A 15-mile Winter Waterfall Hike

When it comes to seeing incredible sights in Colorado backcountry, hubby and I are usually pretty reasonable and prefer not to risk life and limb. You won’t find us doing risky climbs/hikes, but occasionally, we’ll go the extra mile if it means seeing something pretty cool.

Well, in the case of this particular hike, we were willing to go 15 miles in knee-deep powder snow, almost get frostbite, and hike in the darkness to see the sights.

For my birthday this past year, I had my heart set on re-visiting a particular hike we had done in the summer near Durango that had tons of waterfalls that were surely a must-see in the wintertime. This hike is already a 12-mile commitment in the summer and we knew the winter commitment was going to be quite a bit more due to snow covering the long road leading up to the trailhead; we just didn’t know how much more. I was fully up for the challenge of a long, hike in the snow, while also realizing that we might easily get turned around due to deep snow.

We started our hike at 9:30am, which felt like a commendable, early start. There were a few cars already parked when we arrived for our hike, which made us feel like we were not such early birds after all. However, as it turned out, the cars were there for a different hike in the area and we were the first to set foot on the hike we had planned, as evidenced by the untouched snow on the trail ahead of us.

We happened to start our hike at the same time as another hiker and her furry companion, who immediately caught up to us while we stopped to put on our snowshoes after realizing we would need them right away. It was actually a blessing that we had someone in front of us doing all the hard work breaking trail on the fresh snow, but I was a still a bit bummed and ungrateful. Breaking trail in fresh snow can be an arduous task; on the other hand, I take immense, child-like joy in stomping on pure, untouched snow and also love the extra challenge of earning the breath-taking white landscapes that often await the end of a sweaty snowshoe hike.

We hiked about five miles and three hours before we arrived at our first incredible sight on the trail – a frozen waterfall. We stopped to have some mid-hike libations at this gorgeous waterfall and discussed our plan for what we would do next. Pie and I had not really made any pre-hike plan on how far we would or wouldn’t go on the long trail. We figured we would just play it by ear, depending on how much snow there was and how much progress we were making in the snow.

It was probably not wise to be improvising our hiking plans mid-way through the day with libations in hand. By half of a canned-wine later, I was already talking hubby into continuing further on the trail to the last waterfall instead of heading back. This was a crazy idea, considering that as it stood, we already had an intimidating five miles to get back to our vehicle and if we continued on, not only would we be breaking trail in the snow (since the hiker in front of us had turned around), but the snow would be much deeper (and more tiring) beyond the waterfall we were stopped at.

Furthermore, hubby, being the nerd he is, had already done the “hiking math” in his head and determined that at the pace we were going, even if we just hiked one more hour to see how far that got us, we would likely not reach the end of the trail and last waterfall, and we would definitely be hiking back with the daylight quickly fading.

I didn’t want to bother checking hubby’s hiking math, but it seemed ridiculous to think we would be arriving back in darkness, considering it was only noon at the time and we had started our hike so early! Besides, it seemed like we were soooo close to the end of the trail and the last magnificent waterfall we had hoped to see in frozen form, so it felt ridiculous to turn around with the finish line so close. I would also get my exciting opportunity to break trail in the snow!

So we guzzled the last our drinks and marched on!

We decided that we would hike just a little bit further to see what the next waterfall looked like and then we could decide from there whether to continue or turn around, based on our pace.

It was evident right away that hiking in the fresh, virgin snow on the slightly uphill terrain was going to be no easy task, but, fueled by our midday snacks and libations, we were unusually giddy for the challenge! Breaking trail was such an exhausting task that it was helpful that Pie and I could at least take turns being the lead hiker.

After 25 minutes of arduous hiking, we reached the next waterfall on the trail. Our plan had been to just make it to this next waterfall and reassess whether we should turn around based on how difficult the hiking had been in the fresh snow, however, the next waterfall ended up being completely buried in snow, due to the slanted angle of the waterfall.

Normally, 25 minutes of hiking would not have been anything to write home about, but we believed the distance between the first waterfall and the second waterfall to only be half a mile. It was completely absurd to only make half a mile of progress in 25 minutes! This sloth-like pace just proved how much more difficult the deep, fresh snow made our hike!

Nonetheless, we didn’t want to throw in the towel just yet, so we agreed to continue on just a little bit further (spoiler alert: you might have already noticed that this was becoming the recurring theme of our hike).

The trail to the second waterfall was positioned right next to the top of the waterfall. We took advantage of the snow-covered stream by hiking upstream on top of it! It was nerve-racking and exhilarating all at once to be able hike directly on top of a stream. Every few yards we would pass huge gaping holes in the snow with exposed water still freely flowing by with no concern for the freezing temperatures above it. Each of these holes were an important reminder that we could easily discover or create new exposed holes in the snow with one misstep, which would have resulted in a most unpleasant return hike.

We weren’t expecting to find anything upstream and had just planned on hiking up it for fun, then turning around, but a short 10 minutes later, we stumbled upon the most magical view of a frozen waterfall underneath a log bridge, accompanied by a contrasting backdrop of bluebird skies and blinding white, snowy mountain peaks covered in snow-dusted pines.

This view was everything we could have hoped for in a winter hike and was certainly enough to call it a day and turn back… but giddy with excitement at our incredible discovery, we reasoned that we had to continue on to find the last waterfall that was surely equally as magical, if not perhaps more!! Because we were off-trail, we had lost track of how much further we might be to the last waterfall (which we had reached in the summer), but we assumed it couldn’t possibly be much further and would be worth the extra trek.

The trail to continue was upstream, but there was no way of getting past the frozen waterfall ahead that was surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides. We ended up having to backtrack downstream in order to get out and continue back up the trail.

As if that situation wasn’t enough of a hurdle to surpass, the trail ended crossing the same stream we had come from and in a messy attempt to get across the tall mounds of snow, I ended up sinking my feet in the water underneath when the weakened snow gave way from our weight. This didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but later turned out to be one of most scary ordeals of potential frostbite.

It wasn’t long after the previous waterfall that we began immensely regretting our decision to continue on, but both hubby and I seemed to silently and mutually agree that we had hiked so far that we couldn’t possibly give up now after all that hard earned work!

It didn’t help that every time we reached an open meadow, we were so sure the last waterfall was just on the other side of it because that’s what we had recalled from our summer hike. But each meadow we reached ended up being a metaphorical mirage for a waterfall that didn’t seem to exist on the other side. Not only that, the snow in each meadow got deeper and deeper until we found ourselves only able to take a few steps before needing a break from the exhausting work even with taking turns leading still.

We had been keenly aware that we had long past the point of returning with daylight, so there didn’t seem to be much point in giving up now if we were going to be hiking back in darkness no matter what.

What stubborn fools we were!

This is where I dunked my feet in the hidden stream underneath. You can see that the snow was giving way and cracking as hubby tried to climb it ahead of me.

After almost two miles and two whopping hours of hiking since the previous waterfall, we finally reached the final waterfall… and it was unbelievably……………. disappointing! It too, like the second waterfall, was mostly covered in snow and nothing like its gorgeous summer twin.

Hubby and I, while exhausted to the core, couldn’t help but just laugh while we put on half-pretend smiles for a quick camera shot before we spared not another minute heading back. It was 3 o’clock by the time we arrived at the waterfall, but due to the shortened daylight hours in the winter (that hubby had tried to warn tipsy-me about earlier in the day), it seemed much later in the day!

Hubby and I shared few words on the long, return hike. Neither one of us was necessarily upset or frustrated because we knew this was the adventure we had voluntarily signed up for, but we just had no extra energy left in us to think about the “what ifs” and have a conversation about how ridiculous our decisions had been. We couldn’t change anything about the situation we were in, and luckily, we were uninjured and completely capable of continuing the 7.5 miles ahead. So we just had to put one snowshoe in front of the other and march on!

Side note: I should mention, too, that hubby did have an emergency GPS device that could call for help if we needed it, but we certainly didn’t feel like we were in any kind of trouble that would warrant it.

The sun had already begun to set behind the tall mountains towering beside us before we had even reached the final waterfall, so we knew we not only had a long hike ahead, but one that would end up in pitch darkness. At the back of my mind, I kept wondering how we would possibly be able to see in the dark, because as luck would have it, there was only a tiny sliver of moon that night that was definitely not going to help us out.

In the silence of our return, with only our thoughts to keep us occupied, I couldn’t help but remember that at the last minute before our hike, I had removed a spare bag of miscellaneous items I usually kept in my backpack for bike rides, one of which was a bicycle light. On the other hand, I had removed this bag in lieu of taking two important emergency blankets. Clearly I should have taken both, but pre-hike me would have never believed that we would have been hiking back in the dark.

As the sky began getting darker and I began realizing how much the darkness was going to slow us down further, hubby did something completely unexpected. He pulled out a head lamp. I wanted to be upset that he let me internally worry for several miles how we were going to hike in the darkness, but I couldn’t have possibly been anything but elated for the fact that we would not be stumbling back slowly in the darkness. Hallelujah!

There were still other worries on my mind to take over though. The brief water dunk I took earlier during our hike had become a huge concern as the temperatures dropped and the moisture spread further inside my boots. As much as I tried wiggling my toes to keep the circulation going, it felt like a battle I might lose. There was nothing I could do about the situation and I couldn’t help but think that the pain and numbness from my freezing toes was far worse than any exhaustion I felt in my legs. Eventually though, when we reached the first waterfall again, my feet finally began to unthaw, since we were back in highly-trafficked terrain and less deep snow. It was the biggest relief, both mentally and physically!

The last five miles of our hike were uneventful and went relatively quick for a cold, exhausting, nighttime hike. At exactly 6 o’clock and three hours of hiking, we finally arrived back at our vehicle. We had never been so thrilled to see our vehicle and never felt so proud and grateful that our bodies were capable of carrying us 15 miles in difficult, snowy terrain. Next time, we should probably stick to our original plans and truly only go a little bit further, but hey, what kind of story would that be?

The real kicker of this story is that we weren’t even remotely sore the next day. We still went on another short hike in the afternoon, so I don’t think we’ve quite learned any lesson from this story, other than to bring two head lamps.

Not us, doing another sketchy, snowy (but short) hike the very next day after our 15-mile hike. Sorrynotsorry.

2 thoughts on “A 15-mile Winter Waterfall Hike

  1. I love this story! I’m a big fan of “just a little bit farther” hiking, although I’ve stopped doing that whenever I’m carrying my son because toddlers can’t roll like that! I’m so glad you got to all the waterfalls because if you’re like me you would have wondered what it looked like and what you had been missing!

    • Aww thanks! Indeed, my curiosity was too strong not to continue and I’m glad we made the extra trek rather than always wondering what it would have looked like! I’m sure before you know it, your son will be the one encouraging you to explore more when you’re ready to call it quits.

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