Climbing 2,000 feet up a steady 3-mile grade, hiking the Cathedral Lake Trail offers an alternative to the crowds at the Maroon Bells. This hike is a great cardio workout that contains no shortage of alpine views as a reward.
Beginning at the Cathedral Lake Trailhead, the hike climbs immediately up through aspen groves that are especially colorful in the fall (roughly late September through early October). The trail becomes steeper as it enters the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, climbing up the canyon and into spruce forests. The trail levels off toward the top of the canyon carved by Pine Creek, but not before the final climb up a series of steep switchbacks. The trail splits at the top, taking hikers who go left to the lake and those who go right toward 13,500-foot Electric Pass, the highest trail pass in Colorado.
Heading left from the trail junction for another half mile, the trail crosses Pine Creek before concluding at the emerald waters of Cathedral Lake, which sits at 11,866 feet. The vertical rock faces of 13,944-foot Cathedral Peak jut straight out of the western shore of the lake and into the thin air above.
There are several backcountry campsites below the lake, so overnight trips to Cathedral Lake are also an option. Note that bear canisters are required for all overnighters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.