About North Clear Creek Falls
North Clear Creek Falls was a waterfall that I wound up going a bit out of the way for even though it was said to be a pretty easy-to-visit drive-to waterfall. Indeed, as you can see from the photo above that the effort to make it to the falls was richly rewarding as I got to witness this 100ft or so gushing waterfall produce some faint rainbows at its base. The pretty healthy flow of North Clear Creek was fed by the meltwaters of the high altitude mountains of the San Juan Mountain Range near Slumguillion Pass (around 11,500ft) and Spring Creek Pass (around 10,500ft). By the way, that claim seen on the National Park Service website that the Tioga Pass at just under 10,000ft being the highest mountain pass in the lower 48 states was obviously incorrect given the existence of these neighboring mountain passes in the Gunnison National Forest (note that the falls sat in the Rio Grande National Forest). In any case, this waterfall’s vertical drop was the result of some volcanic eruptions and ash flows that were also responsible for the creation of the underlying Nelson Mountain Tuff layer as well as the San Juan Mountains. This was evident in the vertical headwalls of Willow Canyon hinting at this region’s violent past.
As for visiting this waterfall, as luck would have it (or not), the last half-mile of forest road to reach the parking lot was closed due to snow. So instead of it being an easy drive-to waterfall, I wound up walking that stretch resulting in a roughly one-mile round trip hike on mostly pavement. The walk along the partially snow-covered road allowed me to observe that the plateau on which I was on seemed to be wide and expansive, suggesting that perhaps this area had a lake or an ocean at one point in its past. Beyond the parking lot and interpretive signs, a very short dirt trail led to fenced overlooks on the rim of Willow Canyon providing plenty of angles to view the North Clear Creek Falls. Overall, this excursion took me a little under an hour, and the difficulty score was bumped up due to the increased walking distance. Under more normal circumstances, the difficulty ought to be minimal since it was essentially a roadside attraction.
The nearest towns that I’m aware of to the North Clear Creek Falls were Lake City to the north and Creede to the south. Both towns were along the Hwy 149. Lake City was about 25 miles (45 minutes drive) to the north along the highway and Creede was about 27 miles (36 minutes drive) to the east. The turnoff onto Road 510 was just under 15 miles south of Slumguillion Pass. The road leaves Hwy 149 to the east (left if going south), but like I said earlier, if the gate is closed, they you’ll have to walk this stretch like I did.
For additional context, North Clear Creek Falls was about 161 miles to the northeast of Ouray and about 190 miles (a little over 4 hour’s drive) northeast of Telluride (though it was far less distance as the crow flies).
Ouray was also 71 miles (under 2 hours drive) north of Durango, 97 miles (about 2 hours drive) southeast of Grand Junction, 301 miles (under 6 hours drive) southwest of Denver, 150 miles (about 3 hours drive) east of Moab, Utah, and 286 miles (over 5 hours drive) northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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