Cathedral Lake Trail
Rating: Moderate to difficult
Distance: 5.6 miles round-trip
Elevation gain: 1,986 feet
Estimated hiking time: 3 to 4 hours
Dogs: Must be leashed
Trailhead: Head downvalley from Aspen on Highway 82 to the roundabout on the edge of town and go three-quarters of the way around it to exit on Castle Creek Road. Drive 12.2 miles to a turnoff on the right (you’ll pass the ghost town of Ashcroft). Follow the dirt road for 0.75 miles to the trailhead and parking area.
Route: Flower-lovers and leaf peepers alert: in summer, the upper part of this hike is studded with a variety of wildflowers; in early fall, aspen trees form a golden canopy in the lower section. The hike will also test your high-altitude chops, as it begins at 9,880 feet in elevation and ends at 11,886 feet high. Nonetheless, it’s one of Aspen’s most popular trails.
The first half is rocky and rooty as it ascends and switchbacks through thick stands of aspen, which provide welcome shade as you climb (spy the popular Pine Creek Cookhouse below in about the first quarter mile); several side trails lead to overlooks of the roiling creek as it cascades over rocks. Eventually, the path smooths out as it breaks through the forest and follows a more gradual ascent paralleling Pine Creek. Along this stretch, take time to enjoy the views up valley to Malemute Peak and downvalley to Grizzly Peak and even the Sawatch Range on the horizon.
You’re not done earning your visit to the lake, however, as eight short but daunting switchbacks lead up the final climb to this glittering alpine pond. At the top, catch your breath while hiking another 10 minutes or so through meadows, and over a creek crossing, to reach your watery reward. Weather permitting (keep an eye and ear out for thunderstorms, given the above-treeline locale), you’ll want to linger for a bit to eat lunch or let your pooches take a well-earned dip.
Download the Pitkin Outside app for more information and detailed trail maps: aspenrecreation.com