Colorado hiking trails with waterfalls: South Willow Falls |

Colorado hiking trails with waterfalls: South Willow Falls

South Willow Falls is one of the great hiking places in Summit County that is intermediate in difficulty and offers a waterfall

Kim Fenske
Special to the Daily
South Willow Falls with the cliffs of Buffalo Mountain in the background.
Kim Fenske / Special to the Daily |

If you are searching for hiking trails with waterfalls, the South Willow Falls is the perfect trail for you. The falls is located in the valley between the steep, rocky slopes of Red Peak (13,189 feet) and Buffalo Mountain (12,777 feet). The pass itself is part of a ridge over the amphitheater bowl that lies west of Buffalo Mountain. South Willow Creek forms from the tributary brooks pouring out of the great bowl of dense evergreen forest west of Buffalo Mountain.

This local hiking trail is intermediate in grade, rising and descending a few hundred feet as it follows the base of Buffalo Mountain for 1.5 miles. South Willow Falls is two miles from the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead, with about 500 feet of elevation for a profile ¬—an easy day hike by mountain standards.

Where there are breaks in the tangle of firs and spruce trees, many delicate wetland wildflowers and ferns grow. White bog orchid, king’s crown, red elephant tusk, blue columbine, dark purple monkshood (also known as the poisonous wolf bane used by assassins in medieval times), and blue mountain chimes or mertensia bloom during the mid-summer.

Carry at least a one-liter bottle of cold water on this 4-mile hike. Plan to be on the trail for at least two hours and make sure you have the appropriate hiking essentials. Pack a fleece and rain jacket to be ready for the afternoon thunderstorms that are very common during the summer. Prepare for a few hundred feet of climbing out of the valley to return to Buffalo Cabin Trailhead, including a snack for an energy boost if needed.

Beginning at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead (9,850 feet), hike northwest for a half-mile to a junction where the trail turns left for the ascent to the summit of Buffalo Mountain. At the junction, proceed straight and descend a few hundred feet over the next half-mile. The Colorado hiking trail crosses a small boulder field and proceeds along the dike holding back water in a small diversion ditch. After a few hundred steps, the trail continues on an abrupt descent to the right and crosses several streams of South Willow Creek through a broad wetland.

Follow the gravel beds bordered with logs as the trail leads to the north side of South Willow Creek. The path meets a junction with the Gore Range Trail at 1.5 miles (9,500 feet). From the junction, South Willow Falls is only a half-hour climb. Beyond the falls, several more tumbling cataracts of South Willow Creek drop through the steep valley from the west and invite further exploration. From the rock outcroppings on the trail, the scenic view east of the valley includes the Williams Fork Range, part of the Ptarmigan Wilderness Area. This is one of the most inviting hiking trails with waterfalls in the area.

How to get to there

From the junction of Interstate 70 and Highway 9 in Silverthorne, drive north for 0.3 miles and turn left on Wildernest Road. Go 0.5 miles before turning left onto Ryan Gulch Road. Drive up the base of Buffalo Mountain for 3.7 miles and stop at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead, parking on the left side of the road.

If you want to ride to the trailhead with the Summit Stage transit bus, then stay on Highway 9 north and park near the station on Fourth Street in Frisco. The Wildernest bus departs at quarter past each hour and reaches the trailhead by half-past the hour.

Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties,” and “Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness,” available from Amazon Kindle Books.

Originally published in the July 11, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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