There are places deep in the Colorado forestlands to which only dedicated fishermen, eager dayhikers and committed backpackers venture. The air in these spots tends to be thin and crisp, smelling of wet pine and the kind of "earth" that drinkers of fine wines detect in a complex bouquet. No sounds of civilization permeate these dense mountainsides, except the occasional drone of an airplane high above. The woods are so quiet that one has only to contend with a seldom-perceived ringing tone in the ears a sign of a true refuge.
Either the trees grow magically taller in such wild places, or we simply tend to feel smaller amid the wide-open craggy vistas above thick wilderness canopies. Every outdoors nut harbors some secondhand, wrinkled topographical map with a not-so-secret off-trail jaunt that they believe no one else save stoic forest rangers and bears knows about. Like a family dowry, these select places are trustingly passed down with an implied contract to guard them, share them sparingly, and visit them often enough to fine-tune the spirit.
My sacred place is a small lake that lazily rests in the bowl of a high peak at roughly 12,000 feet. Its waters are perennially frigid, yet restorative when one drinks, swims in, or merely sits near and gazes across them. Shaggy, cotton-white mountain goats chew at tough grass around the perimeter of my lake's wind-rippled water and occasionally raise their heads to stare inquisitively at visitors. To achieve my sanctuary requires two hours of steady, laborious ascent directly up a steep mountainside, ankle-hopping giant rock fields and sloshing through marshland along the way. The journey exhausts, humbles and cramps a fair tax levied for the beauty.
Though I will not reveal my lake's exact location (go find your own!), I will detail a nearby area worthy of a daytrip and offering comparable repose.
North of Silverthorne, Green Mountain Reservoir sits below a sharp incline that hosts a score of serene, high-elevation lakes. Upper Cataract Lake resides among these, and its cool water pools into a stream at its northern edge, feeding Cat, Tipperary and Lower Cataract lakes before draining into the reservoir far below. Upper Cataract retains the type of majestic grace and splendor typically plundered by beer commercials and nature calendars. I could close my eyes, spin in circles and snap a random photo with a cheap disposable camera and probably still capture a shot worthy of coffeehouse walls.
A visit to Upper Cataract Lake requires a significant altitude gain dispersed between moderate switchbacks and more challenging direct-ascent trails. Tree roots and stacked rock barriers provide erosion protection and the terrain character for the hike. Aspen groves accompany the early climb, while sporadic patches of wildflowers and mushrooms dot the landscape near the top. Fallen trunks and undergrowth thicken the trail's periphery, and an occasional stream crossing makes for a fun splash or log-balancing act.
When my girlfriend and I last visited Upper Cataract, we camped beside the stream's mouth and star-watched to the sound of running water and smell of wood smoke. In the morning, I cursed myself for forgetting to haul my fly rod, as fish rose and created circular ripples across the lake's placid surface. The dawn's light lit a monolithic rock face above, reflecting deep crimson off the water. As always, I was eloquently reminded that sore muscles and hot feet are well worth the journey's payoff. capsule
Daytrip: Eagles Nest Wilderness, inside the Arapaho National Forest
Directions: Take Interstate 25 north to Route 470 west to Interstate 70 west. Exit in Silverthorne and take Route 9 north to forest access road on left, directly before Green Mountain Reservoir. Take a left on Cataract County Road to Surprise Lake Trailhead. Parking fee: $5 per day.