Monday, June 16, 2008

Cascade Falls (Indian Peaks Wilderness)

Distance 9.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 8,345 to 9,580 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,320 ft
Critters: Moose
Dogs: Off leash until the wilderness boundary

Cascade Falls in western Indian Peaks Wilderness is a great place to view raging water and Glacier Lillys
Glacier Lilies and the raging waters of Cascade Falls
Cascade Falls is a long hike to several of the most beautiful falls I have seen in Colorado. The photos in this post do little to capture their sheer intensity and drama as they roared and tumbled in chaotic abandon. For the waterfall junkie out there, this is a must do destination.

There are two sets of Cascade Falls on the west side of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. We went to the southern set. The northern set is within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park and can be reached by a 6 to 7 mile round trip journey.

Monarch Lake Colorado is the starting point for the Cascade Falls Trail
Monarch Lake
The trail to Cascade Falls begins at the Monarch Lake trailhead, which is south of Lake Granby. Note that some guides will tell you to turn on Forest Service Road 125. This road is actually labeled Arapahoe Bay Road. It is not until you turn in and travel 50 yards or so that the road is labeled 125.

Monarch Lake is in itself a pleasant destination. There were many fishermen lining the dam and there is a 3.9-mile hike around the lake itself that looks worth doing. The Cascade Falls trail follows the shoreline for 0.8 miles so you’ll get some lakeside views. It then officially enters the Indian Peaks Wilderness at 1.25 miles.

Rocks along the Trail
There was so much variety and water on this trail to tantalize the senses that even though it was in the trees for much of the way, we were perfectly entertained. Going at the height of spring run off did not hurt. Buchanan and Cascade creeks were roaring and we knew the falls would be spectacular because of it.

The trail description we had found for this trail mentioned several water crossings and given the state of the rivers we were trepidatious that we would not be able to get across. Fortunately, all of the bridges over the rivers were quite stout. Two are cement and wood bridges and two are double wide split log bridges with substantial rock islands in the middle. The crossings were a piece of cake.

Where all those falls come from
There was a bit of mud on the trail due to the recent snowmelt but this reveled the tracks of a mother moose and the smaller tracks of her calf. We talked to a Ranger briefly and they mentioned that Moose traverse the entire area and do not confine themselves to the marshy areas around the lakes and meadows of the region. We did not see a Moose on the trail itself, but did see several on our way home.

There were lots of milestones along the way to help us gauge our mileage. I have already mentioned the wilderness boundary above. The first bridge is at 2.2 miles, the intersection with the Buchanan Trail is 3.2 miles, and the second bridge is at 3.3 miles. Just past this bridge is a small-unnamed fall that shoots through a narrow canyon. From here the trail rises sharply and gradually ascends into a broad valley bordered on the left by Thunderbolt Peak (11,938) and a long ridgeline. The main, highly overused section of Indian Peaks lies on the other side of that ridgeline, which caused us to snicker to ourselves. Here we were on a trail with hardly any people while just “over there” were mobs of Front Rangers trampling the wildflowers.

Looking east at Thunderbolt Peak and ridge
There are three falls that make up Cascade Falls. Each one is farther and higher up than the last. If you can’t possibly go any further, the first fall is a worthwhile destination in itself.

There is a cascade just below the first fall that twists sharply to the left on a broad shelf that was covered in a colony of Glacier Lilies (Erythronium grandiflorium). Glacier Lilies arrive soon after the snow melts along the banks of streams or in sub-alpine meadows.

Looking down a drainage
The first fall (4.2 miles, 9,340 ft) is tall and shoots outward from a wall of rock into a large pool. You can walk right up to this fall and gaze at it front the front and the side. I realized after playing with my photos from this trip that taking pictures of waterfalls is not easy. The brilliant whiteness of the water, contrasted with the dark rock surrounding them threw off the exposure.

First falls
Water torrent
Playing with shutter speed
The second fall (4.4 miles, 9.440 ft) is more of a cascade, reminiscent of the Calypso Cascades in the Wild Basin region of Rocky Mountain National Park. This year, with so much water, the cascades were practically hidden from view by the torrent of white foam. There is a large flat rock in front of the falls eminently suitable for a picnic lunch.

Second falls
The third falls (4.7 miles, 9,580 ft) is up a steep pitch and across the second and final hune-log bridge. Look back at this point and you will see that you are at the very top of the second falls and can see the lip where the water flows over the edge. Beyond the bridge, the trail to the third falls is very rocky. There were several snow banks that we slogged through and the trail was disguised as a creek flowing with bone chilling snowmelt. As with most falls, we heard the roar before be saw the water. Cutting off trail to another, frat party sized, chunk of rock revealed the third falls. This one looks like a combination of the first two. A sharp drop directs the flow of the upper portions and then turns sharply towards the viewpoint and spreads out somewhat into a wider area.

Third falls
Where to lunch may be the hardest decision you’ll make on this trail. There are so many places to lounge, and each fall is so distinctive that is hard to choose. The trip back was long and monotonous, like all long hikes, and we were heartily glad to reach the car. If you love waterfalls, this trail will not disappoint and may just become you private piece of heaven.

Lake Granby


Anonymous said...

Hi Sylvia. I love your blog! I visit it frequently for ideas of places to hike in Colorado. I’ve been wanting to do the Cascade Falls hike for a few seasons now, but never seem to be able to get up there early enough in the season. I’m wondering if you have ever done this hike in late July/early August. If so, are the falls still robustly flowing? Since this is a longer hike, I want to make sure to see the falls when they’re at their best. Thanks for any feedback that you can provide!

sylvia murphy said...

I have only done this hike once on the date specified. If you hike much at all you'll know that the later the season gets the less water they will be. This year though (2013) was a late snow year so I suspect that you might be ok later.

Call the Forest Service to find out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback, Sylvia. Hope you're enjoying your summer!