Adventure & Travel

Chasing Waterfalls

As the snow melts, here’s an inspired way to get your hike on this spring.

SPRINGTIME IS ABOUT RENEWAL. It’s about stretching your legs, seeing what’s around the bend, gathering momentum and ushering in change. Perhaps that’s why we’re so drawn to waterfalls. As the days get longer and Colorado’s snowcaps thaw, trickles become torrents and streams become raging rapids that spill over ledges, cascade between jagged cliffs, and glisten over rock faces en route to some unknown destination further down the trail or mountain. That rushing water is the driving force that propels the earth to do all the things it does during the spring; it represents a sense of order and an awesome power that’s reassuring, in a way—like nature is doing its part to keep the lifeblood of our mountains flowing.

Hearing the thunderous roar of a waterfall at peak runoff is almost hypnotizing—a true gift at the end of a long trail. Reaching a waterfall, like bagging a peak, feels like something you earn—a privilege. Lucky for us, when spring rolls around, Colorado is a treasure trove of trails, suitable for abilities, that lead to mesmerizing waterfalls.

There are, of course, the classics, those well-trodden paths to the state’s most stunning water features that should be on every explorer’s bucket list, such as Hanging Lake, the lung-busting jaunt outside Glenwood Springs that leads to an enchanted lagoon framed by whispery falls; Telluride’s Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado’s tallest free-falling falls and one that requires nearly two miles of hiking to reach the top; Fish Creek Falls, a popular Steamboat Springs spectacle that drops 280 feet through the wilderness; Seven Falls, the majestic, if tourist-heavy, tiered waterfall owned by the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs; and Rifle Falls, the triple waterfall that plunges 70 feet through the lush vegetation and limestone caves of the state park.

If you’ve never visited these favorites, put them on the list—but don’t stop there. Colorado’s nooks and crannies spout falls of all shapes and sizes. Here’s just a smattering of other worthwhile waterfall hikes to get your blood pumping and revitalize your spirit this spring.

Elk Falls

Where: Staunton State Park (near Conifer)

Trail distance: 12 miles round trip

Difficulty: Moderate

Preview: Colorado’s newest state park, Staunton, is home to a picturesque torrent of water that cascades prettily over a ledge and 75 feet down a rocky cliff. When the park opened in 2013 (the state’s first since 1978), visitors could trek 12 miles (round trip) to an overlook and view the falls from a distance above, which is certainly a lovely perspective. Today, there’s an up-close-and-personal option. Nearly two miles of newly constructed trails branch out from Elk Falls Pond, which is itself 4.4 miles from the parking lot. Look for Chimney Rock Trail and follow it for almost three quarters of a mile through thick forest; then turn onto Elk Falls Trail and hike down a series of switchbacks until you hear the falls. A quarter mile more will find you right at the base for a well-deserved break.

Tip: Keep an eye out for marmots, which make their home around Elk Falls Pond.

Fun fact: At nearly 4,000 acres, the park was 27 years in the making, patchworked together with four parcels acquired over the years by the state, including a historic family homestead, ranchland, a logging site and sawmill, and a sportsman’s club.

Chasm Falls

Where: Rocky Mountain National Park

Trail distance: 5 miles round trip

Difficulty: Easy-moderate (in the off-season)

Preview: Chasm Falls is well known in the park for its drive-up accessibility during peak summer months—but its dirt access-road, historic Old Fall River Road, is closed to vehicles for most of the year, which transforms it into a lovely off-season hiking trail.  The narrow, switchback-laden connector between Horseshoe Park and Trail Ridge Road was hand-built partially by a crew of state prisoners and opened in 1920. It’s closed to cars until July, so spring hiking to see the falls at peak runoff is ideal. Start at the West Alluvial Fan lot and trek 1.5 miles, traffic-free, to the junction of Endovalley and Old Fall River roads, then continue for another scenic mile up Old Fall River to the marked falls, where you’ll navigate a set of steep stone steps down to the viewing area where torrents of water cascade down through a granite outcropping.

Tip: In early spring, tread carefully (extra shoe traction like Yaktrax is not a bad idea) on the stairs down to the falls; snow and ice can make the descent slippery.

Fun fact: The route was once used by Native American hunters in search of game, and eventually became the inaugural route over the Continental Divide.

Upper Cascade Falls

Where: Ouray

Trail distance: 4.4 miles round -trip

Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous

Preview: Start from the marked trailhead at the southeast corner of the Amphitheater Campground east of town, and work your way through conifer forests and thickets along the hillsides, always bearing toward the well-signed Chief Ouray Mine at trail junctions. The grade will steepen as you go (you’ll climb more than 1,000 feet in a mile), but killer views of the neighboring peaks, surrounding basin, and towering stone “amphitheater” formation are worthwhile excuses for breathers. A ridge traverse, brief descent and creek crossing will land you at the secluded base of the upper falls. Refuel with a snack while you take in the scenery; you’ll be able to hear the falls below you as well.

Tip: It’ll be tempting to forge ahead another .2 miles to check out the historic mine buildings, one of which you can see from the falls—but be warned: This portion of the trail narrows significantly in places and can prove unpleasant if you struggle with heights.

Bonus: If you’re feeling ambitious on the return, add another 1.5 miles to your cardio and make it a loop by taking the Portland Trail. You can also connect to the Lower Cascade Falls Trail and extend your viewing party.

North Clear Creek Falls

Where: Between Lake City and Creede on the Silver Thread Scenic Byway

Trail distance: OK, so it’s not so much a hike (and by that, we mean it’s not a hike at all) as it is a photographer’s dream of an overlook. Drive, park, view.

Difficulty: Super easy.

Preview: Sure, we’re cheating a little bit with the whole “hike” concept, but this waterfall deserves a shoutout simply for being stunning. The folks behind DayHikesNearDenver.com have called it “what may be the most beautiful waterfall in the state.” The observation point is right off of Highway 149—take the turnoff to the overlook and continue for a half mile to the viewing site, where you can take a load off at the picnic facilities or brush up on the area’s history with the interpretive signs. The falls eventually meet up with the South Clear Creek Falls before churning into the Rio Grande River.

Tip: The turnoff access road may be snowed in as late as April, in which case visitors can walk the half-mile on packed snow.

Bonus: The observation point faces east, so if you get there early enough, watching the sun rise over the open landscape behind the falls is breathtaking.

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