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Jul 23, 2018
Rocky Mountain National Park has many beautiful destinations, but in the early summer some of the most dramatic can be its waterfalls. The melting snow comes thundering down the creeks and streams and pouring over the park's waterfalls with a power that must be seen and heard. If you've been to the park, you've probably been to some of the most popular. On the west side, Adams Falls is but 1/3 mile hike to reach, while Cascade Falls is a more robust 3 1/2 miles. On the east side, Alberta Falls is a short hike as well, and the multiple waterfalls in the Wild Basin area are a real treat. So what's the downside? For these hikes, that time of year, if you're not getting started pretty close to sunrise you're going to be sharing these areas with a lot of people and you may not even be able to get a parking spot at the trailhead. So what are you to do to find a peaceful place to enjoy a beautiful waterfall? I recently discovered a great alternative.
If you wind your way north out of Estes Park, you can find your way to the Cow Creek Trailhead at the historic McGraw Ranch. Parking is limited here, with space for only 10-15 cars, so you still might want to get here fairly early on a weekend, but this succeeds in limiting the number of people heading up these trails to the various destinations accessible from here. The ranch began in the late 19th century as a working ranch, and in 1936 the McGraw family began hosting guests here as well and taking them on tours into the park. It wasn't until 1988 that the Park Service bought out the property It is now used as housing for researchers working in the park. The hike I'm describing here travels the 3 1/4 miles up the Cow Creek Trail to its end, at Bridal Veil Falls. The trail never goes very far away from the creek, and this helps make the meadows that it passes through profuse with flowers in late June & early July. The elevation gain is very mild, making this a manageable trail for most people who find their way here. You pass 3 trail junctions along the way, and after the last one about 2 miles in the trail turns up into a tighter valley and deeper forest in the final push to the falls. You'll pass some other smaller but very picturesque cascades on the creek along the way, but you'll likely want to keep pushing on until the final scramble up a steeper rocky slope to your final destination. You'll likely hear it before you can see it, but eventually it will come into view ahead where the creek spills over a cliff about 20 feet tall and crashes onto the rocks below. If you're here to photograph the falls, you'll either want to be here earlier in the morning or hope for some clouds in the sky to tame the sunlight. For the photo above I set my exposure to hold the highlights in the brighter sunlit areas, and then processed using high dynamic range to bring out the details in the shadows to match. Even hiking here on a Sunday morning in July, I had the waterfall to myself for about half an hour. While I met a few people on the trail while I was hiking out, it was still definitely less crowded than the more well known waterfalls in the more traveled areas of the park. It's definitely a pleasant morning in the park, and the limited parking should keep it from being overrun no matter when you go, assuming you get a parking spot yourself. The photo below is of the most pleasant smaller cascade along the way, a great place to step to the side of the trail and enjoy the peacefulness. Tell me about your favorite hike in RMNP in the comments below!
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