HorseTail Falls WI4/5

Page Type Page Type: Route
Additional Information Route Type: Ice Climbing
Seasons Season: Winter
Additional Information Time Required: Half a day
Sign the Climber's Log


Horse Tail Falls
Horse Tail Falls
Bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep

Horsetail Falls is a fun ice climb near Ouray, Colorado. Jack Roberts wrote in his Colorado Ice guide book: “This is one of the area classics and is formed up all winter long.” The approach is short and very scenic, involving a steep descent into the Uncompahgre gorge (the same river and gorge which form the Ice Park about 2 miles down the stream).

The river crossing is typically safe on a thick ice bridge. There are some narrows which you have to ascend to the base of the climb. 
You can overview the whole climb from the Highway 550 (= Million Dollar Highway), and there is a nice overlook where your friends can observe your progress. Expect some spectators stopping by and taking photos of you. You are a tourist attraction:)

The first pitch is the crux, the climbing above gets much easier. Descend is a walk off with a short rappel just above the start of your climb.

You can check for ice climbing conditions San Juan Mountain Guides or stop at Ouray Mountain Sports.

This is not a beginner's climb. The first pitch is steep. I have seen a leader fall here which resulted in a rescue and a few fractures. 

Avalanche danger is relatively low, but expect a lot of snow higher up after a snowstorm. Also, the road above Ouray does get occasionally closed if there is a lot of fresh snow and high avalanche risk. This happens only a few times each season. 

Getting There

Follow Hwy. 550 south of town of Ouray for approximately 2.3 miles, at which point a bridge spans Bear Creek, and there is also a nice overlook over the gorge and the climb. Park on either side just slighly pass the bridge. Look to the west, on the other side of the Uncompahgre River, directly across from the parking area, is an obvious waterfall. This is Horsetail Falls. Descent into the gorge. There is usually a small trail at the southern end of the railing. If there is tons of fresh snow (as was our situation), you may have to find the safest path down into the gorge (just slightly south of the waterfall). You have to cross the Uncompahgre River, typically there is a thick snow bridge. 
The approach is very scenic, and you will get amazing views of Bear Creek Falls, which is directly below the bridge.

Horsetail Falls WI4/5 - approachParking lot and the start of the approach - nice view of Mt. Abrams
Horsetail Falls WI4/5Overlook on Hwy. 550 and climb on the opposite side of the gorge

Approach: 0.25 miles
Hike Time: 20 minutes
Hike Gain: 200 feet down to the climb
Season: Typically January through late March, some years longer

Route Description

The route can be done in 2 to 4 pitches depending on your comfort level.

There is a short steeper section to the base of the climb. We encountered a fresh deep snow, so had an easy access (only deep waste snow).

1st pitch: the best pitch of the climb. The ice is typically pretty thick, and you can choose either WI4 (climber's left) or WI5 (climber's right) climb per your comfort level.

2nd pitch: an easy WI2 climbing, great for first time leader

3rd pitch: WI2 - we combined pitch 2 and 3 with a short section of simu climbing.

4th pitch: WI3/4 - a short ice fall to a tree with a belay.

Descent: the best is to rap the short 4th pitch, and walk to climber's left (south), there is a descend path, which will bring you back to the above of the base of your climb. The descent path goes down and south and then turns north. Most people rappel the short steep section leading to the base. There are obvious rap anchors around a tree. 

1st pitch Horsetail Falls
1st pitch Horsetail Falls - thick conditions

Horse Tail Falls
Horse Tail Falls - thin conditions
Deep snow on the approach
Deep snow on the approach

Bear Creek Falls WI5
Bear Creek Falls WI5

Horse Tail Falls
Horse Tail Falls

Horsetail Falls WI4/5
Horsetail Falls WI4/5


Essential Gear

  • Standard ice rack (you will have to build your own ice anchors)
  • Slings/screamers
  • 60 meter rope (we prefer for ice climbing doubles)
  • Personal ice climbing gear: harness, boots, crampons, ice tools and helmet
  • Thermos with hot beverages is always a good idea
Ouray Mountain Sports - the best place to get your climbing supplies, information (you can also rent some gear). 
Ouray Hot Springs - lovely place to soak after your ice climb
Ouray Ice Park - a great place to practice your skills and get ready for back country ice.