Get Outside! Hiking South Willow Falls

A Roaring Waterfall Greets Hikers Near Silverthorne

Basics: Distance: 5-8.5 miles depending on the trailhead Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet total Location: Summit County, near Silverthorne, Directions Trailhead: sign, doggie bags Dog rules: Dogs must be leashed in Eagles Nest Wilderness Fee: None Hiking Partner: Bill

An e-mail from a reader suggested I hike Willow Falls. It turned out to be a great tip.

The Willow Falls trailhead is just 3.5 miles from Interstate 70, but what a good experience. At the beginning of June, we found a roaring waterfall with several beautiful drops.

To hike to Willow Falls, start at the Mesa Cortina or Buffalo Cabin Trailhead. The Mesa Cortina Trailhead was closed for logging on the Friday when we visited, so we hiked from the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead. From Mesa Cortina, the hike is 8.4 miles roundtrip, according to the brochure from the White River National Forest. From Buffalo Cabin, it's 5 miles roundtrip even with some extra exploring.

From the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead, hikers climb 0.4 of a mile to the entrance to the Eagles Nest Wilderness. At 0.6 of a mile, hikers have the choice to turn on the Buffalo Cabin Trail to the ruins of two cabins and onward to Buffalo Mountain at 12,777 feet. Or continue straight to South Willow Creek.

On the trail to Willow Creek from here, hikers travel 1/8 of a mile on a fairly level trail to a small scree field and then a big change.

Over the next quarter mile, the trail drops 300 feet down a rocky, steep trail -- a trail that can be challenging at times to follow. We questioned each other several times on whether we were really in the right place. Also expect some downed trees along the trail, most were easy to get over or around. Downed trees on the trail to South Willow Falls

About 1 mile from the trailhead, the trail comes to a ditch. It's easy to see this was some kind of water canal. Take a good look around so you'll know where to leave the ditch trail on the way back, then start hiking along the lip of the ditch to an avalanche zone where the trail drops again.

This time, hikers drop down to a beautiful playground of waterways, streams and creeks. The trail crosses several bridges as the water roars around you. This is a beautiful spot with a thick tree cover. Continue along the bridges until you reach the trail split for Willow Creek.

Turn left at the trail split and get ready to climb. Over the next 0.5 mile, the trail climbs 400 feet on a rocky trail. At the beginning of June, there were still numerous snow fields and mud patches, but all were short and manageable. About half-way to the falls, the trail passes next to a large rock that many hiking descriptions mention. From here others say it's a 10-20 minute walk to the falls. I don't know how long it took on the way up, but it sure felt like we got back to the rock really fast on the way back down.

As you get close to the lower falls, you'll know it. The sound draws hikers closer to explore. It's definitely worth leaving the main trail on a social trail over to the lower falls.

The main Willow Falls has at least three drops. The total drop of the falls is more than 50 feet. The falls, in June, were beautiful, roaring, loud and crashing. You will not hear your companions unless you're close to them.

Take the time to climb to the top of the falls on the rocks next to the river or return to the trail and use the switchbacks to get to the top. Even after spending some time taking pictures and enjoying the view at the top, return to the trail again and take it another switchback or two up. We found two more striking waterfalls carving through the rock. It was another nice spot for photos and to enjoy what water can create.

An upper cascade

The top of the main falls was at 10,123 feet. The next cascades we visited were at 10,228 feet. While I didn't want to hike "up" anymore, it was worth it to go just a bit further and see these cascades.

We returned to the main falls for lunch, then hit the trail back down. While the main falls are only about 200 feet higher than the trailhead elevation, the hike has enough ups and downs to add up to about 1,500 feet in total ascent.

I heard about this trail from a reader. If you have a favorite trail to share or a question about this hike, e-mail me:

Previous hiking reports:(lower elevation hikes have a star) Boulder: Caribou Ranch*, Mallory Cave*, Heil Valley Ranch* Forsythe Canyon*, South Boulder Peak*, The Boulder Flatirons*, Walker Ranch*, Bear Peak*, Rabbit Mountain*, Bald Mountain*, Betasso Preserve*, Wonderland Lake*,Marshall Mesa*,Eldorado Canyon State Park*, Royal Arch*, South Mesa Trail* Golden area: Forgotten Valley, Chimney Gulch*, Apex Park* Jefferson County: Mt. Falcon*, Elk Meadow* I-70 area: Herman Gulch, Chicago Lakes, Chief Mountain Rocky Mountain National Park: Granite Falls, Twin Sisters, Bierstadt Lake, Chasm Lake, Lulu City & Little Yellowstone, The Loch, Andrew's Glacier, Sandbeach Lake Indian Peaks/James Peak Wilderness: King, Bob & Betty Lakes, Forest Lakes, Arapaho Lakes, Mitchell & Blue Lakes, James Peak Area, Heart Lake Northern Colorado: Homestead Meadows, Devil's Backbone*, Lake Agnes Summit & Eagle Counties: Booth Falls, Missouri Lakes, Mohawk Lakes & Continental Falls Grand County: St Louis Lake, Waterfall At Snow Mountain Ranch, Granby Ranch Other: Exploring Fulford Cave, Our Favorite Hikes, Our Favorite Bike Rides

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