Up for a challenge in Ouray? Then check out the trail to Upper Cascade Falls and the Chief Ouray Mine. It’s a challenge because you’ll be hiking up some 1,700 feet in 1.75 miles.
The trail starts at the upper end of the Amphitheater Campground, on the south end of Ouray (directions below). In the parking lot, you’ll find a map and a trailhead sign, but no bathrooms, trash cans or any other amenities.
The trail has a few steps of elevation gain in the beginning, but it’s flat as it winds above the campground to a trail register. Please sign in so the Forest Service and local officials know the trail is being used.
A few steps later, you’ll come to the trail split for the Portland Trail. That’s an option for the way down, but for now, veer left and stay on the Upper Cascade Falls Trail.
For the next 0.7 miles, you’ll be winding through scrub oaks, trees, wildflowers and other plants as you start to head into the canyon. There are two more trail splits, stay on the Upper Cascade Falls Trail.
At that last trail split, you’ll see the second Portland Mine turnoff. Remember this spot for the way back.
So far, you’ll have covered 0.8 miles and climbed about 500 feet. Now it’s time for the big climb. You’re about to climb a series of switchbacks up the hillside, gaining about 1,000 feet in the next mile. Take a deep breath and travel on.
While this section of trail is steep at times, occasionally you’ll see amazing views to the west. As you get higher and higher, you see more of a valley to the west that people in town don’t really see.
As you hike here, imagine mules following this path while carrying hundreds of pounds of food, gear and other supplies for the mine. This was the “road” the mine, according to the book, “Ouray,” by Gail Zanett Saunders and Maria Jones.
After hiking about 1.75 miles, the trail finally levels off at about 10,020 feet. Now the trail follows along a rock wall into the next canyon to the north. You’ll turn a corner, and continue walking on the hillside path. When the trees open up, look northeast for two different mine buildings on the other side of the canyon. However, before you get to the mine buildings, you’ll come to Upper Cascade Falls.
You’ll likely hear Upper Cascade Falls before you see it. As the sound gets louder, look through the trees for the falls below the path. You’ll soon hike over those falls and stand below the upper section of the falls. The trail goes right across the creek that creates those falls.
Upper Cascade Falls is about 2.15 miles from the trailhead. While this is a great place to explore and take photos, I highly recommend following the trail another 0.2 miles to the Chief Ouray Mine’s boarding house. The 3-room house housed the workers and had a kitchen. The trail goes RIGHT THROUGH the boarding house on the steep hillside. Walk through the boarding house reading or ignoring the graffiti on the walls.
It’s another tenth of a mile on this trail to the mine’s equipment house and the gated hole of the mining operation. WesternMiningHistory.com says the Chief Ouray Mine’s primary metal was lead and its secondary metal was zinc.
When you’re done exploring, return the way you came. When you reach the Portland Mine turnoff, you can use that trail to return to the trailhead, but it adds about 1.6 miles.
Details: The hike to Upper Cascade Falls and Chief Ouray Mine is about 4.9 miles roundtrip with about 1,800 feet of elevation gain.
Note: Before you tackle the trail, be aware the trail is thin in spots and has very steep dropoffs. This is not a trail for those with a fear of heights or unstable footing.
If you’re looking for Ouray hiking trails, don’t miss the incredible Blue Lakes basin, the Sutton Trail to the Ouray Overlook & Neosho Mine, the Ouray Perimeter Trail and the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail. Find more hikes in Silverton, Telluride and Colorado hiking trails here.
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Directions: Drive south on Highway 550 from Ouray. Turn east at the signed road for Amphitheater Campground. Drive about one mile on the main campground road to where it ends at a trailhead with a sign that says Upper Cascade Falls.