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Waterfall hikes: Bighorn Falls Trail #2013 in East Vail

Bighorn Creek Trailhead
Bighorn Creek Trailhead
Deb Stanley

On my quest for waterfalls in Colorado, I came across one I had not heard of -- Bighorn Falls in East Vail. The Forest Service's description promised not only a waterfall, but also an old homestead cabin, that sounded great to me.

Bighorn Falls, East Vail
Deb Stanley

The hike starts at a small trailhead about 1.3 miles from the East Vail exit on I-70 (directions below). At the trailhead, you'll find just a few parking spaces, a map and a trail register. There are no bathrooms and not even a sign saying Bighorn Trail. Park, sign the trail register and head up the trail.

The Forest Service description warns that the first half mile of the trail is steep, and it is. However, any time you need a break, just turn around and look at the Vail Valley behind you, it's very scenic. While there are a lot of dead trees on the nearby hills, my hiking group was very impressed with the forest along the trail -- it's thick, lush and green. At one point, the trail goes through an amazing "canyon" of Aspen trees. I highly recommend coming here in the fall to enjoy the turning leaves.

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail veers next to Bighorn Creek. This is a nice spot in late spring/early summer to listen to the water cascading over the rocks and the downed trees. After walking along the creek and passing a scree field, soon the trees open a bit, revealing green meadows with glimpses of the jagged, Gore Range peaks in the distance.

As we started up a steep, rock section, I was distracted by the view. In the distance, off trail to the right, was the reason I came on this hike -- Bighorn Falls.

From the trail, Bighorn Falls appears to be a two-drop, curving waterfall. The top drop appears to be squeezed through two rock walls that form a canyon. With the thick forest surrounding it, it's hard to tell what makes the second drop curve. With my zoom lens, it looks like more rock walls, but the second drop isn't quite as steep as the first drop.

Walk along the trail, stopping in different place to try and find the best photo of the falls. Due to the thick forest, I'm not sure you can get a good photo of the falls unless you go above them and even then, I think you would miss the lower drop.

At this point, waterfall fans can turn around for a four mile roundtrip hike. However, we continued on.

After Bighorn Falls, the trail gets a lot harder. It's not only steep at times, it's quite rocky with those small rocks that make it easy to slide and fall. You'll gain 800 feet of elevation in the next mile or so. In that mile, you'll hike across scree fields, through the forest, through open meadows with views back down valley of Vail Ski Resort and enjoy more glimpses of the surrounding peaks.

Finally, at about 3 miles, at a meadow with a view, the trail begins to mellow a bit.

There's a creek crossing (though it may be seasonal) and some curves through a marshy area (which may be dry in late summer) and after hiking about 3.6 miles, you'll finally see the homestead cabin.

The Forest Service website says, "The cabin is unlocked to offer shelter for hikers. Please respect this private property and help protect it for others to use and enjoy." However, don't expect much shelter -- the roof is caving in and the structure doesn't seem very sound. It is nice to see a cabin in this setting. In late June, we found lots of yellow glacier lillies putting on a show in front of the cabin. We also enjoying the amazing views of the Gore Range mountains here.

As you explore around the cabin, look for metal pieces outside and guess what they may have been used for. Look in the cabin windows -- is there anything hanging on the walls? Any dishes or items on the floor?

After some exploring, return the way you came.

Learn more about the hike on the Forest Service's website. Find more great hikes in this list of 200+ hikes across the state. Don't miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.

Details: The hike to Bighorn falls and back is about 4 mile roundtrip with 1150 feet of elevation gain. The hike to the cabin and back is about 7.2 miles with 2200 feet of gain. Add some extra distance for whatever exploring you might do.

Directions: From I-70, take exit 180, East Vail and turn south on the frontage road. Take Bighorn Road about 0.8 miles to Columbine Drive and turn left. Note, it can be very difficult to find the road and the sign for Columbine Road. Two hikers really struggled to find it and a third never found it. Take Columbine Road through a narrow passage under I-70 to the trailhead on your left.

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