Capitol Lake

Round Trip Distance: 12.8 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 9,028 - 11,619 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 6 hrs. 30 mins.
Trailhead: Capitol Creek
Fee: none
Attractions: Alpine lake

Capitol Lake is located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area of the White River National Forest near Aspen, Colorado. Sitting in a basin at the northern base of Capitol Peak (14,131 ft.) the lake is among the most scenic alpine lakes in the State of Colorado. Hikers, backpackers and climbers are treated to spectacular breathtaking views of Capitol Peak and the jagged rocky peaks and ridges of its companions as they make their way up the valley from the trailhead.

Entering 'Capitol Creek trailhead' into your driving app will get you turn by turn directions. Alternatively, find your way to the Snowmass Creek Road, 14 miles south of Aspen on Highway 82, where there is a stoplight and Conoco gas station. Follow the Snowmass Creek Road for 2 miles and turn right onto the Capitol Creek Road and continue driving until you reach the trailhead. The pavement ends after 5 miles and the last mile of the dirt road is considered high clearance 4WD. The Colorado Rocky Mountain School manages to make it to the trailhead with their bus but there is a 2WD trailhead that is 2 1/4 miles before you get there.

Before leaving the trailhead a nice view of Capitol Peak, projecting high above the drainage that the trail follows, can be seen. Capitol Lake is hidden out of sight from this viewing point straight down below the summit but you can get a good idea from here exactly where you are headed.

The trail starts out with a 427 foot descent as it drops over the side of the mountain from the trailhead to the creek. We might mention that the nice shiny new trailhead kiosk shows the one-way distance to the lake as 5.5 miles where it is is actually right at 6.35 miles. The Forest Service pdf has the distance to the lake at 6.4 miles which is pretty much right on the money and the descent to the creek at 600 feet which is a little more than it actually measures but maybe closer to what it feels like. That aside you will still have a pretty good uphill climb to look forward to as you finish your trek to get back to your vehicle.

At the bottom of the hill the trail crosses the creek where high top waterproof boots, sandals or water shoes will come in handy.

After crossing the creek the trail travels through pleasant stands of aspen trees mingled with a few conifers. As the trail gets higher in elevation the conifers eventually totally dominate.

Somewhere near the 2.6 mile point there is a junction where the Capitol Ditch trail connects on the right. The Capitol Ditch trail begins from the same parking area as the Capitol Creek trail and can be used as an alternate route. It is about a quarter mile longer and doesn't have the same abrupt beginning but it still has its own ups and downs. There is another junction about a quarter mile further up the Capitol Creek trail where the route over Haystack Mountain and down West Snowmass Creek branches off on the left. That junction is unmarked but the trail is noticeable. We encountered a backpacker that came over that way after being to Snowmass Lake.

Continuing up the valley the trail comes to a few meadows with incredible beckoning views of Capitol Peak.

The steepest parts of the terrain are mitigated by a few well made switchbacks in one area and embedded logs in another.

The final approach leads past a handful of primitive campsites that are secluded in nearby trees as the trail courses up the tundra slopes surrounded by magnificent scenes of towering masses of time sculpted, wind swept, crags of rock. If staying overnight at Capitol Lake, near the summit trailhead, an overnight permit is required and must be purchased in advance at recreation.gov.

Capitol Peak, with its permanent snowfields that are sheltered on its north facing slopes, looms more than 2,500 feet above Capitol Lake where the contrasting hues of green water and grassy tundra with a backdrop of gray and white rocks and deep blue cloud speckled sky creates a rewarding scene for the expended effort that brings you within its enjoyable clutches. Those that would care to venture further can follow the trail around the right side of the lake that leads over the pass and down to Avalanche Lake and all points beyond. If you are really adventurous you could even loop back to the trailhead via Hell Roaring Creek.

We spoke with another hiker that had come up the trail after us that had encountered a bear cub and its mamma about a mile from the trailhead. On our drive out we watched a bear clear the fence and land right in the road in front of our truck. It hesitated a moment after seeing us and then jumped the fence again to get back to from where it came. The top wire was probably less than 4 feet high but as usual we were surprised with the bears agility. We've watched moose try to jump a fence and all they do is kind of lunge through it and then 'no more fence'. Anyway, due to all the bear activity in the area backpackers are required to carry bear canisters. Backpackers and climbers provide most of the heavy use received by the Capitol Creek trail but it does see some day hikers and horseback riders and sometimes even one or more of Aspen's tenacious trail runners. If you would like to see Capitol Lake for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.