The water cascaded down in tiers, hitting one rock, then another until finally gushing under the wooden bridge. The mist that enveloped me was a welcome relief on this day in early June, which was already reaching mid-summer like high temperatures. Spots of purple and yellow dotted the otherwise lush, green forest floor as we walked through the stands of pine, fir, and aspen along the St. Vrain Creek. The larkspur had started to bloom as well as the Holly-Grape, it’s spiny edged leaves giving away its place as a member of the holly family.
Wild Basin has always been one of my favorite spots in Rocky Mountain National Park. For the average destination visitor hailing from far away, it probably doesn’t show up on their radar. It doesn’t offer any scenic byways with majestic views of the Rocky Mountains, or park visitor centers with exhibits on the local flora and fauna. The dusty, dirt road dead ends after a few miles.
But it does offer something seldom found in the rest of the park — waterfalls in abundance. As a Park Ranger working at Rocky, I frequently would get questions from visitors inquiring of a good waterfall hike. Unlike national parks in California (Yosemite with its famed waterfalls) or the Pacific Northwest, Colorado does not have a lot of awe-inspiring waterfalls. Visitors instead are treated to vistas of soaring peaks and alpine lakes. Usually the waterfall that receives the most attention at Rocky is Alberta Falls, a short hike from the ever-crowded Bear Lake area.
But when asked about a waterfall hike, I never hesitated in recommending Wild Basin as my number one choice. Wild Basin is accessed through a separate park entrance via a winding, dirt road in the very southeast corner of Rocky. It’s found by driving out of the park along the Peak to Peak Highway, about 20 minutes south of the town of Estes Park. To find Wild Basin, you have to be in search of it, you don’t usually stumble upon it.
The main trail parallels the St. Vrain River, and the mountains above Wild Basin soar to heights of 13,000 feet and more. For a mere 5.4 miles round trip and 950 feet gain in elevation, you will be serenaded by the crashing sound of water as you walk through the dense forest. The first set of falls encountered is Copeland Falls, a series of cascades that fall like stair steps — none of them dramatic in the amount of drop, but impressive more for the volume of water.
A mile and a half later, Calypso Cascades provides tiers of rocks rising above you and waterfalls spraying down in various directions through the maze of rocks, before the water spills below a wooden bridge. One of my favorite moments from Calypso was spotting a small mink who was scurrying among the boulders in the middle of the creek. Getting a picture of this luxurious coated creature was difficult, because he never stopped moving.
Finally, another mile and 200 feet of climbing bring you to the most impressive pour over waterfall, Ouzel Falls. Ouzel Falls is everything you envision of a Rocky Mountain waterfall, with a ton of water pushing through a gap in the rocks, before falling 60 feet down to continue its journey downstream. Early June is the perfect time to visit, as snow melt is reaching its peak. The volume of water puts off waves of mist that coated us in cool water as we stood gazing upon it.
So next time you visit the famed Rocky Mountain National Park, and you want to experience some wet and wild adventures along the trails, think Wild Basin. Its beauty and quiet will keep you coming back again and again.