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Waterfalls of Colorado by Marc Conly

Review by Ed Quillen

Natural Features – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Waterfalls of Colorado
text by Marc Conly, photographs by Nancy Miscia Conly
Published in 1993 by Pruett
ISBN 0-87108-823-1

LEGEND HAS IT that there was a Ute death chant which began “Only the mountains live forever.” While that seems true in comparison to our lifetimes, in geologic terms, it would be better to say that “only the oceans live forever.” Mountains wear down, and waterfalls are one way that peaks turn into plains over the æons.

Across that kind of time, waterfalls are quite ephemeral. Rivers work toward a steady gradient so their steep and gentle sections disappear. Waterfalls are evidence of a young landscape where the rivers haven’t had enough time to reduce their obstacles, and most Colorado waterfalls are less than 10,000 years old, dating back only to the last glaciation. Then there’s the matter of defining a waterfall.

Conly comes up with some useful terms. A “plunge” is the Niagara-style free-fall. Over the years, it can become a “cascade” — water flowing over a series of rocks, “often the result of a waterfall either eroding upstream or breaking down…”

In between are horsetails, fans, segments, punchbowls, tiers, and serials. Given the vagaries of mountain climate, many of these are seasonal — waterfalls in June, ice falls in February, and steep, stained dry places in October. As with caves, Colorado has one commercial attraction: Seven Falls near Colorado Springs.

Conly classifies each known waterfall — about 250, and there is no central waterfall registry, so he pored over maps for several months, and also discovered some unmapped falls in the field.

He provides detailed information for access, as well as a general description and some geology. He rates falls as though they were films, from one to four stars, based on the scenery of the approach, the magnitude of the falls, isolation, and general setting.

The book is organized in geographic sections, essentially by drainage with a special section for Rocky Mountain National Park.

Here’s a sample listing (note that this Chalk Creek isn’t the better-known one with the cascades west of Nathrop; this one flows just below Frémont Pass):

Chalk Creek Falls

Access: Walk in.

Rating: **

Type: Plunge

USGS Topographic quad: Climax (39106 C2)

Trail Miles: .125-mile

Altitude: 10,800 feet

Elevation Change: None

Cars whiz down the straight side of the hairpin just below Frémont Pass, glad to escape the spectacle of the molybdenum mountain that Climax ate. But there is a waterfall hiding out of sight less than a quarter-mile off the road.

It was late April when we visited, and there was still plenty of snow at 11,000 feet. We worked our way up the drainage using islands of dry ground where the trees had kept the snow from piling up. But there was a level and dry route, of course, following the 10,800-foot contour to the falls from where Chalk Creek crosses the highway. As usual we went the hard way to find out what the easy way is.

On the Climax quad there’s a road heading north 3 miles below Frémont Pass. A hundred yards up this road, head straight west into a break in the rocks on the east side of Chalk Creek. Walking through this break you will come to the lip of a hollow carved by Chalk Creek as it hooks to the south. Chalk Creek Falls is high on this bend.

When we saw it, Chalk Creek Falls was a 35-foot leap pounding through an inverted cone of ice onto sandstone. The falls was like a gravity hammer beating inside the cone of ice. The creek eats at the upthrust cliff, saws into it, and creeps farther around the corner, the better to be hidden from the road.

MY OWN WATERFALL PILGRIMAGES hereabouts consist of thinking about hiking to Zapata Falls on a trip to the Sand Dunes, actually walking up the trail near the mouth of Chalk Creek to see Agnes Vail Falls, getting out of the car to stare at Belford Falls through binoculars once, and frequent visits to North Fork Falls just above the Angel of Shavano campground north of Maysville.

North Fork Fails is loud and impressive, and about as accessible as falls can get. So I was amazed when Conly, who sometimes tramped through miles of wilderness to chase down the mere rumor of a waterfall, reported this: “A quarter of a mile beyond the campground the road crosses the North Fork of the South Arkansas, and we’re told that there is a nice falls up the creek a little from this crossing.”

That’s it. No visit. No picture. No lore. Just “we’re told that.” He proceeds on up the road 2.2 miles to some falls I didn’t know about, though, and maybe I’ll look for them next summer.

This is essentially a guidebook, with narrative coming from Conly’s efforts to find various falls. Even if she didn’t devote much effort to finding North Fork Falls, it’s still pretty informative, and it can take you to some new and interesting places.

Will those interesting places get trashed on account of this publicity? Conly hopes not: “We certainly have had our qualms about exposing some of these places to more visitors. The political reality, however, is … Money talks. Where is the money? In the cities. The only way Colorado’s precious natural lands … will be preserved is if people in the places where the money is care enough to pay to preserve them. Our fervent hope is that if more people know about these hideaways, more people will care about, and protect, them.”

Apparently there’s no role for those of us who abide outside the cities — unless we’re what he wants to protect the falls from.