Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 10.6 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 1,980 ft. gain/loss
Fourmile Trailhead (start): 9,200 ft.
Fourmile Falls: 9,760 ft.
Fourmile Lake: 11,185 ft.
Trail: Easy to follow, but often extremely rocky.
Season: Midsummer through mid-Fall. The upper parts of the trail are generally covered with snow from mid-November through late June.
Vicinity: Near Pagosa Springs
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The highlights of this hike are two gorgeous waterfalls that are located 3.0 miles from the trailhead. The falls are an easy walk from the road with an elevation gain of only 750 feet, and upon reaching them most people go no further. There are several more waterfalls along Fourmile Creek, however, and the additional 2.3-mile walk to the head of the fast-flowing mountain stream will yield additional rewards. The trail finally ends at Fourmile Lake, a 600-foot diameter tarn hidden in the back of a basin on the northeast side of Pagosa Peak.
If you want to experience Fourmile Creek at its very best try to begin this hike no more than a half-hour after sunrise. The trail passes through a succession of pristine mountain meadows along the stream that are a delight to experience in the early morning hours. The show begins at dawn, when clouds of mist begin rising from the due-covered grass that surrounds the creek. The soft light flickering through the mist onto the wildflowers and the clean, white trunks of the bordering quaking aspen make an enchanting prolog to the day. Birds of all kinds flock to the meadows at daybreak, and their songs combine with the sounds of the running water to fill the parks with nature’s music. Morning is also the best time to see Fourmile Falls. The highest of the two falls faces directly east, and for a few precious hours each day its watery descent is bathed in the glory of the morning sunshine.
From the trailhead the hike begins by winding gently downward through a primeval forest of Engelmann spruce. After an elevation loss of 200 feet over a distance of 0.7 mile the trail crosses the southern boundary of the Weminuche Wilderness Area, and soon afterward it enters the first of several long, narrow meadows that line the banks of the creek. The route crosses several small streams that flow into Fourmile Creek from the west, but they are easily crossed on rocks and fallen logs.
After 2.6 miles you will begin to catch glimpses of one of the falls on the north side of the valley, then it disappears behind the trees and reemerges again only when you are almost directly below it. The first fall you will see pours off a 300-foot cliff of volcanic breccia. It is fed by Falls Creek, a small side stream that flows into Fourmile Creek from the west. The fall is some 250 feet high, with a sheer vertical drop of two-thirds that distance. The setting is magnificent, but if you are taking pictures you had better have a wide-angle lens for your camera.
After crossing Falls Creek below the waterfall the trail becomes rocky and steep as it climbs along the west side of Fourmile Creek. Then, only 250 yards from the first fall you will pass near the top of another equally impressive waterfall. The second fall is fed by Fourmile Creek itself, and the volume of water is at least 3-4 times greater. This fall roars over a break in the streambed and shoots down 120 feet to a calamitous end on the boulders below. Unfortunately, because of the heavy vegetation it is impossible to get a good view of the second fall from the trail. There is a large, open area at the bottom of the fall with an unimpeded view, but getting there requires some serious bushwhacking.
As if two were not enough, there is a third waterfall on Fourmile Creek just 0.1 mile above the second fall. The third one does not have a long vertical drop like the first two, but it is still worth pausing to look at. The gradient of the creek (and the trail!) is so steep after the first 3.0 miles that waterfalls are inevitable, and as you proceed upward you will be treated to one cascade after another. If you are doing this hike in early summer before the spring runoff has ended the rushing water is particularly dramatic.
Five minutes beyond the third waterfall the trail crosses to the east side of the creek. Older maps indicate that there was once a steel bridge across the creek at this point, but now there is scarcely a trace of the old span. It has been gone for at least 20 years, but fortunately there is a fallen log nearby so it is possible to cross the water without getting your feet wet.
The trail stays on the east side of the water for only about 10 minutes before crossing back again. When you are back on the west side pause to look 200 yards upstream and you will see yet another dramatic cascade of whitewater roaring down another chute in the streambed. This is also a fine area for camping if you are carrying a tent. The forest is open and flat for some distance below the cascade, and one couldn’t ask for a more inspirational place to spend a night.
Soon the trail crosses to the east side of the creek for the second time, where it will remain for the rest of the way to the lake. After 15 minutes you will see a sign at a trail junction where the trail to Turkey Creek Lake branches off to the right. Bear left here and soon you will enter the southern end of another long alpine meadow that lines the shores of Fourmile Creek. The trail stays in the meadow for 0.7 mile before climbing into the trees on its northern side. Finally it climbs the last 200 feet to end at the southern shore of Fourmile Lake.
Fourmile Lake is a very pretty alpine jewel, completely surrounded with trees and bordered on three sides by 12,000-foot ridges. The nicest campsites are on the northern shore, and the fishing is reputed to be good. Upper Fourmile Lake lies 475 feet higher and 0.3 mile further north. There is no trail leading to the upper lake, but the route is not difficult. Just follow the drainage upward from the north end of the lower lake and after fifteen minutes of climbing you should arrive at Upper Fourmile Lake.
The Anderson Trail provides an alternate route from the end of Fourmile Road to Fourmile Lake, and many people do this hike as a loop. The Anderson Trail is not as steep and rocky as the second half of the Fourmile Creek Trail; however it is 2.0 miles longer and 400 feet higher. Unlike the Fourmile Creek Trail, the Anderson Trail generally stays high on the eastern slopes of Pagosa Peak rather than following a creek. It is a much better trail for horses, and I suspect that is the primary reason it was originally constructed.
The route up Fourmile Creek is such a scenic trail that I personally prefer to return the same way, but if you decide to do this hike as a loop I suggest you save the Anderson Trail for the return trip. That way you will see the waterfalls and meadows earlier in the day when the light is best, and you will be walking on the easier Anderson Trail at the end of the day when you have less energy to spare.
The Anderson Trail begins at the same trailhead as the Fourmile Creek Trail, and it ends at the source of Fourmile Creek on the south side of the lake. When you reach the end of the Fourmile Creek Trail you will see the stream that drains the lake on your left. Cross to the west side of the creek and within 20 feet you will see a small wooden sign nailed to a tree beside the lake that marks the beginning of the Anderson Trail.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Fourmile Creek Trail
Weminuche Wilderness (Trails Illustrated, map #140)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS