Features28 of the Best Waterfall Hikes in ColoradoThese spindly trickles, misty plunges, and bona fide gushers are worth the trek. Jessica LaRusso 5280 April 2022 North Clear Creek Falls sits just off southwestern Colorado’s Silver Thread Scenic Byway. Photo by Eric Schuette The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today! Table of Contents Lower & Upper Fish Creek Falls Maxwell Falls Bridal Veil Falls Booth Falls The Best Waterfall Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado Waterfalls to Camp By Other Nearby Waterfall Hikes Lesser-Known Colorado Waterfalls Lower & Upper Fish Creek Falls Nearby City: Steamboat Springs Drive Time From Denver: 3 hours Hike Length: 5 miles round trip Difficulty: Moderate Après-Hike: Just northwest of downtown, pop into How Ya Doin’ Pizza N’ Eats to order a to-go pie. We recommend chasing it with a Chowder hazy IPA at Storm Peak Brewing Company next door, where a new rooftop deck is due to open this summer. Photo by Noah Wetzel Lower Fish Creek Falls is a magnificent, 283-foot behemoth you can view from a paved overlook path or a wooden bridge at the base, both of which are about a quarter-mile from the parking lot. (Note: You’ll need $5 cash or a check for the day-use fee.) Leave those spots to the tourists and continue up the trail: Your true destination is the upper falls. The approximately two-mile journey to get there starts with a narrow path that switchbacks through evergreens; you’ll emerge onto a flat stretch through an aspen grove before crossing a footbridge and climbing again. This time, you’ll scramble over rocky terrain and across a ledge with just enough exposure to give you a thrill. Your reward is a two-tiered waterfall tucked into a cliff—and the possibility that you’ll have it mostly, if not all, to yourself. Maxwell Falls Back to Top Nearby City: Evergreen Drive Time From Denver: 45 minutes Hike Length: 4.4 miles round trip Difficulty: Easy to moderate Après-Hike: Nine-month-old Marshdale Burger Co. is only a 10-minute drive from the Maxwell Falls trailhead, allowing you to quickly refuel with the 285 Traffic Jam, a quarter-pound patty with bacon jam, arugula, and goat cheese on a brioche bun. Happy hour specials—including a dollar off draft pints—run from 3 to 5:30 p.m. every day. With fragrant pines, splashy creek crossings, very little elevation gain, and its namesake series of lovely cascades, Maxwell Falls Trail is an ideal close-to-Denver trek for families and visiting flatlanders. Start from the lower trailhead off South Brook Forest Road, where you’ll find a dozen parking spaces that fill very quickly on weekends. (FYI: The path from the upper trailhead is two miles shorter but poorly marked and steeper.) For about an eighth of a mile, follow the well-trampled trail—lined in summer with purple bee balms and bright yellow black-eyed Susans—up a gradual incline. The path is a lollipop loop, so when you come to the Y intersection, go right for a shady, mile-long jaunt that takes you to the bottom of the falls, where you can linger for a snack on the rocks. Continue up the trail to find yourself right above the dropping stream; it’s a unique angle for snapping Instagram-worthy shots of the pooling water below. The gently sloping terrain on the other side of the loop makes for a leisurely, enjoyable cooldown whether you’re from sea level or not. —Barbara Urzua Bridal Veil Falls Photo by Whit Richardson Back to Top Nearby City: Telluride Drive Time From Denver: 6 hours, 15 minutes Hike Length: 2.4 miles round trip Difficulty: Strenuous Après-Hike: Opened in September 2020, the Stronghouse is Telluride’s newest brewpub. Inside the beautifully renovated 1892 warehouse, you can enjoy a flight of handcrafted brews and a hot, salted Bavarian pretzel alongside local muckety-mucks and old-timers. Bridal Veil Falls reigns over Telluride’s photogenic box canyon. To get to the bottom of this 365-foot beauty, the tallest waterfall in the state, hikers used to have to jostle with Jeeps for 2.4 miles on a dusty four-wheel-drive road. As of 2019, however, you can climb a 1.2-mile trail to the base of the falls instead. The journey may be short, but it’s not easy: After parking near the Pandora Mill at the east end of Telluride, you’ll stair-step up boulders and wind through steep rock gardens, exposed root webs, and groves of aspen trees. Behind you, the canyon unfolds with parks and forests carpeting the valley and reddish-gray cliffs framing the panorama. Watch for signs pointing to short side trails to two stunning cascades that tumble over steep cliffs along the way—great places to take a breather, given the limited availability of oxygen around 9,000 feet. At the shore of Bridal Veil’s pool, stare up at the long, sinuous waterfall above, listen to its unique melody, and feel the waves of mist as they disappear into the dry mountain air. —Kate Siber Booth Falls Back to Top Nearby City: Vail Drive Time From Denver: 1 hour, 45 minutes Hike Length: 4 miles round trip Difficulty: Moderate Après-Hike: Order the dangerously drinkable Banana Dolphin—a tropical treat made with bourbon, pineapple amaro, and banana liqueur—to pair with meats and cheeses at Root & Flower, which moved into its current digs in Vail Village in 2020. Photo by Whit Richardson The towering aspens and expansive views of Vail Valley on this nearly two-mile trek are almost enough to distract you from the burning in your legs as you gain a hefty 1,300 feet. If you go on a weekday, you just might get to enjoy the popular destination solo from a perch on a ledge above the thundering 60-foot falls. Otherwise, expect to share the vista. The trail is so busy that this past summer, Vail implemented a drastic solution to seasonal overcrowding: a complete closure of the trailhead parking lot to vehicles. Instead, visitors were encouraged to ride the free East Vail blue line shuttle (note: no dogs allowed), accessible from the Vail Transportation Center at Vail Village, to and from the Booth Lake trailhead. The program will go back into effect in May, and although it might require a bit more planning, not having to stress about finding a parking spot makes the experience that much more idyllic. —Sarah Banks The Best Waterfall Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park Back to Top Rocky Mountain National Park boasts 30-some named waterfalls and a plethora of less official cascades waiting to be found by adventurers in the know. We asked Sandy Heise, who wrote Colorado Waterfall Hikes (a Colorado Mountain Club guidebook), to share some of her favorites, from short strolls to arduous excursions. Adams Falls 0.9 miles round trip Near Grand Lake, the East Inlet Trail leaves from its eponymous trailhead and delivers out-of-shape tourists, families with little ones, and everyone else to 55-foot Adams Falls’ observation area in less than half a mile. Alberta Falls. Photo by Jason J. Hatfield Alberta Falls 1.7 miles round trip Hop a stress-free (and fee-free) ride on the Bear Lake Road shuttle to the popular Glacier Gorge trailhead. The hike to one of the park’s prettiest flows is just long and difficult enough to make flatlanders feel like they accomplished something. Chasm Falls 3 miles round trip Save this 25-footer—right off Old Fall River Road—for early to mid-October, when the dirt road closes to cars. From the Endovalley Picnic Area, follow the thoroughfare to Chasm Falls Trail; a short series of switchbacks leads down to a viewing platform, where you can watch the Fall River bounce down a rocky chute and into a small pool. Lower Wild Basin Falls 5.4 miles round trip This moderate-distance ramble from the Wild Basin trailhead provides access to three separate falls. After about a third of a mile, you’ll reach Copeland Falls (look for upper and lower portions babbling over rock in two places); another 1.5 miles gets you to the Calypso Cascades, which tumbles over boulders and fallen trees. Press on a little less than a mile more, over steep terrain, to watch from a footbridge as Ouzel Falls plunges over a granite ledge. Bridal Veil Falls 6.4 miles round trip Sure-footed hikers will enjoy various unnamed cascades along the journey from the Cow Creek trailhead to Bridal Veil Falls, which generally flows late into the fall along low-angle rock. Start from the less busy Lumpy Ridge trailhead to pass Gem Lake on an alternate, 12.8-mile out-and-back route. Columbine Falls 8 miles round trip Because this trek leaves from the popular Longs Peak trailhead, it’s often more crowded than its mileage would suggest—and that, combined with the elevation (11,660 feet at the highest point), means it’s necessary to get started early. After 2.4 miles, the trail rises above treeline and gets rockier as it enters a high-alpine cirque, eventually traversing an exposed shelf from which views of Columbine Falls flowing into Peacock Pool emerge. Timberline Falls 8.4 miles round trip Those up for more mileage can continue past Alberta Falls and up a gorge to serene, peak-ringed Loch Vale. Wooden planks help hikers navigate a boggy section before stone steps lead the way to Taylor Glacier–fueled Timberline Falls, a 100-foot enchanter that shoots over a blocky, vegetation-dotted cliff. Ypsilon Falls 9.2 miles round trip A river and two alpine lakes make the 4.6 miles and nearly 2,600 feet of elevation gain required to get from the Lawn Lake trailhead to multitiered Ypsilon Falls even more rewarding. Evergreens line the path of this mountainside beauty, which is tucked away in the less-frequented Mummy Range. Trio Falls 15 miles round trip Hikers who are thirsty for more after seeing the Lower Wild Basin waterfalls can keep following a steep, forested path until it pops out into a picturesque alpine valley with a chain of three lakes. Unique Trio Falls—so named for the three sections of delicate strands that stream over a rock band, from the second body of water into the first—awaits after a few creek crossings. If You Go: To combat overcrowding, Rocky Mountain National Park is implementing a timed-entry reservation system from May 27 to October 10 this year. You’ll need a permit (free at recreation.gov, with a $2 processing charge) for a two-hour admission window in addition to an annual or day pass. Reminder: Dogs are not allowed on the park’s trails. Colorado Waterfalls to Camp By Back to Top Plan camping trips around these destination-worthy falls. Photo by Aaron Johnson Rifle Falls Northwest of Glenwood Springs, Rifle Falls State Park has a surprisingly lush, almost tropical feel thanks to its location along Rifle Creek and its namesake waterfall, which plunges 70 feet over a travertine cliff. Reserve one of the park’s seven walk-in tent sites, sheltered by overhanging trees, near the creek. (There are also 13 RV-ready spots with electric hookups.) Instead of walking back through the day-use lot and campground to get to the falls, take 1.5-mile Squirrel Trail; it loops around most of the pavement and passes through a Gambel oak grove. Then take the ADA-accessible path to the base of Rifle Falls, which was split into three parts in the early 1900s when the creek powered a hydroelectric plant. Continue on 1.5-mile Coyote Trail to explore a set of limestone caves (bring a flashlight) and to view the stunning water feature from above. From $22 per night Buffalo Creek Falls Would-be hikers have to pay a day-use fee ($14 for visitors 16 and up; $6 for children six to 15) to access the lovely flow that spills over a rock shelf near privately owned Wellington Lake, so you might as well book an overnight stay for a few bucks more. Seventy-five individual sites and 12 large group sites ring the reservoir, a popular summer camping destination just an hour and a half southwest of Denver, near Deckers. SUP boards and kayaks are available to rent for flatwater fun, but savvy campers (and their kiddos) know to leave the lake and head into the forest via the aptly named Waterfall Trail, which reaches the top of the main falls in just 0.3 miles. If you have sturdy footwear, you can follow the creek upward—taking care to step on rock or solid areas so as not to cause erosion—to discover more burbling cascades and mini-falls. From $30 per night Zapata Falls Perched above the otherworldly, giant-sand-dune-dotted San Luis Valley, the Bureau of Land Management’s Zapata Falls Campground in Mosca has 23 reservable campsites, some of which are large enough for RVs, and one group area. The half-mile journey to its eponymous waterfall begins from the adjacent day-use area and ends in the creek itself (water shoes and poles highly recommended): You’ll need to wade through a watery chasm to view the 25-foot falls bursting through a rocky crevasse. If you’re lucky, you might spot a black swift, a rare species of bird that lives in the misty nooks behind the spout. Up for more mileage? Connect to the South Zapata Lake Trail for a roughly nine-mile round-trip hike. Just be sure to make it back to your tent in time to watch the sun dip below the San Juan Mountains to the west. From $11 per night Zapata Falls. Photo by Ethan Welty Other Nearby Waterfall Hikes Back to Top Some of the state’s most fabulous falls require little to no hiking. Peruse the categories below to find the relatively accessible adventure that’s ideal for you. A Little Trekking Boulder Falls Boulder The payoff-to-exertion ratio here is high, especially considering it’s only 40 miles from Denver. Just 100 yards of dirt trail (closed seasonally for maintenance from November 1 to May 1) separate the parking area off Boulder Canyon Drive from the base of this short but powerful waterfall. Guffey Falls Florissant Pack a picnic and your bathing suit to visit this waterfall-fed swimming hole, also known as Paradise Cove. It’s a steep 0.4 miles from the Guffey Gorge Day-Use Area’s gravel lot ($6 fee from mid-May to mid-September) to where the thin stream—and, often, cliff jumpers—drops into a perfect punch bowl. Treasure Falls Pagosa Springs Just off U.S. 160, the mile-long out-and-back to Treasure Falls’ two observation decks—from which you can often feel the mist coming off the 105-foot dazzler—is the perfect leg-stretcher. Treasure Falls. Photo by Eric Schuette Stairs Optional Seven Falls Colorado Springs At the Broadmoor, you get what you pay for—and in this case, $17 grants visitors entrée to the private resort’s 181-foot stunner, which bounces down a 1,250-foot box canyon in seven distinct segments. Those who are unable to enjoy the attraction’s two moderate hikes and/or climb the 224 waterfall-adjacent steps can ride an elevator to the Eagle’s Nest observation platform. Drive Up Helen Hunt Falls Colorado Springs Stop at the visitor center (open Memorial Day to Labor Day) within North Cheyenne Cañon Park to learn about this destination’s namesake: Helen Hunt Jackson, a mid-19th-century poet and Native American rights activist. Then take in the view from the parking area at the base or walk up to the bridge that spans the top of the falls. North Clear Creek Falls Lake City One of four waterfalls along southwestern Colorado’s Silver Thread Scenic Byway, this wide, 100-foot fountain looks like something out of Middle Earth. Pull off unpaved Forest Road 510 and snap pics from the ADA-accessible, guardrail-protected observation area. Lesser-Known Colorado Waterfalls Back to Top Why you should consider dodging the crowds and exploring less-visited Colorado waterfalls—including those that aren’t even named on official maps. Before a mud slide obliterated the 1.2-mile trail to Hanging Lake (and Spouting Rock) in July 2021, a permit system was already in use to limit visitation, which peaked at 186,000 in 2018. Luckily, Colorado’s most famous water feature—a National Natural Landmark near Glenwood Springs—was spared. Perhaps Mother Nature was simply tired of drones and Instagram influencers sullying the blue-green travertine pool into which Hanging Lake’s curtains of water pour. Full trail reconstruction will likely take years, and whether the damage was an ecological warning shot or an arbitrary tragedy, the imperative for Coloradans to spread out their footfalls is clear. Keener Falls. Photo by Noah Wetzel That doesn’t mean you can’t visit the state’s marquee waterfalls. But it might encourage weekday trips, taking public transportation to alleviate parking congestion, or seeing the spouts in the shoulder seasons, when they remain beautiful but could be frozen (spring) or slowed to a trickle (fall). And it definitely requires that you leave no trace: Stay on the trail and, in most cases, out of the water. Of course, you could also seek out lesser-known but still spectacular cascades, especially if you’re willing to drive and/or walk a bit farther, says Susan Joy Paul, who covered more than 300 miles on foot to research Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado.When her Falcon Guides book was released in 2013 (a second edition will be published in July), 73 of the featured falls didn’t have monikers recognized by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, meaning they literally weren’t on the map. To find them, Paul used topographic records to look for places where waterways intersected with steep slopes. Then she chased them down, provided they were on public land near relatively established trails. The resulting descriptions include detailed directions, elevation changes, GPS coordinates, and photos. Today, even as the internet teems with trail reports that make it easier for inexpert hikers to access backcountry gems, Paul says she hears from people who say she should keep her finds a secret. Her position, however, is that greater access is the best way to protect these landscapes. “If people don’t visit them, they don’t know what they’re missing,” Paul says. “And then when there’s legislation—they want to lease out land for drilling or they want to sell public land to private owners—people aren’t going to know what they’re giving up.” Trails Less Traveled Susan Joy Paul shares a few of her favorite off-the-beaten-path waterfalls. 1. Hidden in Colorado’s backcountry are delights like this seasonal waterfall, which spills into the Flat Tops Wilderness area’s Keener Lake, a 3.7-mile march (one way) from Stillwater Reservoir. 2. Near southern Colorado’s Antonito, the 1.3-mile-long hike (one way) to Rough Creek Falls takes you through a narrow gorge and up close to where Rough Creek, fueled by two alpine lakes, plunges over a cliff. 3. If you have a vehicle that can navigate unpaved East Fork Road near Pagosa Springs, it’s a 0.25-mile stroll (one way) from the trailhead to Silver Falls. Its veil, spread over dark volcanic rock, is best in the midday sun. 4. Paul swears Apache Falls, in the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness southwest of Pueblo, is worth the strenuous, 11-mile round-trip trek it takes to reach the spray, which stretches more than 100 feet from a ledge to the trail.