Surprise Lake Trail is a moderately difficult, 6.5 mile out-and-back trail that travels through forest and leads to a beautiful alpine lake. We were there during peak melt, so lake levels were a little higher than normal, but usually the lake is covered in beautiful lily pads. During our visit, you could see them peacefully floating just below the surface – some even had buds that were waiting to bloom. The hike is a steady uphill incline that definitely got our legs burning but we were rewarded with great views at the lake and some little Brook Trout on a fly rod. All Trails lists the distance as 6.5 miles, but my Garmin In Reach+ tracked us at 7.1 miles round trip. We did walk around the lake a little, but did not walk around the entire lake as there was no established trail.
This hike is located off Hwy 9 north of Silverthorne, just outside of Heeney. From I-70, take exit 205 and travel north on Hwy 9. Just after mile marker 118, take a left turn onto Heeney Rd (CR 30) and follow that for 5.3 miles. Take a left at the fork onto Cataract Creek Rd (FDR 1725) and continue for 2.5 miles to the Surprise Lake Trailhead parking, which is just before the parking for Lower Cataract Lake. The trailhead starts on the southwest end of the parking lot where the bulletin board is located.
Hiking Surprise Lake Trail
Near the far end of the parking lot, there will be a sign board that signals the start of the hike and true trail head. You will begin by crossing the bridge across Cataract Creek and will immediately begin the uphill trek. The first 1/4 mile is a steep uphill climb through some small wildflower fields and pine forest. Once you start seeing aspen groves, the trail will level out a bit for the beginning-mid portion of the hike. The aspen groves on the hike were one of my favorite parts – they were super lush and green, with all different sizes and shapes of Aspens. The forest floor was covered with wildflowers and wild strawberry patches.
There are four stream crossings on this hike and they are evenly scattered across the miles. We were there pretty close to peak flow and had no issues crossing; I imagine it will be even easier when the water levels are down. Towards the last 1.5 miles or so of the hike, that’s when the elevation gain really began. The trail continues up at an incline that I would call moderately difficult, leaving us breathless the whole time even though we are adjusted to the altitude. For the last 1/4 mile up to the lake, the grade decreases on this last leg.
After the final stream crossing, cut left and you’ll see the lake open up before you. If you cut left before the last stream crossing, this leads to another view point, which was the better of the two in my opinion. Both areas had flat spots and downed trees where you could sit and enjoy the view with a snack before heading back down. It was also pretty obvious that people had camped there so backpacking is an option on this trail as well.
Because it was near peak flow, the lake level was higher than normal. The only real downside to this is that the lily pads were under the water instead of floating on the surface. They already had flower buds on them though so I imagine water levels will be dropping soon and the flowers will be beautifully suspended on the water surface.
Derek always tries fishing at the alpine lakes we visit, and he successfully reeled in a couple of small but beautifully colored-up Brook Trout. They were difficult to catch not because they were picky about the fly he used, but more because the lake’s shore is densely grown with trees, shrubs, and willows, making it nearly impossible to cast without getting stuck in nearby foliage. You must be an experienced fisherman (or woman) in order to cast successfully enough to even get your fly on the water.
This trail could be a great trail for backpacking and it’s shorter distance could be a nice introduction for beginners. The incline is quite difficult and should be taken into consideration. There are many dispersed camping sites around the lake, most of which are right near where the trail intersects the lake. I’m sure a little exploring could lead to better site options. Please note that there are no campfires allowed in this area, regardless of fire restrictions, so plan on bringing a propane-fueled stove for cooking.
Overall, this trail is moderately difficult and is a challenging uphill climb the whole way up. Bring lots of water, have the proper equipment to filter water in the backcountry and be prepared for mosquitos and some heavy breathing on the way up. Hiking poles probably wouldn’t hurt to have on the way down. That being said, the lake is well worth the effort and the forest is beautiful. If you’re looking at hikes to alpine lake(s), I would probably recommend McCullough Gulch more since you get multiple lakes and a beautiful waterfall as well.
Please note that dogs must be kept on a leash less than 6 foot while in Eagles Nest Wilderness (please pick up after your pet!). Even though horseback riding is allowed, I wouldn’t recommend it right now. There are a couple spots on the trail where downed trees block the path, making it impassable for horses and their riders. Plus, the incline can be pretty steep and tricky in some places so I think being on foot is better.
The temperature was significantly cooler at the lake so bring layers if you plan on hanging out there.
About the Author
Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, hiking, wildflowers, and mushrooms. If she isn’t writing content for Know Nothing Nomads, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.