By Steve Graham
Sure, much of Colorado is a high desert, but at least seven major rivers have their headwaters in our state, so there’s actually plenty of water. Much of it is rushing downhill fast, creating some stunning and sometimes refreshing waterfalls.
Here are our top 10 waterfalls in Colorado, and a nearby brew to pack in for your adventure or enjoy after the hike.
1> Bridal Veil Falls
It’s hard to start a waterfall tour anywhere except the 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls outside Telluride — the state’s tallest. Bike or hike about 1.2 miles to a misty viewpoint at the bottom of the falls. You can also hike another 0.8 miles up some steep switchbacks to the top of the falls and some stunning views of a beautiful old ski town.
What to drink: Duh, the Bridal Veil Rye Pale Ale at Telluride Brewing Co.
2> Hanging Lake
The tour starts but certainly doesn’t end in Telluride. Head north to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. This cliff-side lake is fed by a string of small and beautiful falls. The falls and the lake are reached by a short, steep and very popular 1.2 mile hike. Be warned that the lake ecosystem is delicate, and swimming, fishing and dogs are strictly prohibited.
What to drink: Honor your hike with the award-winning Hanging Lake Honey Ale at the Glenwood Canyon Brew Pub.
3> Fish Creek Falls
This popular 280-foot falls outside Steamboat Springs is a year-round draw — for ice climbers in the winter and families through the summer. It’s a short and easy quarter-mile walk on a gravel road to the lower falls, and a moderate 2.5-mile trek to the upper falls. The sound of the falls during spring runoff may be deafening but the spray is refreshing.
What to drink: The Paddler’s Porter at Mountain Tap Brewery is a perfect way to follow up a splash in the falls.
4> Seven Falls
This Colorado Springs tourist attraction isn’t exactly a backcountry getaway, but ziplines and a stairway up the waterfall make it a great excursion for the whole family. The seven segments fall a combined 181 feet and are even a draw at night, when illuminated by colored lights. Access the base of the falls and the staircase via an easy hike of less than one mile. There are also a variety of hiking trails from the top of the falls.
What to drink: You might have to dig around a little to find the Seven Falls Prospector’s Pick, brewed early this year by Red Leg Brewing Co. for the Broadmoor Hotel.
5> North Clear Creek Falls
If isolation is more your style, head into the remote San Juan Mountains for North Clear Creek Falls, which drops more than 100 feet. Between the little towns of Creede and Lake City, you will likely have the 2.5-mile hike to the North Clear Creek Falls to yourself. Even the overlook off State Highway 149 is unlikely to be crowded, but offers wonderful photo opportunities.
What to drink: It’s one of the few spots in Colorado that isn’t really close to a brewery, so stop in Del Norte on your way for a growler of Hop Trash IPA or Black Yak Black Lager at Three Barrel Brewing Co.
6> Alberta Falls
Get up early to beat the crowds to the Glacier Gorge trailhead on Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s less than a mile from the trailhead to this pretty 30-foot waterfall, and the fall colors in the surrounding aspen groves are unparalleled. The falls are named for Alberta Sprague, wife of Abner Sprague, who was an original settler of the Estes valley and the first paid visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park.
What to drink: You’ll cross Chaos Creek on the way to Alberta Falls, so try the Chaos Canyon Stout at Rock Cut Brewing Co. in Estes Park.
7> Ouzel Falls
Another way to avoid the crowds is to skip the Estes Park entrance altogether. Head into Rocky Mountain National Park at the Wild Basin entrance near Allenspark. Drive about 2 miles on a narrow dirt road (not RV-accessible) to the Wild Basin Trailhead. Hike 2.7 miles past a number of waterfalls and cascades to reach Ouzel, which falls more than 50 feet through a crack in a dark rock wall.
What to drink: On your way to the park, stop in Boulder and fill a growler with Wildflower Pale Ale at Wild Woods Brewery.
8> Elk Falls
Staunton State Park opened in 2013 near Conifer, allowing access to possibly the closest alpine waterfall to the Denver metro area. Though the park entrance may be a short drive away, expect a challenging 5.4 mile hike, including 250 feet of scrambling at trail’s end, to the falls. The hike includes three separate trails, and visitors would be wise to carry a trail map.
What to drink: Pay homage to the area’s history with a Jock Spence Scottish Ale at Lariat Lodge Brewing Co. in Evergreen.
9> Zapata Falls
When you are ready to escape the heat during your summer visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park, wash off the sand in Zapata Falls just three miles south of the park entrance. The falls parking lot offers stunning views of both the dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the lot, it’s a moderate half-mile hike, including either fording a river or traversing a log bridge to the 30-foot falls and a very chilly swim.
What to drink: Head a few more miles south to Alamosa and try the Grande River IPA at the San Luis Valley Brewing Company.
10> Rifle Falls State Park
Finally, there is a whole state park on the Western Slope named for the Rifle Falls, although the caves below are also a draw. Get up early, pack a headlamp and take the short, easy hike to the waterfall, then spend the day exploring the caves and enjoying the picnic area.
What to drink: As you head back over the divide, try the equally unique Oak Theory Belgian Sour from Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs.
Steve Graham is a Fort Collins writer who enjoys the outdoors and great beers.