Where can Coloradans find a secluded spot to camp near a beautiful waterfall?

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Jenna McMurtry/CPR News
Denver resident Will Snyder chats with wilderness guide Susan Joy Paul beside Elk Falls in Staunton State Park.

With fall a few weeks away, there’s still plenty of time to get outdoors before the weather turns cool. Beating the crowds, however, can seem impossible any time of year. 

Will Snyder is new to the state and spending more time outdoors was one of the reasons he’s here. As a park ranger for Denver’s city parks, he gets paid to do just that, but he knows urban greenspaces aren’t the most exciting spots Colorado has to offer.

Snyder said he wanted to know where he could find solitude and see a waterfall. So he asked Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Wonders this question: “Where are the best secluded lakes to camp at? And do you have waterfalls?”

We asked an expert. Few people are more equipped to recommend campsites and waterfall hikes around the state than Susan Joy Paul. 

As the author of nine hiking guidebooks for navigating Colorado’s natural features — from lakes and waterfalls to hot springs — she knows just about everything there is to know about camping near the state’s best waterfalls and lakes. 

And, as Snyder’s luck would have it, the waterfalls have been amazing this year. 

Jenna McMurtry/CPR News
Denver resident Will Snyder hikes alongside wilderness guide Susan Joy Paul at Staunton State Park.

“There’s a lot you wouldn't even see in years of drought, but they're just rushing like crazy now with all the snow melt,” Paul said.

In addition to the nearly 500 known, named waterfalls in Colorado, there are several thousands more that aren’t named or recorded, according to Paul.

“In my last book, I have a hundred hikes. But, if you add them all up, there's 120 to 150 waterfalls because some of them have multiple waterfalls on the hikes. That's probably how many I've been to,” Paul said. 

Paul says it takes her at least a year or two of 25-mile weekends to hike all the trails that make it into her guidebooks. 

But because showing is so much better than telling, we decided to take Snyder to a waterfall ourselves. This time, we chose a much shorter hike. 

At Paul’s suggestion, we ventured to Staunton State Park, which is about 40 miles west of Denver.

Rounding out at around 7.5 miles round trip, Elk Falls is one of the most accessible hikes with a large waterfall near metro Denver. It’s also one of the mainstay features at the park. 

For Snyder, the waterfall — which Paul identified as a “horsetail” for how the water bounces — more than lived up to the hype. 

Jenna McMurtry/CPR News
Elk Falls at Staunton State Park, about 40 miles west of Denver.

“There’s an organized chaos to it. It’s so neat,” Snyder said.

On the way, the trail takes you past Chimney rock and Lionshead rock — both of which look exactly like what their namesakes would suggest — before skirting around Elk Falls pond.

With a portion of the hike just shy of 9,000 feet elevation, the hike also meant Snyder had reached his highest point of altitude. 

“I'm from Florida. We don't really have waterfalls there. Without much height, there's no elevation anywhere,” Snyder said. 

Snyder also said that the hike wasn’t that difficult, and he could also see himself going on another one sometime soon. 

“The hike was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I thought it was gonna be pretty torturous on the feet. But it was nice and relaxed,” Snyder said. “Go do it.”

For those looking to enjoy the hike before camping, the park offers hike-in sites just down the road from Elk Falls trailhead’s Lazy V parking lot. 

Courtesy of Stewart M. Green
To reach Rough Creek Falls and the lakes beyond it, there's an elevation gain of 2,400 feet over a stretch of 10 miles.

Beyond the northern Front Range, Paul recommended a few more waterfall hikes, all of which have both camping and lakes nearby. 

There’s Continental Falls in Breckenridge, Bridal Veil Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park and Browns Creek Falls near Nathrop. 

But Paul’s all-time favorite is tucked away in the South San Juan Wilderness about five hours southwest of Denver, just outside Antonito. It’s called Rough Creek Falls.

No matter how many hikes she’s done, Paul still gets excited to see a waterfall. 

“I don't care how many waterfalls you go to or how many hikes you do, everyone is like a new experience for me,” Paul said.

Snyder said it might be the beginning of a new hiking interest. He teased that he could soon give Paul a run for her money when it comes to writing guidebooks for Colorado trails. 

“Maybe I'll be the next waterfall expert,” Snyder joked. “Park ranger. Comic. Waterfall expert. That's what I'm going to do.”