Mad waters thunder down with intimidating ferocity through the forest, the adventurous river a headlong torrent plunging over hydraulic jumps. The explosive and talkative turbulence is an adrenaline rush for hikers who visit the Cascade Creek waterfalls and tributary cataracts.
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. The falls have been running at peak flow for a few weeks, so now is the time to get out there.
From the parking lot at 8,880 feet, hike up Cascade Creek Trail No. 510 on the east side of the river. The four-wheel drive road immediately crosses the Cascade Flume. The 10-foot-diameter, semi-circular, elevated wooden flume rests on timber supports and runs for 4,200 feet to the Cascade Creek Pipeline inlet. The diversion facilities supply water to the Tacoma Powerhouse located between Electra Lake and the Animas River.
Walk along the pleasant and peaceful dirt road with a few picturesque private log cabins scattered in the woods. Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and shimmering aspen capture sunshine, reluctantly sharing half light with snowberry and myrtle blueberry on the forest floor.
As spring gives way to insistent summer, it is so nice to be back in the mountains admiring wildflowers, cheerful little darlings. Find these 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.
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. At the far end of the dandelion patch, climb switchbacks to rapidly gain 300 feet.
Engine Creek Fall Low bass, booming and reverberating tones will direct you to the 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. Then cross the bridge and climb a short hill off-trail. Proceed cautiously to the lip of the overfall.
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 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.
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 garden of marsh marigolds, 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. Last week it was sunny and hot in Durango but we walked in the rain so bring a jacket.
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 and then proceed to the pouroff. Notice the log spanning the river downstream. There are two ways to cross Cascade Creek to access the water curtain. 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 and peters out after the 50-Foot Fall. From there, hike cross-country to Behind The Falls. It is a little exposed getting to the side of the waterfall. From this vantage point it is possible to get behind the 70-foot water curtain. Lingering ice and snow make the short passage slick and dangerous; it is never trivial.
The trail is poorly defined in marshy meadowland. Cross a boot-sucking bog with two inches of flowing water, or 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.
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.
Return to the trail just east of the swimming hole. Press on to arrive at the most percussive and spine-tingling cascade in the chain.
150-Foot Fall Reach the overlook for this monster 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 No. 510 continues until it intersects the Colorado Trail at 10,800 feet, less than a mile hence. 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.
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.
Lower Cascade Creek Falls Parking for this mid-summer adventure is on the other side of the highway. In 2012, I was guided down the lower falls by my son. We waited for a hot day with reduced flow. Do not attempt this escapade in strong current. Wearing water shoes, walk down the access trail to the creek which is encased in a gorgeous limestone canyon ten to twenty feet wide. Once you make the first drop there is no reasonable escape; the series must be completed.
The first four jumps get successively higher. Swim across deep pools, wade down the boulder strewn stream, and climb slick, wet ledges. Rip down a 12-foot natural water slide just shy of vertical. The last two jumps are 15 to 20 feet depending on water level. Swim across a large pool after 25 to 40 minutes in frigid water. Upon emerging, walk for half a mile on the north side of the creek back to your vehicle. No weenies or weak swimmers. And yes, it is a blast.
For details on the Cascade Creek Diversion Facilities and instructions to still more waterfalls, see debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.