|Trail Features:||Waterfall, Scenic Views, Wildflowers|
|Trail Location:||Green Mountain Trailhead|
|Roundtrip Length:||10.4 Miles|
|Trailhead Elevation:||8805 Feet|
|Total Elevation Gain:||1120 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||215 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||9843 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||12.64 (strenuous)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||40.30738|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-105.84109|
The hike to Granite Falls begins from the Green Mountain Trailhead, located 2.5 miles north of the Grand Lake Entrance.
From the parking area the Green Mountain Trail begins climbing through a lush conifer forest. The climb is steady and moderate, but graduates to more gentle grades after the first half-mile, with a few short steeper inclines thrown in every now and then. As the trail levels out you'll begin passing a couple of small meadows along the way. Keep an eye out for moose and elk foraging in these fields as you pass near them.
At roughly 1.7 miles from the trailhead you'll pass a side trail that leads to the Green Mountain Backcountry Campsite. Less than a tenth-of-a-mile later you'll arrive at the Tonahutu Creek Trail junction. At the junction look for a horse hitch sign, and then proceed down the hill towards the hitch where you'll find a couple of faint social trails that lead out towards the meadow. There are a couple of large boulders near the edge of the meadow that make for a great resting spot, as well as an excellent place to soak in the views.
Big Meadows is the largest montane meadow in the park, and offers ideal habitat for deer, elk and moose. The best time to possibly see any of these ungulates is in the early morning or during the later evening hours.
Big Meadows is surrounded by 12,216-foot Nakai Peak towards the northeast, 12,274-foot Snowdrift Peak towards the east, and 11,424-foot Mt. Patterson towards the southeast. The two mountains just behind Snowdrift are 12,331-foot Knobtop Mountain and 12,129-foot Notchtop Mountain.
If you look closely you'll likely notice a lot of dead trees in the mountains surrounding the meadow, a result of the mountain pine beetle infestation that's impacted forests throughout the west. I would estimate that at least 80% of the trees visible from the field are already dead.
Indeed, all those dead trees reaped their potential for destruction. On June 10, 2013 a lightning strike started a wildfire just to the northeast of Big Meadows - along the southern slopes of Nakai Peak. Seven days later, after burning 617 acres, the Big Meadows Fire was considered to be 95% contained. During that week the fire forced the temporary closure of seven trails in the area, including the Green Mountain, Onahu Creek, and Tonahutu Creek Trails. The presence of so many beetle-killed trees allowed the fire to spread quickly, and posed the problem of extreme growth potential during the blaze.
After viewing Big Meadows hikers should return back to the main trail and turn right to begin heading northbound on the Tonahutu Creek Trail. From the junction the trail skirts around the western and northern edges of the meadow. The path will offer several additional vantage points along the way, as well as access to the meadow. You may want to note, however, that the edge of the meadow can be quite marshy, especially during the spring months.
Both the Green Mountain and Tonahutu Creek Trails are part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a 3100-mile footpath that traverses the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada. The trail enters the park near Lake Granby and follows the western edge of the park up to Grand Lake. From there the CDT makes a semi-loop up to Flattop Mountain via the North Inlet Trail, before descending back down the Tonahutu Creek Trail and exiting the park by way of the Green Mountain Trail.
At roughly 2.0 miles hikers will arrive at the remnants of an old homesteader's cabin from the early 1900s. Unfortunately the cabin is in very poor condition. Both the roof and the back wall have collapsed.
At almost 2.4 miles you'll arrive at the Onahu Creek Trail junction. The Onahu Creek Trail branches off to the left and heads towards Long Meadows and Trail Ridge Road. Hikers should turn right to continue on the Tonahutu Creek Trail and proceed towards Granite Falls.
At 3.3 miles the trail makes contact with the Tonahutu Creek for the first time. From this point forward you'll follow the creek upstream all the way to Granite Falls. Heading downstream the creek makes a wide turn towards the south and begins flowing along the eastern edge of Big Meadows. Tonahutu, by the way, happens to be the Arapaho word for "big meadows".
For the most part the trail to Granite Falls is a very pleasant hike through a pristine evergreen forest. There are several points along the way where it travels next to the creek, offering hikers some very picturesque scenes.
At just over 3.7 miles hikers will reach the Sunset Backcountry Campsite, and in another two-tenths of a mile will pass the Sunrise Backcountry Campsite.
At roughly 4 miles you'll reach an area that was burned during the Big Meadows Fire. Amazingly, after only one year, the process of re-growth had already started, as testified by the profusion of wildflowers we witnessed. There were literally several thousand wildflowers visible throughout this relatively short section of trail during our August, 2014 hike.
The downside to the trail passing through this burn zone is that there are thousands of dead trees that are still standing. Over time, as the trees weaken, they will begin falling at any time, especially during wind storms. In the event of high winds you should definitely use caution, and perhaps consider not even hiking this trail.
At roughly 5 miles hikers will reach the lower Granite Falls Backcountry Campsite. A little further up trail, at just over 5.1 miles, you'll reach the side trail that leads down to Granite Falls. A short walk of only a few yards will take you to the base of the falls.
In all, Granite Falls drops roughly 50 feet over several tiers of smoothed granite rock. You'll also likely notice the presence of reddish brown rock near the waterfall. I was told by a park ranger that this is likely manganese.
If you wish to go home with some great photos of Granite Falls you may not want to start your hike first thing in the morning, as the sun will be directly above the falls by the time you arrive. Waiting until later in the morning would likely result in better photos.
Hikers should definitely exercise caution while walking along the slick rocks near the waterfall.