Roadtrip to the Rockies: Lake Katherine

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Sometimes in my blog posts I flip flop between stories and information.  I find when I google something, I am usually looking for an answer to a question, thus I try to write informatively.  Other times, however, the experience was just too good to pass up.  Our hike to Lake Katherine was just that.  We laughed so hard, we were likely a nuisance to anyone seeking solitude.  Soooo sorry to you folks!

How to Get to Lake Katherine

Lake Katherine is located in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, just about 25 miles south of the Wyoming border.  The closest town in Colorado is Walden, though it may be reached from Steamboat in 1.5 hours.

I found this 4.8 mile roundtrip hike in the Colorado Mountain Club guidebook, Colorado Lake Hikes.  The Lake Katherine hike is not listed on All Trails which makes the trail less known!  While the small dirt parking lot was filled at 8:30am on a Saturday morning, it could only hold about 10 cars.  As a result, we only ran into two hikers on the trail, one horseback rider, a few fishermen at the lake and a forest service crew clearing the path.

Getting to the trailhead feels very remote.  Two lane roads pass through the plains of quiet ranches.  I’m not sure if we even saw another car as we followed the Google Maps directions.  Take care to save the map offline, however, or remember the turns as cell reception is non-existent at the trailhead.  So are the toilets, so be prepared to squat in the woods if necessary.

The Hike

The trail to Lake Katherine is called Lone Pine Trail (#1129).  It begins at close to 9,000 feet and gains 1,000 feet over 2.4 miles one way, a reasonable grade.  Hikers begin by passing through a fence and a small meadow before quickly entering the pine forest.

The pine forest has been decimated by the pine beetle, which unfortunately does detract from the beauty of the hike. That said, the end result at Lake Katherine is worth shimming over every fallen tree.  Lucky for us, a forest service crew was completing trail maintenance, and had cleared the path of many logs, though we still had our work cut out for us on this trail.

lake katherine

In addition to collapsed evergreens crossing the path, the trail is rather boggy.  While there are boardwalks in some places, a late June hike results in some muddy patches.  The first few obstacles we maneuvered with clean shoes, but that changed.

Mudslide Val

Slightly farther up the trail which was lined with wildflowers we reached another muddy patch.  After I had turned the corner, I heard Valerie shriek.  She slipped off the log and the mud claimed one shoe.  Her nickname became mudslide.

Just yards further up the trail, we came to a mud hole in front of a small pool of water.  Not fond of walking over any logs, I would have trounced right through the water except I didn’t want my feet wet that early in the hike.  I reconsidered my path and took a step on a patch of grass that looked at least more solid than the surrounding area.

I was wrong.  Both legs sunk shin deep into the fowl smelling mud.  Fortunately, I had a hiking pole to lift myself from the suctioning grip. I moved slowly in order to keep on my shoe!  Needless to say, no one followed my lead including my dog Annie.  After my debacle, the decision was easy to get my feet wet so I waded across the pool.

In the meantime, Sue balanced on small rocks, a piece of wood and two logs to make it to the other side.  Valerie successfully followed suit.  Dom, however, didn’t fare as well. 

val balancing on the logs while Dom observes

Dom and The Mud Pit

After first observing, she tried to figure out how to get to the safe logs.  Sue, standing up on a tree stump, pointed to the muddy patch and claimed there was a piece of wood right in front of Dom.  Dom, with poor eyesight, bent down with her head about two feet from the ground.  She is squinting at the grass and mud, and exclaims “Where?”

Sue, confidently and insistently, “Says right in front of you!”

Sue pointing out the mud patch

At a lower level than Sue and without my contacts in, I did not see the wood either, so I remained silent, though I was doubled over in laughter with Dom practically sniffing the ground looking for a piece of wood.  Valerie was also quiet, though that is her demeanor. 

Finally Dom, trusts Sue and steps forward.  Fwoop, down she goes in the mud.  With her long stride, however, she recovers with her next step onto the log.  That only lasted for a second or two before she lost her balance and slowly cried “FUUUU@K” as she stepped into the water.  I sooo wish I had this slow motion blooper on video. 

After making it to the other side, Dom stated the obvious, “There was no wood there.”

Sue said, “There was when I crossed.”

I replied, “That’s not where you crossed.”

Sue questioned, “Well why didn’t you say anything?”

I didn’t know you were talking about your crossing. I thought you saw a piece of wood that Dom and I were too blind to see.

It was like a “Who’s on First” episode. Tears streaked down my face in amusement and my stomach cramped from laughing so hard.

The Goat and The Creek Crossing

Fortunately, or unfortunately for Dom anyway, next we came across a large creek crossing to clean our shoes.  The current wasn’t that strong, and the water came just below the knee, so it wasn’t dangerous, but the rocks were slick!

I went first with my walking stick while dragging Annie with my other hand.  I learned as a child to keep my feet facing upstream to keep from slipping and recommended to my sea level friends to do the same.  Dom crossed next.  After falling twice in the creek, Dom grabbed hold of my pole as I pulled her the final few feet.

In the meantime, Sue and Val skipped through the water with their feet perpendicular to the rapids (or normally).  Dom turned to me, “I’m walking normally next time.  Not sideways like a goat!”

None of us knew what she was talking about, and she explained goats walk sideways uphill.  Now she was known at the goat, but not the GOAT!  In my defense, she confessed she couldn’t see the bottom of the stream.  Additionally, after we crossed, two backpackers crossed “normally”, and one of them fell in waist deep!

The Forest Service Crew

We regrouped, continued up the mountain, passed the trail junction to Bighorn Lake, split to the left and soon found the forest service crew.  They were busy cutting a large section of a fallen tree with a two man saw, as nothing powered is allowed in a wilderness area.  I felt for them as they had a lot of trees to clear.

They nicely posed for pic, said they preferred Lake Katherine slightly over Bighorn, and told us we could have crossed a log farther upstream rather than wade through the creek. At least we know for the descent.

the forest service crew on Lake Katherine Trail

The Waterfall and Lake

We continued our crawling pace to the waterfall which tumbled through the canyon on the left-hand side.  Of course this crew was all about pictures with poses, so we snapped several before we ascended further and finally reached the lake.

selfie in front of waterfall on Lake Katherine Trail

At the base of the lake are remnants of an old dam.  Sue, undaunted by its height and uneven surface, crossed it.  I, much to Annie’s dismay who is water averse, opted to wade through the narrow outflow.  Val and Dom picked there way across over some decaying logs.

Sue crossing the old dam

Eventually, we all ended up on the left-hand side of the lake, and followed a faint path over logs, past bear scat, and to the shore where we rested for lunch.  Nearby was a memorial to two people as well as some fishermen trying to hook some browns. Our constant giggles surely interfered with any serenity, but Dom just kept us in stitches.

Goldie at Lake Katherine

The cooling breeze whisked across the surface of Lake Katherine’s frigid, teal water that rippled beneath the towering grey peaks still topped with snow.  While we rested, snacked, and enjoyed the view, Sue decided to collect rocks.  Many of the shiny rocks that looked like gold were in the shallow water.

me admiring the beauty of Lake Katherine

Panoramic Video of Lake Katherine

Dom spotted one a little far from the shore that she convinced Sue to get.  Sue rolled up her sleeves, balanced on a rock and floating log, and with her hiney in the air she dug for this rock.  Her hands numb from the glacial melt, she stood up with a smile and a treasure.  Her new nickname…gold digger or goldie for short.

hiney up while digging for gold
Sorry Sue…A picture is worth 1,000 words!

The Descent

With clouds slowly forming, we rose and started our decent.  Dom promptly scraped her leg on a fallen tree.  After a few minutes of first aid, we were off again.  The forest service crew had almost made it to the lake and were happy to know that no more logs remained on the main trail.

Dom questioned, “What are you talking about? There were tons of fallen trees!”

She should know since she declared, “It’s not an adventure until there is first aid!”

I replied, “Around the lake, yes, but not on the main trail.”

We parted ways and strolled down the now well cleared path.  No more climbing over logs.  Just stopping for photos of flowers, butterflies, caterpillars, and a selfie on the requisite fallen tree we saw the crew cutting.


Dom remarked, “So this trail has to be a five out of five.”

She asked me my ranking on all four trails we hiked.  Most the time, and this one included, I said four.  I ranked Mad Creek a four because the easy trail featured a barn and lots of wildflowers, but I am not fond of scrub oak terrain.  Just a personal thing.  I prefer all alpine or all desert.  Not a combination of both. 

Thunderhead Trail earned a four as well.  Though pretty, being on the ski mountain is far too touristy for me.  Lake Katherine got a four because of the dead forest and mud.  The trail took away from the ending beauty, though the lake was spectacular! 

Dom announced, “We’re going to call you Four!”

Lake Katherine was the fourth hike we completed in four days.  I’m thankful we did it last.  Overall, it was both the prettiest and the most adventurous.  And had I gotten my friends into this mess the first day, we might not have gone hiking again!

Here’s to Lake Katherine, a magnificent lake reachable by a very short trail…a rarity in Colorado.  It gave us our trip names, Mudslide, Goat, Goldie, and Four.  And not to be forgotten, Annie, is also known as “Look Away”…my training phrase when we pass by other dogs.  What a great day in nature! ETB

me and annie on Lake Katherine Trail

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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