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 (10,744') in the Eagles Nest Wilderness

Upper Cataract Lake (10,744') in the Eagles Nest Wilderness

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)
Skill Level: Moderate-Strenuous
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: Yes
Related Trails:

Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake - 10.9 Miles Round-Trip

The Surprise Trailhead is located 25 miles northwest of Silverthorne, CO in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. It provides access to a string of subalpine lakes of varying distance and difficulty, prized for their backcountry camping, fishing and solitude.

Trail Map | Photo Gallery

Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake are connected by an outlet stream below Eagles Nest Peak (13,091'), the eponymous summit of this wilderness area. Visitors will enjoy diverse forests, abundant flowers and large lake basins 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 exceptional on these steep 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 and makeshift bridge (1.0 mile : 9,135'). Once over it steepens beside a long, slender meadow. Though the forest has been 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 timber and marshy bands between the trail and north shore. Dora Mountain (12,292') reflects in this small, lily covered lake.

The trail keeps west across 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'), then drops sharply to a talus field at the base of Eagles Nest Peak (5.15 miles : 10,825').

It twists around the talus with great views of Cat Lake down to the Upper Cataract Lake split (5.35 miles : 10,725'). A short spur leads to the NE shore of Upper Cataract Lake (5.45 miles : 10,744'). Upper Cataract Lake is 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.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • 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

Worth Noting

  • 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 Information

  • 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.

Directions to Trailhead

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 Heeney Road (Road 30). Turn west on Heeney Road and travel 5.6 miles to Cataract Road and turn left.

Cataract Road is an improved dirt road suitable for most 2WD cars in good condition. Continue 2.4 miles on Cataract Road past the Cataract Lake Campground and Eaglesmere Trailhead to the Surprise Trailhead parking area and pay station.

Contact Information

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

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


"This is a great trail! We hiked in on Friday and hiked out Saturday morning. The trail was very busy Saturday but was quite clear on Friday. If you do this hike I recommend a few things: 1: rain gear, I feel like this should go without saying anytime you hike/backpack in CO but just in case it isn't. Bring it - we got a decent downpour for about an hour at upper cataract - it cleared and we had a beautiful cool evening lakeside. 2: Bug repellent - all of the reports of mosquitoes are TRUE. 3:Go or at least hike in on a week day. If you plan on spending a day or two at the lake. It is a fantastic trail with beautiful views throughout - highly recommend! For us it was approximately 4 hiking hours in and 2-2.5 hiking hours out. Obviously your pace will probably be different. There was everything from trail runners to grandparents with grandkids on the trail Saturday morning. Enjoy!"
Kendra  -  Denver  -  Date Posted: July 25, 2016
"Went up in mid-June and stayed for a week. The climb is difficult for the first couple miles up to Surprise Lake, but gets easier from there. Even in mid-July there was still a lot of snow around the lake. Once you reach the apex of the trail and begin your descent into the lake along the tarn, I was no longer able to use the marked trail as the snow was too deep to consider safely traversing the trail (I was worried about stepping off and falling down the side of the mountain). Some people who know the trail may have crossed the snow before you, follow them. Also be prepared for significant runoff on the way up (I counted about seven streams I had to cross, versus the two mentioned in this guide). Also, the stream between Upper Cataract and Kat Lake (the lower lake once you're there) will turn into a raging torrent during runoff season. When I was there, there was enough snowmass to form a snow bridge, but the snow was melting fast so by July it probably is no longer safe to use. The trail spits you out around a lot of decent campsites, but the problem is foot traffic. Expect maybe one or two other groups to be at the lake with you (when I was there, one group would leave and another would show up the next day), so you should keep moving if you want privacy. If you want to get to the other side of the lake (much more secluded) you will need to traverse the snow bridge, or walk all the way around the lake, which is another mile and a half. The mosquitos are going to be drive you absolutely insane so be sure to bring lots of spray and mosquito netting. They're thick as clouds in the morning and evening, but during the day they're completely gone (instead there's big fat flies, but they don't bite). All in all this was well worth the trip. I camped on the other side of the lake and I only saw people when some Boy Scouts came through destroying everything, and when I was walking through the woods around the lake and could see tents. It's absolutely beautiful, the water is clean and tastes amazing, and the weather was nice (high of 80, 40 at night) though expect frequent storms. Also, most importantly, you *do* get 4G cell service at Upper Cat. Kind of impressive since there's not even basic cell coverage anywhere close to Heeney or the reservoir. "
Dave  -  Florida  -  Date Posted: July 11, 2016
"Started at 10:55am. High medows and swaying aspens for the first half hour. Steady 30 to 40 avg degree climb until Surprise Lake. Very green and lots of lily pads. Seems most people only go this far. Very much worth marching on. Another hour and you have arrived. Greeted by a spectacular view. Return at 5pm"
Ryry  -  upper cataract  -  Date Posted: July 28, 2015
"We backpacked to Cat Lake, which was beautiful and had a few nice campsites. Only one other group camped at the lake, on the opposite side. But the mosquitoes were the worst we've experienced in our four summers of backpacking in CO. They were relentless throughout the whole trail and at the lakes, and they were even active in the very early morning when we were packing up. If I could do it again, I'd hold off on this trip for at least a few more weeks. It would also be gorgeous in the fall!"
BoulderHiker  -  Boulder, CO  -  Date Posted: July 13, 2014
"Nice trail, we did it as a 2 day backpack trip. Most of the trail is surrounded by great healthy forests, which is great but I really wanted some better scenic views. I would recommend this trail to anyone, but I know there are trails with better views to be had!"
Alex  -  United States  -  Date Posted: July 13, 2013


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