8 Great Reduced-Impact Waterfall Hikes
In 2019, the Booth Lake Trail, a 4-mile there-and-back path to Booth Creek Falls that’s one the valley’s most popular hikes, logged 30,637 users. A year later, when the pandemic idled Vail Village’s festival season and a statewide lockdown sent locals and Front Rangers into a get-outdoors frenzy, 50,560 hikers (a 63 percent increase) stomped up the Booth Lake Trail, leaving illegally parked SUVs clogging both shoulders of Booth Falls Road, as well as piles of trash and biological waste from humans and off-leash dogs. To preempt a repeat performance this summer, Vail’s Town Council in March banned parking at the trailhead and on nearby streets, levying steep fines for violators (first offense: $100, second offense: $200, strike three: $300) and offering free town bus service instead.
U.S. Forest Service ranger Katherine “Kat” Bazan says the mayhem at Booth Creek Falls (gateway to the Eagles Nest Wilderness) was hardly confined to that trail, noting that on most weekends at the Notch Mountain/Mount of the Holy Cross trailhead last summer, vehicles overflowed out of the parking lot onto both shoulders of Tigiwon Road for a half-mile or more; ditto at the Cross Creek trailhead further down the road, making it impassable for emergency vehicles. Anticipating more of the same this summer, Bazan would like to relay an urgent plea to the public: give nature a break.
“We don’t want to tell people they can’t use the wilderness; it’s really beneficial,” says Bazan, manager of Wilderness and Trails for the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District. “But wilderness is managed differently. We have standards for how many groups of people a user should interact with on a hike.... Overcrowding not only has physical effects, but it’s also degrading the wilderness character as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964.”
In particular jeopardy, she notes, is a core principle of the Act, which defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“I worry about our trails getting over-loved,” Bazan stresses. “It takes the whole community—locals and visitors—to take responsibility into their own hands and protect our trails, and the wilderness experience, for everyone.”
That means being flexible. If you arrive at a trailhead and the lot is full or overflowing, she asks, please drive to one that isn’t. Better yet, park for free in one of the public garages at Vail, Lionshead, or Beaver Creek villages and confine your exploration (and impact on the wilderness) to the in-bounds terrain on those mountains. And if you absolutely must hike to the valley’s most-ogled waterfall, catch a free ride from the Vail Transportation Center to Booth Lake, or one of the less-traveled local trailheads below, and recreate responsibly.
Bus-served trails from Vail Village/Lionshead
Booth Lake Trail
Booth Creek Falls, whose intertwined torrents plunge 60 feet, has earned its rep as Vail’s most dramatic—and popular—cascade. Over the first lung-busting mile of the trail, you’ll ascend steeply through lush aspen groves, then catch your breath as the grade mellows, traversing Booth Creek to the cascade. If you’re so inspired, continue up the trail, through thinning conifer forests and wildflower meadows offering glimpses of the Gore Range, for another 2.5 miles (and another 1,680 feet in elevation) to Booth Lake.
Distance: 1.8 miles each way (to the falls)
Elevation gain: 1,800 feet
Get there: From the Vail Village or Lionshead parking structures, take the East Vail Blue Line to the Booth Falls bus stop; walk a quarter mile up Booth Falls Road to the Booth Lake trailhead.
Pitkin Lake Trail
Less torrential, but still satisfying, are the falls along Pitkin Creek, one drainage over from Booth Creek. After ascending through the fallen trees of an avalanche chute, you’ll quickly leave the valley floor behind. After a strenuous set of switchbacks, you’ll reap your first watery reward 2.5 miles from the trailhead (a cascade 200 yards to the east), followed by another waterfall a mile beyond and finally, after another 1.3 miles, Pitkin Lake.
Distance: 4.8 miles each way
Elevation gain: 2,921 feet
Get there: From the Vail Village or Lionshead parking structures, take the East Vail Blue Line to the Falls at Vail bus stop; follow Fall Line Drive uphill a
quarter mile to the trailhead.
Davos Hill Climb
On this former 4x4 road on the north side of the I-70 in West Vail, you’ll encounter trail runners, groups, inexperienced hikers, and dog-walkers bustling up a hillside above Dowd Junction, passing through aspen groves and rolling meadows, to a radio tower atop a promontory affording contemplation of Meadow Mountain, Mount of the Holy Cross, and Notch Mountain to the south.
Distance: 3 miles each way
Elevation gain: 764 feet
Get there: From the Vail Village or Lionshead parking structures, take the free West Vail Red Line to the Chamonix bus stop; hike a mile up Chamonix Lane to Arosa Drive to Cortina Lane to the Davos Trailhead.
On-Mountain Trails, Vail
Vail Mountain’s west side, and Game Creek Bowl, are scribbled with summer hiking and mountain biking trails. Seven of them are hikers-only, so you can engage with your surroundings without having to step or dive out of the way of hurtling mountain bikers.
Grand Escape Trail
Leaving Eagle’s Nest, keep one eye on the wildflowers and the other on the Vail Valley unfolding below as you climb and traverse across the mountain’s frontside to Wildwood, a promontory at 10,981 feet, then return to Eagle’s Nest via the Ridge Route for even more spectacular scenery.
Distance: 1.3 miles
Elevation gain: 643 feet
Get there: Eagle Bahn Gondola
Traversing the spine of Vail Mountain there and back from Eagle’s Nest to Wildwood, you’ll enjoy tremendous views of the Back Bowls and the Sawatch Range (including Mount of the Holy Cross) beyond. Need more inspiration? At Wildwood, follow the Ptarmigan Loop west to Ptarmigan Ridge, where, as legend has it, World War II veteran Pete Seibert and rancher Earl Eaton first gazed out over the Bowls in 1957, envisioned them filled with snow, and decided to build Vail Resort.
Distance: 1.3 miles each way (plus 2 miles for the Ptarmigan Loop)
Elevation gain: 648 feet (add 119 feet for the Ptarmigan Loop)
Get there: Eagle Bahn Gondola
If you’ve huffed all the way up the arduous singletrack to Eagle’s Nest and you just moved here, congratulations: you can finally call yourself a local. If you don’t live here, we tip our hats to you, as the steep pitch through pines and aspens up Vail Mountain isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak of lungs; after all, this is the same route elite athletes in the La Sportiva Berry Picker Trail Run follow when they scramble uphill for the ultimate title of King of the Mountain.
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation gain: 2,200 feet
Get there: From the Lionshead ski yard at the base of the Eagle Bahn, cross over the bridge and follow the trail up the east side of the Bwana ski run under the Born Free lift.
On-mountain trails, Beaver Creek
With 62 miles of trails, Beaver Creek offers the most on-mountain summer hiking and biking in the valley, spread across the width of the ski area’s three peaks. Six trails are hikers-only (and two are limited to bikes), with the rest accommodating everyone.
PHQ Hill Climb
This midmountain-to-summit lung-buster from Spruce Saddle Lodge to Beaver Creek Ski Patrol HQ just gets started at 10,200 feet, gaining 1,240 feet in elevation over 2.7 miles as it traverses wildflower meadows to the pinnacle at 11,440 feet.
Distance: 2.7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,240 feet
Get there: Centennial Express Lift
Beaver Lake Trail
For easy access to a tucked-away mountain lake, it’s hard to beat the six-mile round-trip hike to Beaver Lake. It’s also a great hike for socializing, as much of it traces a wide (former wagon) trail where you don’t have to walk single-file. Take the creekside Five Senses Trail, which begins near the base of the Centennial Lift, and follow it along dirt roads and pathways with some interpretive signs in spots. After about 20 minutes, you’ll arrive at a couple of fishing ponds followed by an equipment storage yard, but don’t worry—from here the trail gets a lot more scenic, with one section circumnavigating Grouse Mountain. As the grade steepens on the final approach, you cross into the Holy Cross Wilderness, where you’ll soon find Beaver Lake, ringed with conifers and sparkling under that blue, blue Colorado sky.
Distance: 3 miles each way
Elevation gain: 1,776 feet
Get there: From the base of Centennial, follow the Five Senses Trail along Village Drive and then Elk Track Road until the road ends. Hike uphill through aspens and thimbleberry to an intersection with the Village to Village trail. Look for trail signs as you cross the Larkspur ski run, then follow the old stage road along the creek and across a footbridge.