Can you call it a waterfall if the water isn’t falling? We vote yes, and believe winter to be the coolest — see what we did there? — time to check out these frozen-over cascades. (Waterstill just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) In fact, waterfalls might be at their peak majesty when iced over and draped in newly fallen snow, creating a scene straight out of Arendelle or Narnia or some other idyllic, frosted land that isn’t in a children’s movie.
Hanging Lake may be the first spot you think of for impressive, wintry frozen falling water, but the Grizzly Creek fire burned areas above the trail and the lake, prompting White River National Forest Service officials to close the trail due to safety concerns. No reopening date has been announced.
Luckily, Colorado is full of falls. Here are nine frozen cascades sure to stun and inspire. All you need are warm clothes, common sense — some trails will be icy; some will be difficult to follow — and a spirit for adventure.
Fish Creek Falls
The 283-foot waterfall is a favorite for local ice climbers and snowshoers alike. The short but snowy trek to the falls is straight out of a fairytale winter wonderland, lined with evergreens along the way.
Finding the falls: The parking area and trailhead is just a few miles from downtown Steamboat; a ¼-mile one-way hike will get you to the lower falls. (A second fall is another 2.5 miles up the trail with nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain.) The trail is typically pretty packed down from foot traffic and fairly easy to follow. Fish Creek Falls is open year-round 6 a.m.-10 p.m. and requires a $5 vehicle day use fee.
Bridal Veil Falls
At 365 feet — a foot for each day of the year! (Unless it’s leap year, but that nonsense is behind us in 2020.) — Bridal Veil is the tallest free-falling cascade in Colorado. It’s a neat sight when it’s completely frozen over.
Finding the falls: Trekking to the falls is discouraged during the winter months (and the 4WD road leading to its base is closed to cars), but you can still see the awe-inspiring waterfall in all its frozen glory from the end of Telluride’s box canyon. Just take Colorado Avenue east out of town for a couple miles until the pavement ends.
Described as tropical in the warm months, Rifle Falls transforms into a fairytale-esque sight in winter, complete with icy daggers, frozen spray and sparkling spires. And since you drove all that way, be sure to stop at Rifle Mountain Park for the equally stunning ice caves — limestone caves full of beautiful turquoise icicles.
Finding the falls: For prime viewing, head up the short, easy-to-follow trail. It’s just .2 miles round-trip, but there are other trails from the base of the falls if you want to further explore the area. Rifle Falls is open year-round 6 a.m.-10 p.m. and entry to Rifle Falls State Park is $8 per day, per vehicle. (An annual state parks vehicle pass costs $80.)
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This 181-foot, seven-tiered wonder is privately owned by The Broadmoor, but publicly loved by falling water aficionados. In winter, the falls are lit up with rainbow lights, adding a touch of festivity to the granite chambered ice sculptures. The falls sit in a 1,250-foot tall box canyon with hiking trails winding through the trees.
Finding the falls: Park at Norris Penrose Event Center, where you’ll be shuttled four miles to the falls’ entrance. It’s then a .8 mile walk to the base of the falls and an optional 224-step climb over the falls and to the top, where hiking trails further climb up the box canyon. Check the Broadmoor’s website for current hours and admission costs.
Staunton State Park, Pine
Luckily Elk Falls is within an hour’s drive of Denver, because the hike is going to take a while. It’s nearly 11 miles to get to the waterfall and back to your car, so plan for a long day and potentially changing weather conditions. This is Colorado, after all.
Finding the falls: Start at the Staunton Ranch trail (your other choice of trailhead, Mason Creek, will also get you to the falls, but it’s a whopping 17-mile trek). When the trail ends in 3.3 miles, take the Bugling Elk trail to Elk Falls pond. Take your last trail, Lion’s Back, the final mile up to the falls. A daily vehicle pass for Staunton State Park costs $9. (An annual state parks vehicle pass costs $80.)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park
Not at all hidden to ice climbers, Hidden Falls is a popular icy ascent in the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. These falls are actually said to be better in winter, as it tends to be more of a water trickle than a fall in summer. Besides the theater of watching the climbers, the icy fall itself is a captivating sight, spilling through a rocky crevice.
Finding the falls: Take Colorado 7 for 19 miles from Estes Park to the Wild Basin entrance. The main road is closed in winter, so park at the winter turnaround and walk down the road until you reach the horse trail that takes you to Hidden Falls. From the winter turnaround, it’s just under 2 miles each way. You’ll need a pass to get into the park, which costs $25 per vehicle, per day. (An annual national parks pass costs $80.)
There’s a lot of water pouring out of Boulder Canyon, so when the 70-foot falls freeze, it’s a pretty amazing sight. Depending on the freeze, you may be able to see water rushing below the ice.
Finding the falls: Head west out of Boulder on Boulder Canyon Drive for 8.6 miles until you see a sign on the right for Boulder Falls. At just 100 yards each way, this is a quick trek.
Ouray Ice Park
The town of Ouray itself offers a few glimpses of natural waterfall wonders, but this man-made (and free!) park is truly spectacular. It’s a mecca for climbers (it hosts an ice festival each year that attracts climbers from around the world; planned for Jan. 21-24), but the blue ice, gravity-defying icicles and glacial marvels are an impressive sight for non-climbers to behold, too.
Finding the falls: Head south on U.S. 550 out of Ouray and hang a right on Camp Bird Road. The park is right there in Uncompahgre Gorge. It’s typically open mid- to late-December through mid-March, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
RELATED: 5 things you need to know if you ever visit Ouray Ice Park
Plunging waterfalls — those that drop without touching any rocks or cliffs — typically don’t freeze; the water moves too fast. But Vail’s The Fang is a special one, and each winter the 165-foot plunging cascade freezes into a breathtaking, freestanding ice column. You’ll see other frozen ice sheets, like the nearly equally tall Designator, near it, too.
Finding the falls: Take the East Vail exit from Interstate 70. From the Frontage Road, turn left onto Aspen Lane and left again onto Booth Creek Drive, from which you’ll see the amphitheater in all its frozen waterfall glory. Because of the avalanche danger in the area, you may want to view it from the car, but you’ll likely see climbers scaling it.
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