One of my favorite Glenwood Springs day hikes, American Lake is a beauty – just follow the signs!
I believe in omens. So when I saw a red-tailed fox with a grey squirrel limp in its mouth on the drive up to the trailhead, I took it as a sign – it’s gonna be a good day. Condolences to the poor squirrel, but spotting a fox or any wildlife for that matter is for me a special treat to be savored like a fresh Palisade peach or a gourmet chocolate truffle.
We got a late start out of Glenwood Springs, so we were surprised we could still easily find a place to park at the trailhead to American Lake. This being Aspen however, we were not surprised to see a pristine, cherry red Ferrari parked in the dirt lot surrounded by knee-high grasses. “Only in Aspen,” a fellow hiker in a KIA posited as we both photographed the exotic jezebel.
We passed the trailhead marker at 11 a.m. Being at a lower elevation than nearby Cathedral Lake, almost half the trail ascends through a lush aspen forest. Six narrow switchbacks cut steeply into a sloped hillside make traversing the incline possible. This trail is unrelenting – up and up it goes with very little topographical relief. Thankfully the flowers were screaming to have their pictures taken – purple asters and red paintbrush – happy to oblige, I could also catch my breath and grab a quick drink of water before plodding on.
As I began to wonder if I read the trail info incorrectly – maybe it was 6 miles to the lake instead of 3 – we broke out of the aspens into a meadow that climbs skyward, a monolithic green wall punctuated with giant evergreens and sprinkled with confetti wildflowers. Breathtaking. This abrupt demarcation in the climate zone was another good sign – we were making progress and I hadn’t misread the trail’s vital stats.
Thanks to an accumulation of pine needles and deteriorating fallen trees the foot trail morphs from hard and dry, to soft, springy duff. Every step through this section seems to trigger the aroma of pine. A perfume I would happily wear as my signature scent. I ponder, for a brief moment lying down in the soft dirt for aromatherapy al fresco, but Husband is up ahead, waiting for me. A series of fallen trees make this section a bit of an obstacle course, and refocuses my attention.
Next up and a marker that we are indeed getting closer to the high alpine lake is a scree field off to our right with views of a barren mountainside, still with patches of snow on it even in late July. After crossing it, heading back into the pine woods, we traverse one final section of scree; then we hear it. The sound of water. Nearly there.
When you finally arrive, you kind of sneak up on American Lake – it hides behind trees and tall grasses. A little peninsula sticks out and that’s where we head for a rest and lunch. We’re joined by chipmunks and camp robbers. Clear and bottle glass green, the water beckons. Native trout with their orange fins swim near shore. Except for my feet, we don’t get in. Across the lake however are a couple of skinny dippers – an older couple – languidly enjoying the water, the sunshine, their God-given naked forms – they are completely unfazed by other hikers (probably European). They’re definitely giving off that bien dans sa peau vibe, and I’m actually little jealous. Maybe next time. Someone once said reading the signs is just a matter of keeping your eyes open. Check. The signs say I’ll doing this hike many more times.
American Lake vital stats:
6.4 miles round trip
Elevation start: 9,400’
Elevation end: 11,365’
Forest service rating: difficult
Our time to hike, trailhead to lake: 1 hour, 45 minutes