Date hiked: 06/03/16
Mileage: 5 miles; 2.5 hours
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 3 groups headed towards Lower Cascade Falls, 0 groups headed to Upper Cascade Falls.
Actually a series of seven flumes, Cascade Falls in Ouray carries the year’s snowmelt down from the highest reaches of the mountains to its final resting place in the calm turbulence of Cascade Creek. The lowest surge of these falls, aptly named Lower Cascade Falls, is the most known, thanks to it’s easy vantage point from anywhere within Ouray.
Two access points will get you to the lower falls. The first is right in town, from the trailhead at the end of Eighth Avenue. From here, it’s a short quarter mile of hiking round trip. On the other hand, if you’re after a more vigorous trek, park higher up at the popular Amphitheater Campground and hunker down through a steep half mile of coniferous woods to the creek bottom. As the harder of the two, this option is less-traveled, but more scenic with fleeting glimpses of Ouray and the lucid outpour of the falls.
A decade or two ago, this trail used to be much steeper, but it’s been rerouted in the years since, and now shares part of its route with the Perimiter Trail. While the old trail is still quite obvious in the undergrowth, keep erosion in mind, and stick to the switchbacks.
Once you find your hiking legs, the trip down to Lower Cascade Falls is a nice warm-up for the climb to the upper falls and Chief Ouray Mine. Back to the campground, cross the parking lot to the entry point of Upper Cascade Falls. The trail starts out rising through dense forests teeming with wildlife: the usual deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, and while uncommon, black bears and mountain lions aren’t unheard of. Every step of the way, sheer views of the Amphitheater dominate the skyline beyond the trees.
Follow this route until the junction with the Portland Creek Trail, then take a left towards Chief Ouray Mine. The grade grows at this point, dry switchbacks pulling you higher up into Cascade Mountain. Nearing the summit, a skinny shelf cut into the cliffside brings you to the homestretch. Topping out at just over 10,000 feet, Chief Ouray Mine comes into view, with panoramic views of the Sneffels Range.
Following the earth’s contours around the north side of the mountain, it’s just a short jaunt over to Upper Cascade Falls now. When I tried hiking this trail back in April, a wall of snow forced me back around at this point, but with just a couple weeks of sunshine, the trail was almost completely thawed out.
Losing some ground, the trail crosses Cascade Creek again, splitting the falls into two, then continues on up to what remains of the bunkhouse and mine, the mineshaft still visible in the deep recesses of the cliff.
To the upper trailhead: Head south out of Ouray on Highway 550 and turn left onto Amphitheater Campground Road at the second switchback. After .6 miles, park in the pullout on the left side of the road.
1.7 miles; 5 min
To the lower trailhead: Follow Eight Avenue east until it ends at Cascade Falls Park.