Photo by Joel Reichenberger
Icy columns stand near the top of the Fish Creek Falls waterfall near Steamboat Springs, adding a sense of grandeur to the scenery that can be enjoyed by snowshoers and hikers during the winter. The base of the largest waterfall is easily accessible via a quarter-mile downhill walk from the parking lot.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
If you go
What: Fish Creek Falls snowshoe hike
Where: Three miles from downtown Steamboat Springs. From Lincoln Avenue, turn east onto Third Street and make a right onto Fish Creek Falls Road. Follow the road until it ends in the Fish Creek Falls parking lot.
Other: The hike down to the largest waterfall is an easy quarter-mile downhill jaunt. Ambitious hikers and snowshoers can continue on the trail to the second set of falls or beyond. The hike beyond the first waterfall can be difficult for young children. A pair of hiking poles may be helpful to snowshoers hiking along the trails to and from the falls.
Cost: The U.S. Forest Service charges $5 per vehicle per day to park in the Fish Creek Falls lot. Fee stations are adjacent to the lot.
So much of what attracts visitors to Steamboat Springs exists only in the summer or the winter. The mountains, green or white, offer spectacular views. January's Nordic skiing trails melt into July's mountain bike single track. The snow of Mount Werner powers the Yampa River's kayakers in May.
Fish Creek Falls, the spectacular waterfall just north of the city, is a draw no matter the season. Like everything, however, a summer trip to the favorite spot is vastly different from what one finds there now.
A massive torrent of water blasts through a green and brown palace during the summer. It's equally appealing in the winter. Nearly every hint of green is gone, and every bit of brown is buried. In their place is a towering fortress of ice so imposing it begs to be a superhero's hideout.
The wintertime Fish Creek Falls experience extends well beyond the aesthetic. That much is obvious from the moment one arrives. A narrow, well-pounded trail with snow banks of at least 2 feet on either side leads snowshoe-strapped adventurers away from the parking lot. It descends down into the abyss carved by the water that raged just months ago.
What was a tribute to nature's power in the summer - mist ever cascading down from the signature skyscraper of a waterfall - now stands nearly silent. Fat, snowcapped boulders stretch from a bridge across the creek toward the falls, providing effective cover for the comparatively scant water that still trickles down toward Steamboat Springs.
The drastic change in nature opens up new opportunities unknown during the summer months. A well-worn trail leads away from the traditional route and toward the thick, girder-like ice columns where the waterfall once roared. It's not a difficult trek in snowshoes to the base of the waterfall, and much of the 200-yard distance can be made in regular hiking boots.
The closer you get to the ice of the falls, the more eerie and wonderful the views. What was a bright and colorful expanse in the summer has become just two tones - white and gray. It's hard to say what attaining a similar vantage point in the summer might yield, because leagues of rushing water would face anyone attempting to get there.
The wintry snowshoe hike leads to entirely different goals than are considered for a summer expedition. A spring or summer trip past the first falls leads hikers up a manageable series of switchbacks to a second set of waterfalls and, eventually, to Long Lake, situated far above Fish Creek and well behind Steamboat Ski Area.
The lake is all but out of reach for the average snowshoer, however. The switchbacks are more difficult, the going more tiresome. Even a trampled-down track up a slope can be tiring.
Appropriate light is fleeting in the frosty forest, and short days force short trips.
There's nothing to deter any relatively spry families or hikers from making the trip. Snowshoes are cheap to rent and are available from many in-town ski shops.
At a minimum, a hike 400 yards from the parking lot to the first and largest waterfall is doable for families with children. Continuing beyond the icy falls, however, can be difficult for young children.
The trail cuts through the forest, offering more fantastic views of the falls before eventually rising above them and yielding distant views of a snow-covered Steamboat Springs.
The trip back to the falls is easy, especially when aided by a pair of hiking poles - poles which, like Fish Creek Falls itself, can show their versatility in an ice-glazed winter wonderland.