Distance: approximately 6.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: approximately 1,350 feet
Difficulty: Intermediate / Difficult
Know Before You Go: The ascent starts flat and busy, and finishes steep and secluded. Beware ice in winter and spring. Portable restrooms are located at Helen Hunt Falls. Park hours are 5 a.m.-9 p.m.
Cheyenne Cañon may be best known for Seven Falls and Helen Hunt Falls, but if a more wilderness setting is your style, St. Mary’s Falls is the cascade you seek. This hike in the popular North Cheyenne Cañon Park begins easy and often crowded, but finishes difficult and remote. The rewards are the peaceful waterfall, high-angle views of the city below and the out-there feeling that you’re far away from it all.
It’s easy to think of the out-and-back trek to St. Mary’s Falls in three parts: the road, the forest and the final ascent.
The road is the closed-to-vehicles dirt portion of Gold Camp Road, where you’re likely to encounter many people and dogs. This is the gateway to many popular hiking, running and biking trails in Cheyenne Cañon. The parking lot is large, but it often overflows on weekends. Begin your hike at the gate in the northwest corner of the lot. Just enjoy the wide-angle views, and remember that not all these people are heading to the waterfall.
After following the road in a big horseshoe for just over a mile, you’ll reach the collapsed Tunnel #3. Follow the trail on the left to ascend up and over the tunnel. There’s an excellent overlook on top of the ridge. And here is where part two of your hike begins: the forest.
Here you hit the official St. Mary’s Trail, which you’ll follow about 2 miles to the falls. Stay right as the singletrack trail forks above the tunnel, and follow the arrow on the iron sign pointing you toward St. Mary Falls. Each step now takes you deeper into the sensations of wilderness. You’ll quickly encounter Buffalo Creek on your left. Its soothing babble will stay alongside you most of the way, and there are many easy access points to the water.
The forest is a dense mixture of pine and spruce with scattered aspen groves. The well-built trail ascends gradually. In places, you’ll encounter sections with bouldered steps to guide you upward. At 2.5 miles in, you’ll pass another trail forking to the left. Stay straight and continue climbing as the St. Mary’s Trail rises above the creek.
In another quarter-mile, you’ll encounter a sign pointing you upward toward the falls as the trail switchbacks to the right. Consider this the beginning of part three. Now you’re on the final ascent, and you can expect it to be steep, loose and rocky to the top. As your quads burn and your lungs heave, you can tell yourself it’s only a half-mile to go.
The views begin to open up, and you can see the waterfall ahead. A final rocky spur will lead you to the base of St. Mary’s Falls. You’ll find a log bench to sit on and a memorial plaque to local climber Eamon Murphy. Best of all, you can stand at the base of the cascade and splash its cold water on your head if you choose. The water usually flows close to the granite slabs. There is room to cross the pooling water, but use extra caution during heavier springtime flows.
As you savor the soothing sounds of water, you can see the city far below. When you’re ready, return the way you came. (The extra adventurous can continue several more steep miles upward to eventually reach Mount Rosa.)
St. Mary’s Falls is the ultimate destination of this hike, but even those who choose to turn back sooner will be rewarded with a quiet walk in the mountains—and that sense of being far away from it all so close to home. That’s the magic of Cheyenne Cañon and other foothills favorites along Colorado Springs’ Front Range.
How to Get There
From I-25, take Exit 140 and head south on Tejon Street. At the roundabout, go right on Cheyenne Boulevard. In 2.5 miles, you’ll reach the Starsmore Discovery Center at the entrance of North Cheyenne Cañon Park. Veer right into the park, and follow North Cheyenne Canyon Road 3.2 miles to the parking lot and trailhead.