If you are looking for a long strenuous day of hiking in the woods for about 11.5 miles with 1,800′ of elevation gain then the Eaglesmere – Surprise Lake Loop Trail is for you. If on the other hand you like to take things at a slower pace, I would recommend this as a more leisurely 3 day, 2 night backpacking adventure with a few added side trips to stunning sub-alpine lakes making the Eaglesmere – Surprise Lake Loop adventure closer to a 20 mile jaunt through the woods with 2,200+’ of elevation gain. If this sounds like too much time in the woods you can still use some of this guide to do shorter day hikes in and out of the woods to a lake or two, but you won’t get to see some of the best that Colorado’s Eagle Nest Wilderness has to offer.
Which way do I go?
The Eaglesmere – Surprise Lake Loop Trail is actually three wilderness hiking trails that can be turned into a loop when done correctly. However, if you miss your turn you might be in the woods a lot longer than you anticipated so a good map and a way of gauging distance and/or a GPS system are good items to have along on this adventure. I like to use the maps.me app on my phone, but in my experience this isn’t always 100% accurate so you still need a good sense of direction to make this work for you.
That being said you can start at either end and go clockwise from the Surprise Lake Trailhead or counterclockwise from the Eaglesmere Trailhead. For this guide we will be going clockwise via the Surprise Lake Trailhead.
Where to start:
You will need to make your way to Silverthorne, Colorado about 65 miles west of Denver. From there head north on highway 9 towards Heeney. About 16 miles north of Silverthorne you will turn left onto Heeney Road. From here you will be looking for Forest Road 1725 which is about 5.5 miles after turning onto Heeney Road. Once on 1725 you have about 2.5 miles down what can be a rough dirt road before the Surprise Lake Trailhead parking area will be on your left. If you miss the parking area you will arrive at the Lower Cataract Lake area after an extra mile or so.
If you prefer to park at the Eaglesmere area and go at this trail counterclockwise you can turn right about 2 miles after the turn onto 1725. This road will climb the hillside and terminate at the Eaglesmere Trailhead parking area.
You can find either of the two trailheads on Google Maps if you look near Heeney, Colorado.
Hiking the Eaglesmere – Surprise Lake Loop Trail from Surprise Lake Trailhead:
From the Surprise Lake Trailhead you will head south into the Eagles Nest Wilderness area. For the first mile you will make your way across the Cataract Creek and through a small aspen grove. It is fairly open and quiet beautiful.
After this the trail becomes fairly mundane with a consistent climb through a long-pole pine forest for the remainder of the 3 mile, 1,400′ climb up to Surprise Lake. The steady climb in my opinion is moderately strenuous, but it is also nice to get so much elevation gain behind you early in the hike. At about 2.7 miles from the parking area and just before you reach Surprise Lake you will reach the Gore Range Trail where you will need to turn right and head west.
Surprise Lake itself was full of lily pads during our visit which was far different from the other lakes on this trail. Between the lily pads you might also see a reflection of Dora Mountain. The lake is surrounded by a thick evergreen forest and this makes for a well shaded and beautiful lunch spot. If you want to take this loop really slow you can overnight here in a large camping area. This lake is the terminus for many day hikers so it is unlikely you will have it to yourself.
After taking in the beauty of Surprise Lake continue west on the Gore Range Trail. It is a fairly flat hike to the Upper Cataract Lake Trail junction less than a mile from the lake. From here you can continue on the loop via the Gore Range Trail or take a side trip to the Upper Cataract Lake. I highly recommend the Upper Cataract Lake.
A highly recommended side trip to Upper Cataract Lake: (add about 3 miles for round trip)
Although this side trip does add in some distance and surprising elevation, it has sweeping views of the Upper Cataract Lake and Cat Lake. I wouldn’t hesitate in saying that this is well worth the effort and indeed might have been the highlight of the entire adventure.
From the Gore Range – Upper Cataract junction it is about another mile of continual climbing up to a ridge where you get your first glimpse of the lake below. While this climb does meander through the same pine forest this section has more light passing through its canopy and isn’t as steep as the climb up to Surprise Lake. I really enjoyed this part of the trail.
Once you reach the high point of the ridge it is a quick downhill descent for about a quarter of a mile through a rock slide area. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill you will find yourself at a junction below the rock slide. To the left is the Upper Cataract Lake and to the right is the trail that leads to Cat Lake and Mirror Lake.
Head to the left, but don’t be fooled by the small pond that you will arrive at first although the still water does make for a good spot to get some amazing reflection photos. Continue on the path for a short distance and you will find yourself at the northern edge of Upper Cataract Lake with Eagle Nest Peak rising to the south.
There is a gorgeous cascading creek that comes off the north side of the lake and falls quickly towards Cat Lake. The North and West sides of the lake have large open areas for camping with several well established spots. There are also small sites on the east side of the lake in the dense trees. This is a great place to make base camp and explore the surrounding areas. (Or as Jennifer would say, “This is a great place to make base camp, think that you’re done for the day, and then add 5 more miles of exploring the surrounding area.”)
Side Trips from Upper Cataract Lake
Using Upper Cataract as your home base you can venture to the nearby Cat Lake or the slightly further Mirror Lake.
Cat Lake: (Good to do as a part of day 2. add less than 1 mile for round trip)
Cat Lake is about a half mile and 150′ drop from Upper Cataract Lake. From Upper Cataract Lake make your way back down the trail to the split below the rock slide area. From here you will enter into the woods, taking some switchbacks down to Cat Lake. Shortly after starting down this path the trail will split, stay to the right to arrive at Cat Lake. Cat Lake with its seemingly flat surroundings on three sides doesn’t have the beauty of the other lakes in the area, but still makes for a nice side trip if you have the time.
Mirror Lake: (Good to do as a part of day 1 for sunset. Add another 3.5 miles round trip)
Mirror Lake is a little over a mile and a half hike further into the forest. It is also a bit harder to find then the other lakes in this area, but with a little bit of path finding skill you can make your way to this gorgeous lake at the base of the wilderness’ namesake Eagles Nest Peak.
From Upper Cataract Lake you will head back down the trail that you came in on to where the trail splits at the base of the rock slide area. You will head toward Cat Lake. Shortly after you start down the path it will fork. You will stay to the left and make your way across the cascading creek coming from Upper Cataract Lake. Once across the creek, make your way through a dense forest. The trail through this area is much less maintained and so obstacles are frequent and the trail is narrower; keep your wits about you. The trail will meander through the forest on a much flatter, but undulating terrain.
At just under a mile on the trail from Upper Cataract Lake you will reach the pinnacle of this trail and start to descend through a rocky switchback area with views of the valley below. Once at the bottom of the switchbacks you will once again find yourself meandering through the woods for another half mile or so before arriving at Cataract Creek which is the outlet for Mirror Lake. You will need to make your way across the creek where the trail is once again hard to locate. From here you will make your way along the right side of a large bouldery hill blocking your view of the lake. You will arrive shortly at the northern shore of Mirror Lake.
From here you can easily explore Mirror Lake’s northern shore with stunning views of Eagles Nest Peak rising sharply out of the lake’s southern shore. If you are feeling really adventurous make your way to the north in search of 4 more smaller lakes. We did not attempt the other lakes, although we did explore enough to find the cascading falls on the inlet side of the lake… we also found an old wheelbarrow.
Back on the trail at the Upper Cataract and Gore Range Trail Intersection:
Did you forget this was a loop trail? Back from your side trip to Upper Cataract/ Cat/ Mirror Lake adventure and onto the Gore Range Trail you will continue west through a wetter forest with a relatively flat path. Much of this area of the trail is full of small creeks and bog-like conditions. About a mile from the Upper Cataract intersection the trail will start to descend rather sharply. Within half a mile of starting your descent you will see a small sign on the right directing you towards Tipperary Lake. This is another nice lake to do as a side trip.
Side trip to Tipperary Lake: (add less than a half mile round trip)
The trail to Tipperary Lake is a short descent of less than a quarter of a mile, but drops about 100′ down into the basin area. You will arrive on the Southwestern shore where a good camping area is located. If you prefer a shorter 2nd day this is a good option for camping.
Tipperary Lake holds its best views captive on the Northern side of the lake looking back at Eagles Nest Peak, or at least this is what I have read as we didn’t attempt the slog across the boggy terrain to reach that shore.
Back on the trail at the Tipperary Lake and Gore Range Trails Intersection:
Once back at the Gore Range trail turn right and continue to descend. In a little over half a mile you will reach an area in the valley where you will pass over the Cataract Creek. There was also an area near here that looked like a really nice spot to camp and would be another good option for a short 2nd day.
Shortly after making your way across the creek you will turn to the north and start to climb steeply up the side of the ridge on the western side of the creek. This climb is perhaps the hardest of the entire adventure. The ground is a little loose in areas so be careful and mind your footing.
Shortly after topping the ridge and about 3 miles from the Upper Cataract & Gore Range Trail Intersection you will reach the Gore Range and Eaglesmere Trail intersection. Take a left to remain on the Gore Range trail and take a short side trip to the Eaglesmere Lakes.
Side trip to the Eaglesmere Lakes: (adds about 1.5 miles for round trip)
Eaglesmere is the namesake for the access trail to the loop so it is hard to think of the lake as a side trip to the loop, but still here we are. From the intersection with Eaglesmere trail you will stay on the Gore Range trail for another 0.8 miles as you continue to slightly climb up and over the ridge. At the top of the ridge you will descend slightly into the basin where the Eaglesmere Lakes are located.
The trail will arrive at the northeastern shore of the northern Eaglesmere Lake. The two lakes are separated by a small sliver of land. You can make your way around the northern lake on the eastern side to arrive at the isthmus between the two lakes. From this tiny strip of the land you are greeted with gorgeous views of both lakes. You can take in the sights of the Eagles Nest Peak as it rises far to the south. If you took the trail to Mirror Lake you can see how far you have come. Eaglesmere is another great location to spend a night in a tent far from the city lights.
Back on the trail at the Eaglesmere and Gore Range Trails Intersection:
Once back at the junction you will take a left onto the Eaglesmere Trail. You will now start to descend 1600′ over 2.8 miles down to the Eaglesmere Trailhead and parking area.
While you start the descent surrounded by pine trees you will quickly enter into a large aspen forest with occasional views across the valley floor. Below is the Lower Cataract Lake and across the valley you can see Tipperary Lake perched in its valley.
At about 2 miles past the Eaglesmere – Gore Intersection you will find another intersection. The trail to the right goes down to Lower Cataract Lake. The left will lead you down through a forested area and to the Eaglesmere Trailhead parking area about 3/4 mile away. This is the direction we took. Once we reached the parking area we proceeded down the road following it back to the parking area at the Surprise Lake Trailhead.
I might recommend taking the trail to the right at the last intersection and heading down to the Lower Cataract Lake. I think it would prove to be a bit more scenic although I would imagine it would add a little distance to your trip. Can’t be certain since we didn’t take this route.
Things to know:
You may need to pay a $5 national forest fee to park in the parking areas. I say “maybe” because when we were there you didn’t have to pay for parking in the very small Surprise Lake Trailhead are, but you did if you wanted to park in the larger Eaglesmere Trailhead area.
If you do plan on doing this trail from the Surprise Lake Trailhead then I suggest an early start as it is a very small parking area.
Mosquitos are prevalent in this area because of all the boggy wet conditions so don’t forget your bug spray.
Water being prevalent, a good water purifier and a smaller bottle of water will allow you to get out there for as long as you like.
This is bear country so bear spray and a bear canister or properly hanging your food at night is a must.