Proximity to scenic beauty does have its drawbacks.
Sometimes it creates tension, overcrowding and calls for better management, especially in a state with a booming population and record-breaking crowds in outdoor spaces, and that’s certainly the case at Maxwell Falls in the foothills of Jefferson County.
Only five miles southwest of Evergreen, the hike to Maxwell Falls is a lovely way to spend a morning. The trail climbs more than 2 miles through dense forest to waterfalls that gush in the spring and slow to a trickle in the summer. It’s moderately strenuous yet suitable for families. Many trod the trail last Saturday and frolicked by the rock formations that frame the falls.
The problem is, Maxwell Falls is just a short drive from a metropolitan area of nearly 3 million people. There are two small parking lots, meaning lots of people have to park on the shoulders of a narrow, winding mountain road in a residential area. One day in May when the falls were running furiously with snowmelt, residents say they counted 900 cars parked along the road. When we visited last week, there were about 70.
“The trail is heavily over-used,” said Mindy Hanson, who lives about a mile from the trailhead. “There will always be 50 cars, and we don’t mind people using the trail, it’s beautiful. We love it that people are coming up. Where it becomes a problem is on the weekend when there are 200-300 cars, they are parked along the sides of the road, they’re parked on adjacent roads in the neighborhoods. The number of people is astonishing.”
The area is administered by the U.S. Forest Service. A small group of residents, including Hanson, regularly hikes the trail to pick up trash and dog excrement.
“If you could see the bags of trash we’re picking up,” Hanson said, “you’d be disgusted.”
There are other concerns. The area around Evergreen is extremely high-risk for wildfire because of the dense forests that surround it. The forest is why people want to live there. That’s why it’s called Evergreen, after all, but residents who live near Maxwell Falls worry about campers who may start fires.
The Evergreen Fire District consists of 80 firefighters, all volunteer.
“We live up here because it’s beautiful,” said Stacee Martin, public information officer for the fire district. “We love our trees. We love the more natural look. But it’s a concern. If something happened in Maxwell Falls, if a fire broke out, there’s a lot of homes in that area. There’s also a lot of people in that area. It’s a windy road. It’s hard to get in and out, so an evacuation will take time. It is a big concern of ours.”
One of Hanson’s neighbors recently observed two morning campfires burning in the area despite signs that say fires are prohibited.
“Don’t get me wrong, we love having people come to Evergreen and be in our community,” Hanson said. “The problem comes because people park illegally, they let their dogs off leash, they have illegal campfires. They do all the things they’re not supposed to do, but nobody cares.”
Residents have reached out to Jefferson County commissioners, the Jeffco Sheriff and the forest service for help.
“We have been experiencing a lot of use on our public lands as both the Front Range and the popularity of enjoying the outdoors continues to grow,”Tammy Williams, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman, said in an email. “Many people are trying to recreate close to home and Maxwell Falls continues to be one of those close-to-home spots for the Denver metro area. We have been working with partners on potential solutions in this area and one of the tools we might consider is the management option of day-use only.”
That, residents hope, would at least eliminate campfires.
Last Saturday, delicate bright columbines were blooming alongside the lower trail not far from the trailhead, which is beneath a dense canopy of trees. The elevation difference from trailhead to the falls is about 500 feet, but with ascents and descents along the way it adds up to about 1,000 feet of climbing over 2.4 miles one way, according to our GPS. You can return to the trailhead via another trail called the Cliff Loop, but we recommend going back the way you came (the Maxwell Falls trail) because there are a few spots on the Cliff Loop where the trail grows very faint. Both trails could use better signage. The falls also can be accessed from an upper trailhead near Conifer, but that’s a shorter hike.
And about those falls …
We were warned that they can be a mere trickle this time of year, once mountain snows have largely melted. When we went, the flow was more than a trickle, but that may have been because the Front Range got a deluge of rain the previous evening.
“If we get a big rain, there will be water,” Hanson said. “If we don’t have any rain for a few days, there might be a small trickle. In spring runoff and early summer, it’s gorgeous. The rest of the year, it’s a nice mountain hike. If you’re coming for the waterfall in late June, July or August, a lot of people are pretty disappointed, because there just isn’t that much waterfall left.”
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