Natural beauty abounds in southwestern Colorado, with several San Juan mountain waterfalls spread throughout the neighboring national forest and just a short drive from our hotel in Pagosa Springs.
Three waterfalls (Treasure Falls, Silver Falls, and Piedra Falls) require less than a mile approach hike, and Treasure Falls is visible from the road, with no trek necessary. The fourth waterfall (Fourmile Falls) involves a 7-mile roundtrip hike, making it suitable for those looking for a day-trip adventure. Three of the four waterfalls are only reachable via Forest Service roads, which close seasonally for the winter from November through March, so April through October is the prime window for waterfall-chasing. Treasure Falls is accessible year-round but freezes over during the winter, so aim for spring and summer visits.
Plan your visit soon – the creeks are flowing, the rivers are running, and the waterfalls are cascading!
Treasure Falls has the unique distinction of being one of the most dramatic San Juan mountain waterfalls (it’s breathtaking, at over 100 feet tall) and one of the most easily accessible. Located just 15 miles north of the Riverwalk Inn on the east side of Highway 160 (the same road we’re on), this waterfall is practically in our backyard, a perfect place to get a taste of Colorado’s pristine backcountry waterways. The falls are part of Fall Creek, aptly named, which originates near the peak of Treasure Mountain, one of Colorado’s numerous 13,000+ foot mountains.
There is a parking pull-off on Highway 60, and you can even see the waterfalls from the parking area, making Treasure Falls a great option if you have mobility constraints or don’t want to hike in. But for a more up-close experience, it’s a laidback ½ mile hike to the base of the waterfall on one of two trails – the main trail or the “primitive trail,” which is less maintained but also less crowded. The primitive trail can sometimes get washed out, making the route less obvious, so stick to the main path to and from the waterfall for the most straightforward hike. Given its proximity to Pagosa Springs, the parking lot fills up quickly, so try to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon for easier access.
Although Silver Falls is just 18 miles from downtown Pagosa Springs, it’s more remote than several other nearby San Juan mountain waterfalls as it requires an 8-mile trek on a dirt road after turning off Highway 160. Heading north from our location on Highway 160 (going the same direction as you would take to visit Treasure Falls), turn right onto US Forest Service Road 667. It’s also known as East Fork Road, as it follows the east fork of the San Juan River, crossing through dense and gorgeous pine forests along the route.
Before heading up there, stop at the USFS Ranger station – just a couple blocks away from us on Highway 160 – where you can pick up a San Juan National Forest MVUM (motor vehicle use map). Rangers can also give you an update on the status of the dirt access road, as it does require one small water crossing. It’s usually no issue unless you have very little clearance on your vehicle, but getting current info beforehand is still best. High-clearance vehicles are ideal, but even sedans and minivans can make the trip, so just take it slow and enjoy the off-the-beaten-path scenery. Other great options for the dirt road portion are riding either a mountain bike or an ATV (see our recent OHV/ATV blog for more info about riding near Pagosa Springs). Whichever mode of travel you plan to get to Silver Falls, visit between May and September when the road will be free of snow, and the creek crossings won’t be too high.
After about 8 miles on the Forest Service Road, park near the ranger station, behind which a gate in the fence leads to the trail taking you to Silver Falls. After a steep but short (only ⅛ mile) hike, you’ll get to the waterfall, which cascades over several levels of rock and widens at the bottom, flowing in a more spread-out fashion than Treasure Falls. Also, look out for ferns and other lush vegetation that thrive in the area surrounding the waterfall, fed by the constant mist.
Fourmile Falls is just north of Pagosa Springs, like Treasure and Silver Falls, but is west of those two waterfalls and higher up in elevation. From downtown Pagosa Springs, head north on 5th St out of the center of town. 5th St turns into Fourmile Road (also known as CR-400), and as you head further from the town center, stay right at the junction when CR-400 becomes Forest Service Road 645 – this stretch is a gravel road but easily passable from spring through early fall.
After parking where the road ends at the Fourmile trailhead, begin your hike on the Fourmile Stock Drive Trail, which goes by babbling streams and wildflower meadows (particularly stunning in midsummer) along the 3.5-mile route to the waterfall. Although the hike is challenging – ascending 1,000 feet en route – it’s worth the effort, as you’ll come upon not just one but TWO waterfalls! You’ll see Falls Creek waterfall first, followed by Fourmile Falls, which are both massive falls and fed by the crystalline water coming down from the flank of Pagosa Peak. Pagosa Peak is the most prominent mountain seen from town, at 12,640 feet, and it’s awe-inspiring to witness these waterfalls that flow in that same high alpine environment – once you get to the waterfalls, you will have climbed from 9,200 feet up to 10,300 feet. The roundtrip hike is 7 miles total, so start early in the day to avoid afternoon storms and allow yourself plenty of time to complete the out and back before nightfall.
Piedra Falls is one of the most family-friendly waterfalls to visit, as the ½ mile approach hike is one of the easiest, with a gentle slope until you reach the magnificent 100+ foot waterfall. It’s a bit more of a drive than the other waterfalls, but only 30 miles from your room at our Pagosa Springs Hotel, with incredible mountain scenery every mile. Turn onto Piedra Road from Highway 160 in downtown Pagosa Springs, make a right onto Taylor Lane (near Sportsman's Campground), hang a quick left onto Forest Service Road 636, and a right onto Forest Service Road 637, which takes you to the Piedra Falls trailhead.
The landscape surrounding Piedra Falls makes it extra picturesque – its dark-black volcanic rock looks like the hardened lava you’d see at the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, an otherworldly sight. Snowmelt feeds the Piedra River as it careens over the falls, reaching peak flow in spring when warmer days begin melting the high-country snowpack. In May or June, Piedra Falls is at its most ferocious (you can feel the waterfall spray from 50 feet away, an excellent way to cool off on a hot summer day), but July, August, and September still have ideal waterfall-viewing conditions.
Stay with us and add waterfall-chasing to your Pagosa Springs outdoor adventure itinerary!