Summit County waterfall hikes: South Willow Falls |

Summit County waterfall hikes: South Willow Falls

Experience a beautiful waterfall along this easily-accessible Summit County hiking trail

MARY ELLEN GILLILANDspecial to the daily

The Trail of the Week from The New Summit Hiker is South Willow Falls. Waterfall hikes are a highlight for June hiking and South Willow Falls is roaring over the rocks this week. The meadows below the falls still sport a few purple pasque flowers where snow melted late. The rare calypso orchid awaits alert flower lovers in the first pine forest. Four silvery waterfalls, plus a seltzer-fizzle chute, plunge over mammoth rocks at the South Willow Falls. Visitors will delight in their power and natural beauty of this ideal beginner hiking trail.

To get there, drive Colorado 9 north from Interstate 70s Silverthorne exit 205 to the Wildernest Road at the 7-11 store corner across from Wendys. The trailhead is in Mesa Cortina, 1.6 miles. Turn left and proceed to the fork. Turn right, then immediately left onto Royal Buffalo Drive (No. 1240). Drive 1.0 miles to Lakeview Drive (No. 1245) and turn right. Proceed to a fork with Aspen Drive. Go left on Aspen, up and around a short distance to the trailhead pull-off.

This local hiking trail begins near a few homes then alternates through flower-dappled aspen glades and big view meadows. From there, it penetrates dark pine forest to emerge in the deep gorge between Buffalo Mountain and Red Peak. The Mesa Cortina Trail meets the Gore Range Trail at 2.6 miles, where the route crosses South Willow Creek. You will now join the Gore Trail heading west-southwest (go straight ahead) and continue beside the tumbling creek into a rich forest.

Wildflowers here include some rarities: The delicate pink fairy slipper, another native orchid, blooms here along with more common purple larkspur, blue columbine, white brook cress, yellow lousewort, wild roses and many more. Hikers will climb on the Gore Trail, an aspen-lined path. A huge rock at trails left provides a foretaste of the mammoth stone formations that are the hiker’s clue to arriving at the waterfalls area. Look for these and a trail that cuts off to the left. Take this left trail a short distance to complete your waterfall hike at South Willow Falls. (See The New Summit Hiker, pages 92-93, for topographical map.)

A half cabin, former cabin site and mine ruins here may have belonged to the D. S. Dow & Company camp near the head of South Willow in 1882. Miners wintered in the area for the first time that year and reported 250 inches of snow, with 10-, 20- and 30-foot depths in canyons and coves. Twelve-foot-long by four-inch-wide miners snowshoes (skis) insured no serious trouble for either snow or cold, the 1880s-published Summit County Times reported.

An early day visitor to the sparkling waterfall was Ruby Lowe, whose historic homestead became today’s Ruby Ranch development. Though Ruby served for years as Summit Schools superintendent, her leisure time delight was to ride a favorite horse to South Willow falls or northwest to Salmon Lake. Both children and adults enjoy exploring around the waterfalls. (Watch kids carefully.) Climb the rocks, soak tired feet in an icy pool, hunt for the water cave or picnic by the crystal cascade. Enjoy your waterfall hike!

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The New Summit Hiker is a guide for 50 historic hiking places near Breckenridge, Frisco, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Dillon and in the Ptarmigan Peak and Eagles Nest Wilderness Areas. The guidebook is available for $16.95 in Summit County and Vail bookstores, supermarkets and sporting goods shops or by calling Alpenrose Press at (970) 468-6273. For additional trails information for both the Vail and Summit County areas, visit

Originally published in the June 26, 2005, issue of the Summit Daily news and regularly vetted for accuracy.