Summertime Waterfall Roundup

June is my favorite month for hiking to Colorado waterfalls. That’s when springtime snow, warmed in the sunshine, releases its bounty of crystal clear, liquid goodness. Shimmering cascades, horsetails, and cataracts tumble down mountainsides, pour over rocky ledges, and fling themselves off high cliffs. Even though snowpack is in short supply this year, you can still catch some lovely falls in the Pikes Peak region.

Your first stop should be North Cheyenne Cañon, where you can drive up North Cheyenne Canyon Road for about 2.5 miles to Helen Hunt Falls, formed by North Cheyenne Creek. From the base of the falls, take a short, steep hike up to Silver Cascade (Spoon) Falls, formed by Buffalo Creek. This is a busy area that can become quite congested, so slow down as you drive through and be on the lookout for pedestrians. Likewise, if you cross the road to the falls, be aware of vehicles from both directions.

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Helen Hunt Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

Next, drive to the top of North Cheyenne Canyon Road and park in the big lot at the junction of High Drive and Gold Camp Road. From there, Undine Falls is a 3.4-mile out-and-back hike on the Seven Bridges Trail. Start at the northwest end of the parking lot and hike the old railroad bed (the section of Gold Camp Road that’s closed to vehicles) and cut off the trail at the sign for Trail #622 on the right. The falls are just past the seventh bridge.

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Undine Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

For a longer hike, bypass the cutoff to Trail #622 and continue on Gold Camp Road past the closed tunnel on the right, and look for the very old sign for Saint Mary’s Falls on Buffalo Creek. It’s a 6-mile out-and-back hike that gains quite a bit of elevation, so allow yourself plenty of time and watch for bikers zooming down the trail. They are supposed to afford hikers the right of way, but not all of them are aware of that fact, or they choose to ignore it. Keep your eyes open and if you see one coming, make your presence known. If there’s room, try to step off the trail to avoid a collision.

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St Marys Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

Josephine Falls, in nearby Bear Canyon, is no longer accessible due to the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project that closed the trail. A newer trail high above the canyon is the closest you’ll get, but not worth the hike if you’re just going to visit the falls, as they’re hidden far below the trail and a quarter of a mile away. Instead, drive back down North Cheyenne Canyon Road and park in the small lot at the Mount Cutler Trailhead. Hike about a mile up the trail and look to the south for unobstructed views of Seven Falls. Hang onto your kids and your pets on this trail, as there’s dramatic exposure and a tumble off the edge could be fatal.

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Josephine Falls is no longer accessible due to the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project

Dorothy Falls and Williams Canyon Falls aren’t legally accessible right now, as the trails were closed for safety reasons after the September 2013 floods.

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Dorothy Falls at Glen Eyrie has been closed to the public since the 2013 floods

Rainbow Falls is also closed, but the area is undergoing renovations and should be opening next month. This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the area so put that one on your calendar and check the El Paso County Parks website for updates.

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Rainbow Falls, Manitou Springs is scheduled to reopen in July after restoration is complete

If you don’t mind a little driving, head west on Highway 24 to Green Mountain Falls, where you can hike the Thomas Trail to Crystal Falls and Catamount Falls. Then, check out Horsethief Falls in Teller County, and Guffey Falls and Tarryall Falls in Park County.

Want more falls? Keep driving – and hiking! According to the Worldwide Waterfall Database, there are 467 known waterfalls in Colorado. Once you get into the mountainous areas in Rocky Mountain National Park to the north; around Pagosa Springs, Telluride, and Ouray in the southwest part of the state; and in the canyons around Grand Junction to the west; they’re bigger, bolder, and even more dramatic.

As with all your outdoor adventures, leave nothing behind on your waterfalls hikes, and take nothing with you but some glorious photos and a smile. Your children and your children’s children will thank you for taking such great care of these lovely gems, Colorado’s waterfalls, so they can enjoy them for years to come.

For information on more than 100 waterfalls in the Pikes Peak region and across the state, check out my Falcon Guide Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 13, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Farewell to the Pikes Peak Cog, for Now

I read the news of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway shutdown with mixed feelings. This is the train that transports people from Manitou Springs, Colorado, to the summit of America’s Mountain, 14,115-foot Pikes Peak. The annual temporary winter closure for routine maintenance has become an extended decommissioning of two to three years while the railway’s owner, the Broadmoor, evaluates options for rebuilding or replacing the train, tracks, and depot. The result may be that it never runs again.

My initial reaction was: this is probably a good thing. Like many Coloradans, I enjoy the outdoors, support the Leave No Trace principles, and believe the best 14ers are those that get the least traffic. That part of me would like to see the railway, the summit house – and the Pikes Peak Highway, for that matter – close for good.

But another part of me was struck with sadness and a bit of sentimentality. Why did the news bother me? Why did I care about the closing of a silly red train that hauls tens of thousands of “outsiders” (you know – sniff! – tourists) to the top of our mountain every year? I had to clear a lot of cobwebs – and “jog the cogs” – from my memory to sort out this strange emotional attachment I felt for the train.

Twenty years ago, I took my two boys for a ride on the cog railway. The nearly nine-mile ride from Manitou Springs through subalpine forest and finally, above tree line, seemed to take forever but the conductor kept us amused with the history of the train and Pikes Peak. He even threw in an occasional quip that caused my kids to roll their eyes. As a mom, it’s always a pleasure to see your kids roll their eyes at something other than you.

Wandering the summit was a thrill. It was our first time over 14,000 feet and my kids (who at that age seemed to relish offsetting my enthusiasm for everything by never being impressed by anything) actually seemed to get a kick out of the views. We drank hot chocolate, gobbled up doughnuts, and purchased a couple of gleaming pressed pennies as souvenirs. It was a good day out.

I never rode that fancy red and white train again, but I did revisit the tracks. In November 2006, during the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial Reenactment hike, my group of eight emerged from the forest to pick up the tracks south of Sachett Mountain at 12,000 feet and follow them to the summit. It was 9 degrees and a light snow was beginning to fall. As eager as I was to finish the three-day trek, I slowed down toward the end to savor those last feet of train tracks, knowing I would probably never walk them again.

A couple of years later, after a January hike to the top of Pikes Peak via the “Crags Route” from Divide, I saw the train again. The summit house was closed that day and the entryway was packed with snow, offering little protection from the biting wind. I pressed my back against a drift and sipped hot cocoa from a thermos, trying to warm my chilled bones, but it was no use. It was just too darned cold up there to enjoy the summit, so I told my hiking partner I needed to head down. Suddenly, a whistle shrieked. My buddy and I looked at each other. Maintenance workers? Today? We continued packing up our backpacks for the long hike down, but then the train appeared – pulled up right in front of us! Hundreds of tourists peered out the windows at the two of us. We must have looked like frozen guards, covered in frost and sitting in the snow at the entry to the summit house. Some workers jumped from the train, cleared a path to the doors, and opened the place up. We filled up on coffee and doughnuts and thanked the tourists who offered to help us “find a way down.” They thought we were lost and had ended up on the top of Pikes Peak by accident! Then we headed down – on foot.

Later that year, in December, I found myself crossing the tracks during a descent of another peak in the nearby Manitou Springs quad. It was December, there was a lot of snow, and my hiking buddy and I assumed the train wasn’t running (how soon we forget!) so we weren’t worried about being run over – or being “caught” as we suspected that walking the tracks probably wasn’t legal.

I guess I never realized how quiet the cog train is. It came around the corner like a wall of red. The train engineer looked as shocked to see us and we were to see him! We leapt from the tracks and into the snow. That was the last time I hiked across the cog tracks.

My last encounter with the cog railway wasn’t on the red and white train, but on Carriage 104, one of the original train cars. In 2016, the cog celebrated its 125th anniversary and visitors were treated to a quarter-mile “push” up the tracks by Steam Engine Number 4, an older version of the train that had been retired in 1958. While I appreciated the history lesson, being pushed – rather than pulled – by an engine is a very different experience. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed a 1950s 9-mile trip that way, being jostled up those tracks!

I’m sure many Coloradans have their own Pikes Peak Cog Railway stories. Trains, peaks, and outdoor adventures are all part of our state history and what made this place what it is today.

Reconciling my railway nostalgia with a desire to protect the peaks is difficult. The balance between sustainability and accessibility is delicate and not always convenient. A few years’ rest from all those visitors would surely do old Pikes Peak some good, but I hope someday the owners of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway find a way to get the train moving again.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 28, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

The Downside of Highpointing

Goals are fun to reach, but as they say, it’s the journey that makes them worthwhile. I was reminded of that fact last week when I met with a group of fellow hikers to sign the Colorado County Highpointers Ice Axe.

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Signing the Colorado County Highpoint Ice Axe [Photo] Stewart M. Green

Yes, there are people out there who try to get to the top of every county in Colorado. Actually, there are people who do this in every state. Hikers who reach the summits of all 64 Colorado counties are invited to sign a ceremonial ice axe. The tradition was started by Dave Covill and John Mitchler who aren’t just avid highpointers, they literally wrote the book on Colorado county highpoints, “Hiking Colorado’s Summits” (FalconGuides, 1999). The two men share a hobby of getting to the highest points of things: states, counties, countries, mountain ranges, national parks and monuments, major cities – and even, I learned last week – golf courses. Highpointing is a fun challenge that takes you to places you might typically never visit.

Hardcore mountaineers like to poke fun at highpointers because some of our achievements aren’t really all that impressive. For example, reaching the highpoints of certain Colorado counties on the eastern plains demands nothing more than a long drive on dirt roads followed by wandering around cow pastures with a hand level and a GPS – with the landowners’ permission, of course. The metro Denver county highpoints are roadside, and one is paved. But other highpoints are much more challenging. Weld County’s highpoint is located on a bison farm. It’s not a tough hike, but avoiding that large herd of 1,000-pound, curious bison was an experience I’ll never forget.

I started highpointing while I was working on another list, all the Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, or 14ers. There were times when the avalanche danger was too high to safely pursue the big peaks, and so having another list to fall back on gave me an opportunity to get out of the house, hike or climb something, and check off a peak on a list! I ticked off the eastern plains and metro Denver highpoints, which when added to the 14,000-foot highpoint peaks accounted for a majority of summits on the county highpoints list. My quest got a lot more interesting after that, taking me all over the state to places like Clark Peak in the Rawah Wilderness east of Walden, Mount Zirkel in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Flat Top Mountain in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, and Hagues Peak in the Mummy Range of Rocky Mountain National Park. To the south, Pueblo County’s Greenhorn Mountain and Las Animas County’s West Spanish Peak, both visible from I-25, gave me an excuse to visit the towns of Rye and La Veta, and the views – well, you’ll just have to go up there yourself. They are stunning.

I finished my county highpoint journey on Vermilion Peak in the San Juan Mountains above Ice Lake Basin near Silverton. It was one of the toughest peaks of the lot and I don’t know why I left it until last, but it was a joy to be up there enjoying the views, knowing I had finally completed a goal started years ago on El Paso County highpoint Pikes Peak. It was a sad experience, too, because it was the last peak on the list. I know that sounds silly, but I didn’t want it to be the last. I wanted more highpoints.

I was the 36th person to sign the axe last week, joined by #37 Doug Hatfield, #38 David Johnson, and #39 Mike Offerman. I’m sure many more people will pursue the Colorado County Highpoints list and finish it, too. If you’re one of those people, take a moment up there on those summits. Don’t be in a hurry to come back down. It’s nice up there, and sometimes you don’t realize just how nice until after you’ve done them all.

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Summit of Vermilion Peak, September 19, 2015. [Photo] Stewart M. Green

This column first appeared in the September 28, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Waterfall Creek flows from the Continental Divide to the East Fork of the San Juan River, south of Wolf Creek Pass. The creek springs over a shelf and spreads its waters in a shimmering bridal veil of translucent wonder at Silver Falls, San Juan National Forest, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (June 2013, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.

Conundrum Hot Springs

I wanted to hit up Conundrum Hot Springs in late June, but heavy winter snows had led to voluminous spring run-off, and the creek was running fast and waist-deep at the crossing. Some people had managed their way across just the same—unbuckling their packs so they could quickly release them and not be pulled under by the weight if the strong current swept them away—but I try not to engage in life-threatening backcountry travel, and would not recommend it to anyone.

By mid-August Conundrum Creek was reported to be much tamer and so I made a plan, and enlisted the companionship of my long-time hiking partner, Doug. He was interested in climbing some of the high peaks at nearby Triangle Pass, and so we decided to make a weekend of it.

Doug had been my hiking partner for about five years, and we had settled into such a routine that we knew ahead of time which one of us would be responsible for bringing certain articles of shared gear such as a ground cover, tent, cooking kit, etc. We could quickly set up camp and have a meal ready without even speaking to each other, a skill that had come in handy more than once, winter camping in white-outs and roaring winds in the Colorado high country. I had finished my Colorado 14ers with Doug on Mount Wilson, and started the California 14ers with him on Mount Whitney, too. We had enjoyed the summit of 18,405-foot Pico de Orizaba together—the highest point in Mexico—and suffered through a fifty-mile mosquito-infested backpacking trip through Wyoming’s Wind River Range to tag Gannett Peak, the highpoint of that state. Despite all our combined experience, I was apprehensive about our trip to Conundrum Hot Springs. Doug had just spent the past few months training for and ultimately summiting Alaska’s Denali, or Mount McKinley—at 20,320 feet, the highest point in North America. In other words, he was in the best shape of his life. I, on the other hand, had abandoned the trail to devote every spare moment to my computer—writing a book about hot springs—and was at my worst! Regardless, Conundrum Hot Springs was to be the final stop on my Colorado hot springs tour, and it needed to be done.

We drove to Aspen on Friday evening, parked at the very crowded trailhead, and hiked in two miles to camp on an open meadow. It was the night before the full moon, so we had plenty of light—in addition to our headlamps—and the tent was up and we were asleep in it in no time. Saturday morning we were off, marveling at the fine trail and awesome views. Doug and I hadn’t hiked in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in two years. Our last visit to this area of the state was a mountaineering trip to reach the summits of 14,265-foot Castle Peak and adjoining 14,060-foot Conundrum Peak. There had been a lot of mountain climbing between the two of us since then, and that day and those peaks sure seemed like a long time ago. 

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On this day, we met a few day-hikers with small, light packs and many backpackers with big, heavy packs along the trail, all making their way to or from the hot springs. The trail was deceivingly easy, even while carrying a heavy pack, for the first few miles. But beyond the third stream crossing it rose steeply and by the time we reached the hot springs at about nine miles in, I was beat! There was a young couple soaking in the big pool at Conundrum Hot Springs, and Doug and I dropped our packs and stopped to chat with them for a bit. Meghan and Cliff were hot springs aficionados, I learned, and happy to discuss the hot springs of Colorado with me. I imagined that–like many young couples that frequent the wilderness–their idea of a romantic weekend was a long, strenuous hike to a distant location, topped off with a simple meal cooked on a camp stove beneath the stars. Evening entertainment might involve reading stories by headlamp or candlelight, or tonight—in mid-August—lying out in a meadow in the moonlight, watching the Perseids meteor shower rain down from above. Meghan had a big beautiful smile that spoke to the joy of the place, and Cliff had an equally broad smile that showed just how lucky he knew he was, to have a partner in Meghan! I loved meeting people like this in the backcountry; in a world caught up in technology-driven isolation from nature and humanity, they never failed to renew my faith in the future of the human race.

Doug and I hiked past the hot springs, and wandered about till we found the last open campsite. We set up the tent, emptied our packs of all camping gear, and set off for Triangle Pass and the high peaks beyond. About a half-mile up to the pass I realized just how tired I was, and begged off the rest of the day. Doug continued on while I headed back down the trail, stopping to filter water for dinner that night, and breakfast the next day. There are several seasonal streams that fall from the mountains to the west and cross the trail to Triangle Pass; these are good locations for filtering clean water if you choose to camp in that area. 

From there, I made my way down to the hot springs for a dip. The place had filled up in my absence, with more than a dozen soakers lolling about. This was a friendly group, some clothed and others bare, all happy to have made the long journey and eager to relax in the warm waters of Conundrum Hot Springs. After a soak, I grew hungry and sleepy and made my way up to camp where I cooked up some noodles, laid my clothes out to dry, and crawled into my sleeping bag. Doug arrived soon after; he had made it to Triangle Pass and the summits of two 13ers! They were his 199th and 200th 13,000-foot peaks, so I congratulated him on his milestone, and he congratulated me on my final hot springs. We would have celebrated, but neither of us had packed in the champagne, and we were probably both too exhausted to manage a corkscrew anyway. Instead, we slept.

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I was up with the sun the next day, eager to get back on the trail before the impending storms moved in. The chance of rain was predicted at 50% that day, so there would be no mountain climbing, just the long hike out. The Elk Mountains of this area are some of the most dangerous peaks in the state, composed of rotten rock that melts to a slick grease in the rain, letting loose rocks and boulders that can tumble away beneath your feet. My own most terrifying moment on a mountain had come several years earlier on the nearby Maroon Bells traverse, a high ridge connecting 14ers Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Caught up in a storm mid-traverse, I and four friends had reached the summit of the second peak in a downpour, the crash-boom of lightning and thunder splitting the sky all around us. The metal rivets of our helmets crackled in our ears while our ice axes hummed with electricity on our backs, and I was pretty sure that—if I survived—this would be one of those teachable moments Mother Nature thrusts upon mountaineers, to be heeded and never, ever forgotten or repeated.

And so it was that on Sunday we enjoyed our oatmeal and hot coffee, and headed northward, away from the hot springs, away from Triangle Pass, away from the peaks and back to the trailhead. We passed the hot springs, and there were soakers enjoying the early morning peace and quiet, another young couple I had met earlier who—much like Meghan and Cliff—very much enjoyed the wilderness and the hot springs of Colorado. They wished us a good hike out, and we were off. Soon enough Doug and I were at the big creek crossing, and we donned our water shoes and scampered across. In the early morning, under overcast skies, the knee-deep waters here were icy cold and we both made quite a racket as we yelped and plunged our way across one chill creek crossing after another, weaving our way back and forth to the east banks of Conundrum Creek. Back on the trail, we hiked along a ways to allow our shoes and feet to dry.

“Are you awake yet?” I hollered up to Doug; he stopped and turned, and a wide grin spread over his face.

“That was better than coffee!” he replied.

It was better than coffee, but on a cool summer morning in the Colorado wilderness it was just another typical, delightful experience, like hiking for miles through pine forests and over meadows thick with wildflowers to a high mountain valley amid towering peaks, to join with other backcountry-lovers and bathe in the natural splendor of a hot mineral pool at Conundrum Hot Springs.

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Conundrum Hot Springs Aspen, Colorado. Photos by Susan Joy Paul.

Touring Colorado Hot Springs (April 2012, FalconGuides) introduces you to 32 Colorado hot springs, with directions, maps, and the details you need to plan your hot springs vacation.

Pole Creek flows east from the slopes of 10,731-foot Blue Ridge to the tiny town of Tabernash. Along the way it slips over a dark slab at “Pole Creek Falls,” filters through moss and greenery, spills back into the creek bed, and settles into beaver ponds at Snow Mountain Ranch, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (July 2013, FalconGuides) is available for pre-order, with driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.

Cascade Creek filters through boulders in tiered horsetails above the trail, then freefalls in a dramatic plunge at Upper Cascade Falls, Ouray, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (July 2013, FalconGuides) is available for pre-order, with driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.

Two lakes—Alverjones and Hourglass—combine forces, tumbling in a powerful plunge at Rough Creek Falls in the South San Juan Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes

(July 2013, FalconGuides) is available for pre-order, with driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.