Great Fall hikes: Cathedral Lake near Aspen

By Deb Stanley, 

Stunning. That’s a good word to use for the views of the turning leaves along Castle Creek Road on the drive to the Cathedral Lake trailhead. Nearly every turn along the 12 mile drive from Aspen to the trailhead has yet another stunning view.

Even the trailhead parking lot is surrounded Aspen trees. Come in mid-to-late September and the trees should be showing off their fall colors – bright yellow with a possible tinge of orange or red. Come too late and the leaves may be brown or even gone in the wind.

The trail starts next to a signboard. The trail immediately takes hikers right into the middle of an Aspen grove. Look left, right, forward or behind and there are colorful Aspens everywhere. Even the ground cover is yellow, orange and red. When the trees open up, enjoy the yellow Aspen groves that cover the nearby hillsides.

The trail winds through colorful groves for quite some time, but there’s another treat along the way — the loud, crashing sound of Pine Creek. In fact, take a few steps off the trail when you hear the loudest sounds or when you see social trails leading to the river and you’ll likely be treated to a beautiful cascade. We saw impressive waterfalls at 0.64 miles and 0.75 miles from the trailhead, shortly before a sign telling hikers they were entering the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness.

1.1 miles from the trailhead, the switchbacks begin. The first set are pretty easy. Around 1.3 miles from the trailhead (depending on how much exploring you’ve done to see waterfalls/cascades), you’ll come to a valley with a gorge. This is a great spot to see waterfalls because of the numerous cascades in the cut.

The bad news? While you’ve climbed 1,000 feet at this point, the trail is about to get a lot steeper. Keep going. Enjoy the aspens and a quarter mile away, you’ll suddenly get a good view of the craggy peaks in the distance. Soon there’s a meadow with a creek in it and then the climbing begins again.

Once you hit the red scree field at around 2.1 miles, you’re hitting the home stretch. Cross the rock to the final set of REALLY STEEP switchbacks. How steep? 210 feet of elevation gain in 0.15 miles. Each switchback is short, but there’s 8 of them and they’re STEEP!

After the switchbacks, it’s just a few steps to a trail split, turn left for Cathedral Lake. And good news, from here, it’s less than a half mile to to the lake and the trail is mainly level with a few ups and downs.

When you get to the lake, the work pays off. The lake is large and sits in a bowl below several peaks. That’s Cathedral Peak to the west-northwest and Conundrum Peak to the south.

This is a lake worth spending some time at so enjoy!! And if you decide you want more, consider hiking to the top of nearby Electric Pass. It’s about 2 miles and 1,500 feet to the top of the pass from the lake.

Details: The hike to the lake and back is 5.6 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but add some extra distance for getting closer to the waterfalls and exploring at the lake.

Directions: From Aspen, take Castle Creek Road 12 miles to a signed turnoff for Cathedral Lake trailhead. It’s another 0.6 miles on a dumpy, dirt road to the trailhead.