South Willow Falls
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
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    Distance: 8.9 miles (round trip)

    Walking time: 5 1/2 hours
    : 1,160 ft. gain/loss
       Mesa Cortina Trailhead (start):   9,210 ft.
       South Willow Falls: 10,120 ft.

    Trail: Well marked and maintained

    Season: Summer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are generally covered with snow from late November through late June.

    Vicinity: Near Silverthorne

    South Willow FallsSouth Willow Falls


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    This easy hike follows the Mesa Cortina Trail from the outskirts of Silverthorne into the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area where it meets South Willow Creek and the Gore Range Trail. It then follows the Gore Range Trail up the north side of the fast-flowing stream, finally to arrive at South Willow Falls. Those wanting a longer hike can continue from the falls to Red Buffalo Pass, Gore Lake and beyond. But the walk as far as South Willow Falls makes a nice day hike, and that is what I will describe here.

    The trail is flat or even slightly downhill for the first 15 minutes, as it winds through several small meadows. The grassy, flower-filled parks, bordered by quaking aspen, make for a very pleasant beginning to the hike. The only distraction is the noise from traffic on nearby I-70. It will be nearly an hour before the highway noise completely disappears.

    After about 20 minutes the trail crosses into the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, and at about this point it shifts into a long, gentle uphill climb. Soon you will enter an area littered with fallen trees, probably felled by a windstorm many years ago. Most of the new trees in this area are lodgepole pine, but none of them appear to be more than about 50 years old. Fortunately the windfall area does not last long, and soon you are back in a shady forest of standing timber.

    2.7 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses South Willow Creek and soon afterward arrives at sign marking the Gore Range Trail. This is a lovely area with several good campsites near the delightful fast-flowing stream. To reach the South Willow Falls you must turn left at the trail junction and follow the Gore Range Trail along the north side of the creek for another 1.7 miles. Notice the presence of many more Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir as you climb out of the montane forest into a subalpine life zone.

    Not far from the trail junction the path passes several ponds where a colony of beaver have dammed the creek. Notice the dead trees that line the ponds-killed by the rising water level of the beaver ponds. Then, just over a mile from the Mesa Cortina Trail, you will come to another signed trail junction where the Buffalo Mountain Trail departs on the left.

    You will know you are getting close to South Willow Falls when the trail passes under a dead tree that is leaning against a huge, 20-foot-high granite boulder on the left side of the trail. Beyond that point the path becomes much rockier, and soon you will see a large outcropping of granite ahead. Just before climbing over the wall of granite the trail makes a sharp right turn, but if you are observant you will notice another hiker-made trail leaving the main trail on the left side of the bend. Turn left here onto the hiker-made trail and within 100 yards you will come to the bottom of South Willow Falls.

    Just before you reach the lower falls you will see the remains of an old cabin, probably built in the 1880s. According to author Mary Ellen Gilliland there was a flurry of mining activity in the area in the early 1880s, and many cabins were built along the creek at that time. Whoever lived in the cabin near the lower falls must have had a hearing impairment-the roar from the crashing water is deafening.

    The best way to access the top of the falls is to return to the main trail and walk about 150 yards up a series of steep switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks the trail levels out onto a polished slab of granite, worn smooth long ago by ice age glaciers. Leave the trail at this point and walk a short distance towards the river, where you can see and hear the water cascading down the streambed over a series of precipices and chutes towards the cabin at the bottom.

    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the South Willow Falls area
    we recommend:
    Vail. Frisco, Dillon (Trails Illustrated, map #108)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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