reminder on the importance of a well considered packing effort even if it’s only a day hike.
We followed the dirt road back out to Castle Creek road and took a quick right for a stop at the Ashcroft Ghost Town before heading back for dinner. Ashcroft was an old silver mining town that came to fruition in 1883. In the initial few months, the down reaped the benefits of the mine bringing in about 14,000 ounces of silver to the ton. The deposits were shallow though and two years later the town barely had anyone left. More detailed information can be found at the Aspen Historical Society’s Webpage for the history buff. There is a nice path that weaves through town buildings, some of which are original. Most of the buildings are simply reproductions of the past through complete restoration. Too many years of harsh Colorado weather removed the original construction efforts. Our favorite stop on the Ashcroft tour was the Hotel. We sat on the porch and relaxed for a moment, just as those tough Colorado folks must have done years ago.
The sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains, and we drove back to Aspen for a delicious dinner at Hickory House Ribs. The day was perfect, and our adventures weren’t even over. We still had the balloon glow on the ski run to look forward to attending. We highly recommend a hike to Cathedral Lake, a stop at Ashcroft, and of course, a fabulous dinner in town when it’s all over.