Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake, Lower Cataract Lake - Surprise Trailhead, Summit County - Eagle County - Clear Creek County, Colorado
Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake - 10.9 Miles
Lower Cataract Lake - Surprise Trailhead
Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake
|Round-Trip Length:||10.9 Miles (nominal additional distance to Cat Lake)|
|Start-End Elevation:||8,605' - 10,744' (10,890' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+2,139' net elevation gain (+2,582' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
The Surprise Trailhead is located 25 miles northwest of Silverthorne, CO in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. It provides access to a string of subalpine lakes of varying distance and difficulty, prized for their backcountry camping, fishing, and solitude.
Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake are connected by an outlet stream in the shadow of Eagles Nest Peak (13,091'), the eponymous summit of this wilderness area. Visitors will enjoy diverse forests, prolific wildflowers and lengthy shorelines to explore at Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake:
The Surprise Trail rises steadily through aspen-studded hillsides on a S-SE heading to the Eagles Nest Wilderness Boundary (.27 miles : 8,725'). Wildflowers are simply brilliant on this initial stretch, but note that you'll encounter some of the hike's steepest sections on the first two miles. Look for bear, elk, and moose in grassy clearings along the way.
The trail passes through a large aspen grove (.8 miles) to a stream crossing on a makeshift bridge (1.0 mile : 9,135'). Once over it steepens beside a long, slender meadow into a predominantly spruce-fir forest. Though badly affected by beetle kill, deadfall has cleared space for new growth and verdant ground cover.
The steep, steady climb continues over a second creek (2.4 miles : 9,905') and eases to the Gore Range Trail split (2.7 miles : 9,953'). Follow signs to Surprise Lake (2.9 miles : 10,044'). Surprise Lake is partially concealed by thick forest and marshy bands between the trail and north shore. Dora Mountain (12,292') reflects in this small, lily covered lake.
The trail keeps west, bisected by several small streams to the Upper Cataract Trail split (3.45 miles : 10,387'). Veer SW on the Upper Cataract Trail into a markedly healthier forest, and arguably the hike's most pleasant stretch. The trail rises gently and shifts frequently to its highest point (5.0 miles : 10,890'), where it drops to a sprawling talus field at the base of Eagles Nest Peak (5.15 miles : 10,825').
The trail twists around the talus field with great views of Cat Lake down to the Upper Cataract Lake split (5.35 miles : 10,725'). A short unmaintained spur is intuitively followed to the northeast shore of Upper Cataract Lake (5.45 miles : 10,744'). Upper Cataract Lake is notably large and contoured, ringed with pockets of timber, open space, and marsh.
To reach Cat Lake, backtrack to the Upper Cataract Lake split and continue.1 mile west to the access spur on the right. Anticipate this split, as the sign is fairly hidden. The spur drops steeply to the south shore of Cat Lake (5.6 miles : 10,395'), which is thickly wooded but easy to explore.
GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84View these GPS points on a Google Map
- N39 50.215 W106 18.652 — 0.0 miles : Surprise Trailhead
- N39 49.967 W106 18.426 — .5 miles : Steady climb thru aspen and spruce-fir
- N39 49.716 W106 18.207 — 1.0 miles : Cross creek and climb beside meadow
- N39 49.409 W106 18.444 — 1.5 miles : Steep climb on intermittently rough trail
- N39 49.066 W106 18.189 — 2.0 miles : Steady, steep climb continues
- N39 48.766 W106 18.144 — 2.4 miles : Cross creek, grade eases
- N39 48.573 W106 17.993 — 2.7 miles : Gore Range Trail junction
- N39 48.540 W106 18.164 — 2.9 miles : Surprise Lake
- N39 48.497 W106 18.327 — 3.05 miles : Moderate travel in past Surprise Lake
- N39 48.557 W106 18.722 — 3.45 miles : Upper Cataract Trail junction
- N39 48.339 W106 19.128 — 4.0 miles : Mild grades in healthy, tranquil forest
- N39 48.168 W106 19.501 — 4.5 miles : Shifting course on SW heading
- N39 47.821 W106 19.920 — 5.15 miles : Edge of expansive talus field
- N39 47.775 W106 19.988 — 5.35 miles : Upper Cataract Lake Trail split
- N39 47.703 W106 20.040 — 5.45 miles : Upper Cataract Lake
- N39 47.773 W106 20.040 — 5.45 miles from trailhead : Split for Cat Lake
- Mirror Lake is located 1.67 miles past the Upper Cataract Lake Trail split. Despite the moderate distance and net elevation loss, this additional leg is more rugged, obstructed, and difficult to follow. Crossing its wide, unaided outlet can also prove dangerous during peak runoff. Plan travel time and resources accordingly.
- Upper Cataract Lake sees heavier overnight traffic than Cat Lake. Consider Cat Lake for greater solitude.
- Beetle kill has affected large swaths of these forests. Deadfall across the trail is common, and falling trees can be hazardous. Select backcountry campsites in healthy or clear areas.
- Keep an eye on weather, and remember that you have an exposed, 165' climb back to the trail's crest before re-entering a protective forest.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- Dispersed backcountry camping is permitted in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, including Surprise Lake, Upper Cataract Lake, Cat Lake, Mirror Lake, and Tipperary Lake. No permit is necessary. Group size is limited to 15 individuals.
- Due to heavy use and beetle kill-induced deadfall, campfires are strictly prohibited at Surprise Lake, Upper Cataract Lake, Cat Lake, Mirror Lake, and Tipperary Lake.
- Campfires are otherwise permitted for dispersed camping in the backcountry, with potential seasonal restrictions. Campfires are not permitted above or within .25 miles (440 yards) of treeline, or within 100' of any lake or stream in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
- Camping is permitted only within designated campsites at the Cataract Lake Campground. Dispersed-Backcountry camping is not permitted in the Lower Cataract Lake vicinity.
- Contact the Dillon Ranger District (970.468.5400) for the latest on weather, trail conditions and trail-specific usage guidelines when planning your trip. The office is open M - F from 8am - 4pm.
- Fishing is permitted with a valid Colorado fishing license on all lakes and streams within the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area unless otherwise posted.
Rules and Regulations
- There is a $5 fee for use of trails and recreation areas at the Surprise Trailhead. The fee is good for 5 consecutive days. Exact cash or check only. Follow instructions at the self-service pay station.
- Dogs are permitted on trails leading to Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake, and within the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. Dogs must be leashed at all times, on a leash no longer than 6'.
- Horses are permitted on trails leading to Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake. Hay and straw are prohibited. Pelletized feed and rolled grains only.
- Bikes and motorized vehicles are not permitted on the these trails. There's a $525 minimum fine for bike violations.
The Surprise Trailhead is located 25 miles from Silverthorne, CO within the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area and Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest.
From I-70, exit #205 at Silverthorne and head north on HWY 9 for 17.0 miles to County Road 30. Turn west on County Road 30 (a maintained dirt road) and travel 5.6 miles to Cataract Road and bear left. Continue 2.4 miles on Cataract Road past the Cataract Lake Campground and Eaglesmere Trailhead to the Surprise Trailhead parking area and pay station.
Dillon Ranger District
680 Blue River Parkway
Silverthorne, CO 80498
M - F from 8am - 4pm
White River National Forest
900 Grand Ave.
P.O. Box 948
Glenwood Springs CO 81602