Julie Dugdale & Lu Snyder 2017-05-20 05:10:18
CHASING WATERFALLS Let the mountains’ rushing waters inspire your next summer adventure. HIGH IN THE MOUNTAINS of Summit County, spring and summer often collide. The summer solstice is mere weeks away before the thick layers of snow surrounding us begin to recede in earnest, allowing for the unfurling of green— budding aspen leaves, mountain grasses, this year’s wildflowers—and the pure, rushing waters. It’s cause for celebration. As the flowers and trees begin their annual reach toward the sun, locals peel off their hats and gloves, layers of long underwear and prepare for long days on the trail. With only a few months window before the next frost, we enter summer with a feverish frenzy, intent to enjoy every waking moment in the sun. One cannot walk this high in the mountains without witnessing the cycle of nature: as 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 a destination—be it a lake, river or reservoir—further downhill. That rushing water is nature doing its part to keep the lifeblood of our mountains flowing. Hearing the thunderous roar of a waterfall at peak runoff can be hypnotizing—a true gift at the end of a trail. Reaching a waterfall, like bagging a peak, feels like something you earn—a privilege. Its raw power gives us pause to bask in the glory of nature and the beauty of life. Lucky for us, Colorado is a treasure trove of trails, suitable for all 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 eponymous state park. If you’ve never visited these favorites, put them on the list—but don’t stop there. Colorado spouts falls of all shapes and sizes. Here’s a smattering of other worthwhile waterfall hikes—in Summit County and beyond—to get your blood pumping and revitalize your spirit this summer. CONTINENTAL FALLS Where: Mohawk Lake Trail (near Breckenridge) Trail distance: approx. 6 miles round trip Difficulty: Moderately strenuous Preview: With a high point of more than 12,000 feet, the Mohawk Lakes trail offers wide views of towering, jagged peaks. Yet, with mining ruins and waterfalls along the way, the mostly moderate trail is interesting enough for kids and lowlanders to accomplish in a day. Park at the lower parking lot (the upper lot is accessible with four-wheel drive). The trail follows an old logging road before climbing through alpine meadows to the site of the old Mayflower Mine. Explore the old mill and mining cabins before continuing toward Continental Falls, which tumbles boldly down steep rocks below lower Mohawk Lake, and above to the lakes. Tip: Listen for the shrill whistle of pikas. These elusive little critters may look like hamsters, but they are actually related to rabbits. Fun fact: Mohawk Lake, once called Foster Lake, sits below 13,950-foot Pacific Peak, one of Colorado’s many so-called 13ers, equally as impressive as—but much less travelled than—the state’s popular 14,000-foot peaks. SOUTH WILLOW FALLS Where: Gore Range (west of Silverthorne) Trail distance: Varies Difficulty: Moderate Preview: South Willow falls is located on the Gore Range Trail, which winds more than 50 miles along the eastern flank of Summit County’s spectacular and rocky Gore Range, from Copper Mountain north to the peaks above Heeney and Green Mountain Reservoir. The falls can be accessed from a number of starting points, including the Mesa Cortina, Buffalo Cabin and Willowbrook trailheads. Depending on your route, you’ll hike through lodgepole pine forests, sunflecked aspen groves and alpine meadows before reaching the falls. Once there, pull off your boots to reinvigorate tired feet in the icy mountain waters, nap to the thrum of the falling waters and take a moment to breathe the waterfall’s cool spray. Tip: Wildflower lovers with keen eyes may glimpse a rare view of the endangered native orchid. Fun fact: Red Buffalo Pass, which rises above South Willow Falls and separates Silverthorne from East Vail, was a serious contender for the route of Interstate-70 before designers chose the highway’s current path through Officer’s Gulch and over Vail Pass. 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 11 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.
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