Summit County Hike Offers Mountain Scenery and Spectacular Waterfall
An hour from Denver, Summit County is a skier’s paradise. In summer, this lake and river-rich high country is an ideal place to look for resident and migratory birds.
From Denver, Colorado, Interstate 70 reaches 9,000 feet at Silverthorne in an easy 70-mile drive. The intersection at State Highway 9 leads to major year-round area attractions, from ski resorts to mountain bike trails. Hiking trails are also abundant, and many of these lead to rewarding birding spots.
Summit County, Colorado
Summit County likely is Colorado’s most popular playground, with four major ski areas: Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin. Skiers from around the world descend on the area in winter, but the county is a beautiful and favored destination during the rest of the year, as well. Lying just west of the Continental Divide, well-named Summit County lies across the mountains and contains the highest inhabited town in the U.S., Montezuma, at 10,268 feet.
The county consists of just over 600 square miles, with nearly 20 percent of the total in water. From two large reservoirs, Dillon and Green Mountain, to hundreds of mountain rivers and creeks, the county offers countless water-oriented opportunities for hikers and birders. One of the more beautiful of these is Lower Cataract Lake.
Lower Cataract Lake Near Silverthorne
Highway 9 runs through Silverthorne at Interstate 70 and parallels the Blue River northwest to popular Green Mountain Reservoir, 22 miles distant. At the reservoir, a narrow gravel road turns left and leads to the Lower Cataract Lake trailhead in less than 3 miles. Canada geese and an occasional California gull can be seen on Green Mountain Reservoir, and the drive to the Cataract Creek turnoff is a good area to find Black-billed magpies, Savannah sparrows and other high meadow birds.
The lake can be seen from the parking area at the road’s end, as can the spectacular high cascading waterfall that gives the lake its name. This picturesque lake is nestled in a mountain pocket, surrounded by summer wildflowers, snowy peaks and slopes of Aspen, fir, and pine trees.
Birding Lower Cataract Lake
The trail around the lake is a 2.5-mile loop, and birders will want to check out the lakeshore down a short path directly in front of the parking lot, which then leads left to the loop trail. There are picnic tables at the nearshore and some large pines for shade. This is a good area to see Violet-green swallows, Pine siskins, Cedar waxwings, and Pine grosbeaks. In mid-summer, birds can be seen feeding new fledglings and often present relatively easy opportunities for photography.
The Loop Trail Around Lower Cataract Lake
The loop trail begins at 8,600 feet, follows the shoreline left around the lake, crosses the inlet creek at the base of the waterfall and ends by traversing the rocky slopes on the lake’s west side. The high point on the trail is 8,800 feet, with only 200 feet of gain along the 2.5-mile length. Birders will want to be careful on the higher rocky slope, but overall the trail is easily walked by anyone accustomed to hiking at 9,000 feet.
From the picnic area, the trail leads left, crosses the outlet stream and parallels a marshy pond area between the trail and the lake. This area is often full of birds, and one should stop here for a prolonged look. Among other species, birders may find Yellow warblers, Green-tailed towhees and Willow flycatchers in this area.
The trail then crosses an open area with profuse wildflowers and beautiful up-slope stands of Aspen, which may hold Western tanagers and Northern flickers. From here, the trail enters a wooded area near the far end of the lake, and birders should once again stop long enough to watch for more elusive birds. This is a good spot for Mountain chickadee, Brown creeper, Hairy woodpecker, Red-breasted nuthatch, Dark-eyed junco, MacGillivray’s warbler and Western wood peewee.
Another grassland area is crossed beyond the outlet creek, with several sparrows present, as well as Broad-tailed and Rufous hummingbirds. On the treed rocky slope past this small meadow, look for Yellow-rumped warblers, more Cedar waxwings, and Western tanagers.
Getting to Lower Cataract Lake
From the I-70 intersection at Silverthorne, follow Highway 9 to the right 16 miles to a fork. Take Heeney Road to the left just over 5 miles to Cataract Creek road on the left. Follow Cataract Creek road 2.6 miles to its end at the White River National Forest pay station and parking lot. Although Cataract Creek road is narrow and unpaved, it is passable with any vehicle.
Birding Summit County and Cataract Lake
The White River National Forest bird list contains 188 species of resident and migratory birds found throughout this mixed conifer, alpine, sage, and riparian area. Of the many beautiful choices open to birders, Lower Cataract Lake is one of the easiest to access as well as being highly productive.