Waterfall hike in Vail: Piney River Falls

Posted at 10:22 AM, Jun 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-17 12:50:24-04

Stunning. Spectacular. Incredible.

Those are just a few of the words to describe the view along the Upper Piney Trail. I've hiked miles to see a view like this and here it was less than a half mile from the start of my hike. And to think there was a waterfall three miles out, well that was a bonus.

Getting to the trailhead wasn't easy. The drive is about 12 miles from the town of Vail, and about 10 of those miles are on a rutted, dirt road (directions below). When you arrive, park in the lot just outside the gate for the Piney River Ranch, walk across the road and up a short hill to the trail signs. Do not go into the ranch's property unless you want to pay a fee.

At the trailhead, turn right for Upper Piney Trail No. 1885. The single-person wide trail winds across a hillside just outside the ranch's property. The trail comes to an Aspen grove a quarter mile from the trailhead. This is the first of many beautiful Aspen groves along this trail.

At 0.4 miles, as we got closer to Piney Lake, we got our first expansive view of the valley and the incredible mountain cirque up ahead. This view of the glacier-carved Gore Range is just remarkable. It would be easy to find a place to sit and call it a day. It's hard to believe there's more to this hike.

However,  after a few pictures we hiked on, marveling at the snow-capped peaks, the green meadows, the Aspen groves, the lower lake and the splendid valley.

At 0.65 miles, you'll enter the Eagle's Nest Wilderness while still enjoying the views.

At 0.85, there's a trail split with hikers going to Marugg Creek turning off and the Upper Piney Lake Trail continuing on.

The trail goes up the valley, through meadows and through Aspen forests above the winding creek below. We spotted two hikers on a lower trail, closer to the creek and thought we'd return that way, but their trail ran into mud bogs, thick willows and disappeared, making them climb to the upper trail at some point along the way.

The upper trail crosses several cascades. Some loud and beautiful, others a small trickle, some turned the hiking trail into a river in mid-June. Come later in the summer and the trail will likely be drier.

We encountered three or four places where the trail suddenly came to a switchback or two, but for the most part it was a steady gain for about 2.7 miles until the trail starting heading downhill. Then there were switchbacks going downhill. We dropped about one hundred feet in elevation, then wandered around a bit wondering where the waterfall was. We could hear it, but we couldn't see it.

After losing the trail, due to a downed tree and a pond created by snow melt, we found the trail and suddenly saw a cascade. We followed the trail to a rocky outcropping above a chasm created by the fast-moving water.

While this is a nice spot, I highly recommend a little scrambling down the rocks to get a better view.

There are at least two waterfall drops below this spot that are very photogenic. Explore as much as you're comfortable, then return to the main trail when you're ready.

Details: the hike to the falls is about 3 miles each way, depending on how much exploring you do. The elevation difference between the trailhead and high point is about 500 feet, but expect about 850 feet of gain with all the ups and downs.

For directions, trail rules and more information, visit the Forest service website for Upper Piney Trail. For more hiking trails and places to see around Colorado, check out our Discover Colorado section.