Monday, June 6, 2016

Cascade Creek Waterfalls, San Juan National Forest

Essence: Cascade Creek gathers water from a massive circular basin rimmed by peaks approaching 14,000 feet. Snowmelt runs out of the bowl through a narrow opening constrained by the encompassing southern ridges of Grizzly Peak and Rolling Mountain. Mad waters thunder down with intimidating ferocity through the forest, the adventurous river a headlong torrent plunging over hydraulic jumps. During peak flow the explosive and talkative turbulence is an adrenaline rush for hikers who visit six Cascade Creek waterfalls and two tributary cataracts.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango drive 28.5 miles north on US 550. At the apex of the hairpin at the bottom of Coal Bank Pass (south side), turn left. A 2WD vehicle with good clearance should be able to negotiate the potholes on the dirt road. Turn left into trailhead parking in 0.7 mile just before the road crosses the Cascade Flume. Allow 35 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.5 miles; 2,050 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; no exposure
Map: Engineer Mountain, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: June 6, 2016
Quote: Waterfall no trouble at all.

At Behind The Falls rejoicing waters leap free from the upper edge of the cliff so hikers may stand behind the catapult. (THW, photo)

Route: Join Cascade Creek Trail #510 where it crosses the Cascade Flume at 8,880 feet above US 550. Walk up the established trail, staying on the east side of the river. Divert to eight waterfalls. Turn around at the 150-foot cataract overlook.

Hike up the 4WD road, immediately crossing an elevated wooden flume. Information on this astonishing feature is at the end of this post.

Walk along the pleasant and peaceful dirt road with a few picturesque private log cabins scattered in the woods. Their 99-year leases are managed by San Juan National Forest. Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and shimmering aspen capture sunshine, reluctantly sharing half light with snowberry and myrtle blueberry on the forest floor. In case we need a refresher, this is why we live in Colorado. (THW, photo)

As spring gives way to insistent summer, it is so nice to be back in the mountains admiring wildflowers, cheerful little darlings. Here are my springtime favorites: red columbine, bluebell, white and purple violet; pussy toes and kitten tails; mountain parsley, strawberry, buttercup and candytuft; marsh marigold, snowball saxifrage, and king's crown; western valerian and fairy candelabra. Look earnestly for the elusive and dainty fairy slipper (calypso) orchid in moist woodsy soil and dappled light. If you find even one, you are living inside a charmed fairy tale. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

The red gate parking lot is at 0.8 mile. There is room for four vehicles with high clearance. The first stream crossing comes right up. It may be an inconsequential hop or a dash across a gushing episodic runoff. In the spring you will get your feet wet sooner or later. Poles are helpful for crossing lateral streams. The road transitions to a trail and then crosses a sunny glade. Grizzly Peak is a beacon for sizzling electrical storms. Our day started out warm and dry in June, 2016, but by late morning it was raining. Meanwhile, it was sunny in Durango.

At the far end of the dandelion patch, climb switchbacks to rapidly gain 300 feet. From this vantage point, Grayrock Peak and Graysill Mountain stand out in the west.

Engine Creek Fall
Low bass, booming, and reverberating tones will direct you to the eight waterfalls. Engine Creek is a principle tributary and thunder-like detonations precede the careening fall at 3.4 miles. Just before the footbridge, leave the trail and walk alongside the agitated flush to the plunge pool, pictured below. Then cross the bridge and climb a short hill off-trail. Proceed cautiously to the lip of the overfall. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Upon entering a large meadow at 3.7 miles, reach the junction with the Engine Creek Trail. It departs to the northeast, eventually joining the Engineer Mountain Trail below Jura Knob.

50-Foot Fall, Cascade Creek
Leave the trail at 4.0 miles to find this massive, freight-train fast waterfall. Seething water bores into grey stone. Cascade Creek is within the Hermosa Formation comprised of alternating beds of limestone and sandstone with intervening soft siltier layers. Most of the waterfalls plummet over resistant limestone. (THW, photo)

With your heart in your throat, it is possible to perch at the edge of the out-plunging current, dangerously close to the confusing whirl of raw and deadly power.

Pass through a meadow featuring a marsh marigold garden, the happiest flower of them all with its exuberant smiling face. Grizzly Peak, cloud grabber, is flanked by Point 13,269' at the very back of the Cascade Creek watershed.
(Chris Blackshear, photo)

Behind The Fall
At 4.9 miles, turn off the trail and scamper under a rock band that guides into a subterranean bowl for an incomparable view of this sheeted waterfall.

Return and walk over the rock band for a spell-binding vista as seen in the feature photo of this post. The image below was taken from the lip of Behind The Falls. There are two ways to cross Cascade Creek to access the water curtain. Notice the log spanning the river downstream of the falls. When the log is dry and the river is drowsy, this is a sweet crossing.

Alternatively, there is a solid social trail on the west side of the creek. It starts at the two water tanks in Cascade Village. In the spring it is a significant challenge to cross Camp and Pando Creeks. At Graysill Creek there is a sign for the Graysill Trail (Highline Trail). This unmaintained trail has mostly disappeared but it once went over the Graysill Mountain Divide into the Hermosa Creek drainage. The west-side trail peters out after 50-Foot Fall. From there, hike cross-country to Behind The Falls. It is a little exposed getting to the side of the waterfall as seen in the image below.

From this vantage point it is possible to get behind the 70-foot curtain. In 2013, lingering ice and snow made the short passage slick and dangerous. It is not trivial under any circumstances.

Two-Tier Fall
The trail is poorly defined in marshy meadowland. Leave it once again to see the relatively small 20 and ten-foot falls at 5.6 miles. Return and cross a boot-sucking bog with two inches of flowing water. You may bypass in the forest on the east side.

Ice Cream Scoop Fall
The fairest waterfall of them all, at Ice Cream Scoop the entire river churns through a three-foot wide, red sandstone constriction. Convulsing and aerated, fluvial mist issues in a broad spray-cloud. Water crashes helplessly into a roiling pool circulating its stash of logs. In the heat of summer when the creek has spent itself, this is one of Durango's finest swimming holes.

Endless Cascade
Look around for there are actually four falls visible, including the Endless Cascade with a buddy fall on its right.

Cross a side creek to reach the Ice Cream Scoop pourover at 6.2 miles. Not just one, but two scoops have been effortlessly carved into stone.

The easiest route north is to return to the trail just east of the swimming hole. We continued up a short, steep hill through rough country troubled with fallen logs. By staying quite close to the creek we passed another gigantic fall (#7) which I neglected to photograph in drenching rain. Press on to arrive at the most percussive and spine-tingling cascade in the chain.

150-Foot Fall
Reach the overlook for the eighth and final waterfall at 6.6 miles, elevation 10,200 feet. At the top of the fall and at each successive ledge, water bursts forth in irregular spurts from the throbbing cataract only to coalesce in the swirling pool and continue its fateful journey, rushing past with full-on power.

While our hike turns around here, Trail #510 continues until it intersects the Colorado (Rico-Silverton) Trail at 10,800 feet, less than a mile hence. I cannot vouch for this trail; I've heard it is faint while passing through wild country. The return trek is a quick 5.9 miles, assuming no further diversions from the trail. Watery pandemonium behind us, trailside luminous red columbine are tranquilizing. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Cascade Creek is tunneled under the highway and then resumes its frolicking journey. It takes a brief rest in Purgatory Flats, plunges out of sight in a dramatic canyon, and then gets dispensed with as a mere tributary into the mighty Animas River.

Cascade Creek Elevated Flume
The Cascade Creek diversion facilities, located on US Forest Service land, supply water for the Tacoma Hydroelectric Project constructed in 1905-06.

The ten-foot high concrete Cascade Creek Diversion Dam is located approximately 0.7 mile upstream of US 550. Constructed in 1923, the dam delivers as much as 350 cfs to the flume. The 10-foot diameter, semi-circular, elevated wooden flume rests on timber supports. The flume slopes at a uniform grade of about two feet per 1,000 feet. It runs for 4,200 feet to the Cascade Creek Pipeline inlet.  

The 64-inch diameter steel inverted siphon crosses Cascade Creek, clearly visible from the highway. Water is finally released into Little Cascade Creek and deposited into Electra Lake, the main storage reservoir for the Tacoma Powerhouse. 

The powerhouse is located between Electra Lake and the Animas River. It contains three generating units with a total capacity of eight megawatts. 


  1. Debra, you nailed it! All the power and glory and outright magnificence captured in glorious prose. Thank you, my friend.

  2. Debra, you provide awesome info. Thorough, clear, useful. Do you have details on how to get to Adrenaline Falls and can it be a part of this hike ( ?

    1. Thanks, Alec. I watched my son and BF jump Adrenaline. It's close, but not the same hike. Drive north over Coal Bank Pass toward Silverton and near the bottom, turn right onto Lime Creek Road. Drive about 2.5 miles. Cross Deer Creek, then Coal Creek on bridges. After crossing Coal Creek watch for a fire ring and pullout on the left. Walk east through the woods and a trail will materialize. It's about 0.3 mile to the falls. The jumps range up to 55 feet. If you take the high jump, do not land where the waterfall hits the pool; it will drag you under. Jump about ten feet out from the contact point. The pool is plenty deep but Adrenaline is a risky proposition. Take care. D