Where is the finest waterfall in southeast Wyoming? Our geography holds many glories—the Snowy Range, Laramie Peak, the sculpted rocks of Vedauwoo—and many fine rivers—the North Platte, the Encampment, the Laramie. But we are not big on waterfalls. Our land shuns a shear drop.
The most famous, Green Mountain Falls in the Sierra Madres, is a fun and sparkling cascade, not really a fall at all. The closest, Hidden Falls in Curt Gowdy State Park, is a unique little fountain with its water crossing over water. But it is little.
My pick is Duck Creek Falls. It really falls, a double, with the first a sheer plunge of sixty or so feet, the second maybe of eight. And the setting! It works its magic deep in a curving canyon of rose and golden granite.
Yet Duck Creek falls, my nomination for best of show, is largely a secret. Why? Location, location, location.
It is off the radar, hidden in the central Laramie Range, deep in the back country of the Laramie Peak Wildlife Habitat Management Area. The area is managed for wildlife–elk, bighorn sheep, deer and antelope–not for people. So there are no signs marking the rambling maze of roads. There is no constructed trail to the falls. There is no trailhead parking area.
And there is the name. If the early map makers had penned “Golden Canyon Falls” it might just have made a mark. But then there wouldn’t be the wonderful solitude of what might just be the wildest region in this corner of the state.
Playing hard to get
My friend Rob and I hiked in recently. We wanted to see the flow after such a wet spring. And to find out just how long it would take an average hiker to walk
it. Our verdict? An hour and a half from the dirt road. But a week later Rob took his family. It was three hours. Plan on two.
And the drive from Cheyenne? About two hours.
Was it all that I had remembered it to be from previous trips? Ah yes, and better.
And could I write down simple driving directions to the trailhead? I think so. They are at the end of the story
The hike begins with a walk down Hay Canyon, following the beginnings of a little stream. The first hour of the hike is the downward drop through ever narrower and deeper canyon. Views of Reese Mountain, a twisted top of pink granite, greet you as you begin the gradual descent.
The user-made trail generally follows the right bank of the creek. Be careful not to get too high on the canyon walls. The route becomes very brushy, with branches pulling at your hat and clothing. Wear long pants and probably a lightweight long sleeve shirt to avoid scratches. And dose yourself well with insect repellant. This is tick country.
Keep an eye out for big horn sheep. A heard of about fifty have been successfully transplanted here by Wyoming Game and Fish. You’ll see plenty of bones, picked clean by coyotes.
After about an hour of walking, where the stream bed narrows into a notch, you will want to be on the left bank of the creek. A rope is secured to help give a helping handhold down the only steep passage.
After the notch continue a short way until you reach an opening and the junction with Duck Creek. You will turn left, going up-stream now along Duck Creek. Note this junction carefully for your return trip. It is amazing how the opening to Hay Canyon is concealed.
Here the rock walls are nearly perpendicular, towering over the lush canyon floor, grey and silver, streaked with bronze and black lichens. Duck Creek gently meanders back and forth, hosting a forest of spreading box elder trees.
Keep an eye out for the rare Laramie Columbine, a diminutive yellow bloom growing in rock cracks on the walls, found in this range and nowhere else on earth. Also keep an eye out for poison ivy which is abundant as the summer progresses.
Make your way as best as you possibly can, crossing the creek as needed. The creek makes a sharp bend to the left. You are getting close. Keep keeping on. The first sight of the falls is always a surprise.
From high above the water flows clear and cold, fanning over a polished rock, filling a trough, then pushing out through a small runnel to plunge into thin air, breaking into fine spray as it crashes onto recalcitrant rock outcrops. If the sun is high and clear a small rainbow forms in the water just as it hits the upper pool. There the waters collect, black and dimpled before flowing out over a second fall into a lower pool with a sandy shoreline.
If you wish to make your way up to the top of the falls first back away and find a route up the left side to a long horizontal log. Traverse above the log, picking a way roughly level with the ledge where the fall begins. From the top look up to see a dark rampart of rock like an ancient ruined tower complete with openings to conceal archers.
Enjoy your lunch at the falls. Fish a little if you like. The trout here rarely see a hook.
The walk back can take a little longer. You are heading uphill. If time permits you may want to explore Duck Creek further beyond the Hay Canyon entrance. Here you’ll find fresh beaver construction and rising pools. The rock walls take on a rosy hue.
It is hard to believe that such a small creek, draining a little water shed could carve such a deep canyon. Some geologists believe that a large stream, such as the Medicine Bow River draining the Snowy Range, cut the canyon and then was diverted by a landscape changed by one of Yellowstone’s mighty explosions.
I’ve posted a driving map you can copy at the end of this article.
Go north on I-25 toward Wheatland about 60 miles, taking exit 73, Hwy 34 toward Laramie. At 15.6 miles turn right on Tunnel Road. After 15.7 miles on Tunnel turn right into the Laramie Peak Wildlife Habitat Management Area. This is where the adventure begins.
The land is open, rolling and full of wonderful rocky outcrops with groves of pines. If Paul Bunyan played golf, this would be his course. You can imagine him striding over each hill, Babe the blue ox carrying his mighty clubs.
On the two track go straight for 1.7 miles, keeping left at each fork until you reach a “T”, Turn right there and then right again in .1of a mile. .3 beyond that keep left at the “Y”. Go another .4 and turn right at that “Y”. Then .7, keeping to the left at any intersections. You will pass two tractor tire water tanks and then see a wooden stockade to keep hay away from hungry elk. Park off to the side of the road even with the stockade. To your right is lovely Hay Canyon, the start of your hike.
Some precautions are in order. May and June are the best months to visit. Mid-summer is hot, humid and poison ivy rich. From February through April the area is closed. Fall is ok yet the water flow will be low and hunters may be present.
There is no drinking water and are no toilets. Do bring a trowel.
The only useful maps are the USGS quads “Davidson Flats” and “Bull Camp Peak.” Some further information on the Wildlife Habitat Unit may be found at https://gf.state.wy.us/accessto/whmas/laramie.asp
For now there are no gas stations at Chugwater. You will want to leave Cheyenne with a full tank and on the way home a detour through Wheatland could be in order.