Ute Valley Park

Colorado Springs harbors a wealth of lovely parks, putting us locals in the enviable position of having to choose which one to explore on any given day. Allow me to introduce Ute Valley Park, located in the northwest quadrant of our city. Even though it’s only about 13 miles from home, busy traffic corridors act as a deterrent, and I don’t visit as often as I would like, because it’s otherwise a very attractive destination, both with regard to scenery and wildlife.

Colorado Springs beheimatet eine Fülle reizender Parks, weshalb wir Einheimischen oft die Qual der Wahl haben. Erlaubt mir, Euch Ute Valley Park im nordwestlichen Teil der Stadt vorzustellen. Auch wenn er nur etwa 21 Kilometer von unserem Haus entfernt liegt, schrecken mich die Verkehrswege etwas ab, und ich besuche ihn weniger oft als gewünscht, weil er ansonsten sehr attraktiv ist, sowohl was die Landschaft als auch die Tierwelt angeht.

As the name implies, the area is nestled in a wide valley and characterized by rolling hills, rocky canyons, and sandstone formations, all of which are variously covered by grassy meadows, desert-like plants, shrubby vegetation, or piñon/juniper forest. The view west is dominated by Pikes Peak, which remains in sight from all but the most secluded trails. I never tire of gazing at our local fourteener, and am fascinated by its moods, which it wears on its sleeve, or its head, as it were. It does not pretend—shares a sunny smile when all is calm, but surrounds itself in a cloak when change is brewing—and in so doing, serves as our meteorologist.

Wie der Name andeutet, liegt das Areal in einem weiten Tal und ist durch sanfte Hügel, felsige Schluchten und Sandsteinformationen gekennzeichnet, die je nachdem mit Gras, wüstenartigen Pflanzen, Sträuchern oder Nadelwäldern bedeckt sind. Der Blick gen Westen wird von Pikes Peak dominiert, der von den meisten Pfaden aus zu sehen ist. Ich werde nie müde, mir unseren 4.000 Meter hohen Berg anzuschauen, und ich finde seine Launen faszinierend, die er offen auf seinem Angesicht zur Schau stellt. Wenn das Wetter mild ist, lächelt er, doch wenn sich etwas anbraut, umhüllt er sein Antlitz, und fungiert so als unser Meteorologe.

As is evident in my pictures taken mid-January, the ground is snowless, in all but the most shaded spots. After promising November and December snowfalls, most of our region has not had any precipitation for four to six weeks. While January is often a dry month, the absence of rain or snow serves as a sobering reminder that many parts of Colorado have been in a drought since the start of the new millennium. As of January 21, the drought monitor reports that 26. 4% of the state (Colorado Springs included) is abnormally dry, 37.4% is in a moderate, and 13.8% in a severe drought.

Wie meine Bilder von Mitte Januar zeigen, ist der Boden bis auf die schattigsten Flecken schneefrei. Seit einigen vielversprechenden Schneefällen im November und Dezember gibt es fast überall in unserer Region in den letzten vier bis sechs Wochen keinerlei Niederschläge. Auch wenn der Januar oft ein trockener Monat ist, dienen die Abwesenheit von Schnee und Regen als ernüchternde Erinnerung daran, daß viele Gegenden Colorados seit Beginn des neuen Milleniums unter Dürre leiden. Laut Trockenheitsmonitor vom 21. Januar sind 26,4 % des Staates (dazu gehört auch Colorado Springs) ungewöhlich trocken, wohingegen 37,4% von mittelmäßiger und 13.8% von starker Trockenheit betroffen sind.

The following photo shows a section of the Rampart Range. Instead of green trees, you might recognize their skeletons—silent witnesses of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, which swept over the hill and burned not only forest, but also an entire residential area, tragically claiming the lives of two people and countless animals. With the heart-rending inferno in Australia and the memory of this and several other recent conflagrations still fresh on everybody’s mind, we are enjoying our sunshine while we urgently hope for some moisture from the sky.

Das folgende Photo zeigt einen Auschnitt der hiesigen Rampart Gebirgskette. Statt grüner Bäume ist es möglich, ihre Skelette zu erkennen. Sie sind stumme Zeugen des Waldo Canyon Feuers, das 2012 über den Hügel schwappte und nicht nur den Wald, sondern auch ein Wohngebiet verbrannte und tragischerweise zwei Menschen sowie unzähligen Tieren das Leben kostete. Das herzzereißende Inferno in Australien und unsere eigene Feuersbrunst sind uns noch frisch im Gedächtnis, und auch wenn wir die Sonne genießen, wünschen wir uns, daß der Himmel uns dringende Nässe spenden wird.

A Tranquil and Treasured Place

Ever since my inadvertent discovery of Colorado’s Roxborough State Park more than five years ago, I have harbored the wish to introduce it to my husband. Its location near Denver, about 65 miles north of Colorado Springs, had been a slight deterrent because of the attendant drive and traffic, but we finally made the journey in mid-July.

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We are enthusiastic devotees of Colorado’s State Parks and, for years, have happily invested the $70 fee for an annual pass that allows access to all forty-two parks, save one. A mere ten visits per year amortize the investment, and we typically far exceed that number. As the parks are scattered throughout the state, those that remain to be explored outnumber the ones we are familiar with, among them our nearby favorites, Cheyenne Mountain and Castlewood Canyon.

Roxborough State Park, fringed by the plains in the east and the Rocky Mountain foothills in the west, is one of the least developed parks. It is open only during daytime, does not offer picnic or camping facilities, and only allows human foot traffic. If this sounds restrictive, it is done in the noble attempt to limit visitation and minimize impact on its fauna, which includes 181 recorded bird species, plus multiple mammals, among them deer, elk, fox, black bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. When I recently published a post about our rare encounter with a rattlesnake, little did I know that soon afterward, we would run into another – at Roxborough. Again, this individual was not aggressive, and slithered away into the tall grass lining the trail. Shortly thereafter, we nearly stepped on another snake, and were jolted to attention when it hissed and curled. Fortunately, the bullsnake, albeit of impressive size, is not poisonous, and merely wanted to alert us of its presence.

Roxborough’s most outstanding features are geologic. Slanting red sandstone slabs form several parallel ridges along the park’s north-south axis, like the spinal columns of so many slumbering dinosaurs. The rocks are representative of the Fountain Formation. These oblique rubicund walls are even more remarkable when one comprehends that they originated as the bottom of an ancient inland ocean before its uplift some 300 million years ago. This is where my comprehension ends. As much as I hate to admit it, my geologic grasp is miniscule. Each time I read about rocks and minerals and millions and billions of years, my eyes glaze over, despite repeated attempts to remedy my ignorance. Ignorance does not equal inattention or inappreciation, but not everybody can be a rock hound.

Contrasting and complementing verdure, stimulated by several streams, creates a far lusher appearance than we are accustomed to from the otherwise geologically similar Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The versatile flora comprises tallgrass species and wildflowers, but our nearly decade-long regional drought has temporarily suppressed the number of flowering plants. The entire American West hopes for more summer rains.

This exquisite jewel of a refuge has attracted humans for eons. Evidence of local activity dates back nearly 12,000 years, and those Paleo-Indians were followed more recently by Utes, and, to a lesser extent, by Arapahoe. The locale owes its name to Henry Persse, a New York transplant. In 1903, he built a stone house on the north end of the valley, originally called Washington Park, before he rechristened it after an ancestral Scottish location. He intended to transform the area around his summer home into a resort, replete with hotel, golf course, and guest cottages. Mercifully, this plan never materialized, and his and some surrounding property amounting to a total of about 3,300 acres came into the possession of the state of Colorado, and was opened as a park in 1987.

Despite its proximity to the greater Denver metropolitan area with its three-plus million inhabitants, and despite the doubling of the annual visitation from 75 to 150 thousand in the last four years, when managing to avoid weekends and holidays, it is still possible to experience transformative tranquil time at this treasure trove.

A Fire Lookout

If my office sat atop a 9,748 foot rocky perch and offered panoramic views of Colorado’s mountains and plains, I, too, would happily climb 143 steep steps each morning to get to work. I would not frown upon the employer-provided domicile, or upon having to use an outhouse. Rather, I would relish residing remotely each summer, 1.5 miles from, and 939 feet above, the nearest trailhead.

Unfortunately, this lofty office, built in 1951, whose elevated raison d’etre is the early detection of wildfires, does not have any openings, as the role of fire lookout has been filled by the same person since 1984. Mr. Bill Ellis, a U. S. Forest Service employee, was in his mid-50s when he jumped at the chance to take on the full-time seasonal position, moving to the cabin with his wife and, to begin with, their four children, each fire season, with the exception of only a few years. In his mid 80s now, he has become a living legend. His is a dying profession, because modern fire monitoring technologies are supplanting the human eye.

As residents of Colorado Springs, we enjoy occasional newspaper articles about the renowned fire tower lookout at Devil’s Head, a rocky promontory reportedly resembling Satan’s noggin from a few vantage points. This destination had long lingered and languished on our wish list until late June, when we finally saw it for ourselves. Though located less than 45 miles from the city as the crow flies, the trailhead lies off the rough and gravelly Rampart Range Road, and it took us nearly two hours to drive there. Out-of-the-way as it might be, its popularity has been growing exponentially, in lockstep with Colorado’s population, and the parking lot, albeit not full, contained many vehicles on the morning of our weekday visit.

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The 1.5 mile, tree-lined, narrow footpath sparkled with wildflowers, glittered with butterflies partaking of their sweet nectar, and resounded with birdsong, the melancholy tune of the Hermit Thrush audible above other voices. When we reached the flat area where Douglas Fir spread their verdant boughs over the couple’s home benignantly, we did not see the second famous local resident, Mrs. Margaret Ellis, but the towels drying on a clothesline in our low-humidity air bespoke her presence.

Huffing and puffing up 143 stairs rewarded us with 360 degree views from the tower, balanced like a raptor’s nest on the uppermost point. Its door was wide open, and inside the well-known lookout, binoculars at the ready, went about his business – the early espying of anything that resembles flickering flames or spiraling smoke, in order to activate a network of firefighters intent on preventing a potentially disastrous spread in our region suffering from a near decade-long drought. Despite an almost constant trickle of hikers, whose numbers approximate 40,000 annually, he greeted each party individually, and seemed more than willing to answer questions, and to pose for a photo.

I never tire of elevated places and bird’s eye views and suspect Mr. Ellis shares this sentiment. Despite the physical challenges of living at high altitude, off the grid, and without indoor plumbing for months at a time, and despite the daily demanding trek to his high post, he seemed completely in his element. May his quiet dignity and competence continue to be part of our local landscape and lore for as long as befits him and his wife, and may their future paths be smooth, sunny, and smoke-free.

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A Stroll in our State Park

Cheyenne Mountain State Park opened its gates in 2006. Even though this coincided with our return to Colorado Springs, it originally did not engender curiosity enough to make us pay the $7 entrance fee, when the area offers a host of alternative outdoor playgrounds, all free of charge. That changed a few years back, when we invested in an annual pass which affords unlimited entry to all of Colorado’s 42 state parks, for $70. We soon realized how effortlessly we exceeded 10 visits in a 12 month period.

Among our intermittent destinations are Castlewood Canyon State Park in neighboring Douglas County and Mueller State Park in Teller County, but Cheyenne Mountain State Park’s proximity to our house is a decided advantage — to reach its entrance from our driveway takes under 10 minutes. Situated just south of Colorado Springs, off Colorado Highway 115, El Paso County’s first and to date only state park is nestled at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain, famous in olden days for being much loved by Helen Hunt Jackson, local author and Indian activist extraordinaire, and, in contemporary times, for concealing NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) in its man-made caves and conduits. The land used to be a homestead and was saved from a housing development by the combined efforts of the city, the county, an association of state parks, and a number of private organizations.

Twenty miles of trails invite hiking and biking across differing terrain. My husband makes occasional use of the archery range to practice with his recurve bow. Sporadically, we participate in bird and wildflower outings, as well as in literary walks which have as their central theme writers of regional interest. They commence with a biographical overview at the Visitor Center, and culminate with a reading in the ”rock garden”, accessible by a short stroll. The popular campground is typically filled on summer weekends and holidays, mostly with RVs, but two walk-in tent loops are also in high demand.

Visitor Center

Rock Garden

From the access road, the scenery unfolds like a canvas. The grassland of the lower reaches is punctuated by wildflowers. Yellow stalks of mullein, pink heads of thistle, and snowy disks of prickly poppies peep out of the green. Prairie coneflowers wear sun-colored skirts, creamy yucca blossoms dangle like garlands between the bayonet-like leaves. This prairie-like environment also harbors winding warrens for prairie dogs. Their chirping sounds I interpret as a friendly greeting. Mobs of magpies attempt to drown out the marvelous music of Western meadowlarks in vain. Tree swallows line the fences near their nesting boxes. The foothill scrub oak and juniper plant community of intermediate elevations is the preferred habitat of Spotted Towhees and Scrub Jays. At higher altitudes, it gives way to a predominantly coniferous forest, with aspen interspersed now and again. Vanilla-scented Ponderosa Pine hide Hermit Thrushes whose haunting melodies float down the hillside. Invisible silken strings stretch across the trails, dragon- and butterflies flutter by on soundless wings.

Impressions from the trail: The rock tree

Impressions from the trail: An unusual growth pattern

Prickly Poppy

Prairie Coneflower

An occasional summer visitor with an onomatopoeic name: Dickcissel

Mule Deer

We are content to explore the existing routes in changing combinations, yet are pleased about the prospect of a path leading to the very top of Cheyenne Mountain, heretofore off limits. Currently under construction, it is slated to open in the foreseeable future and will add another attraction to a favorite retreat right at our doorstep, with an even loftier view of the park and its environs.

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An Elevated Place

     If not for visionaries like Wyman E. Mueller and his wife Eleanor, Colorado might have only 41, instead of 42 State Parks. Thanks to their long view and interest in conservation, the 12,103 acres of the Mueller Ranch, an agglomeration of property acquired by the family bit by bit from previous owners, came under the aegis of the Nature Conservancy in the late 1970s. Slightly more than half of the property, 6,982 acres, was sold to the Colorado Division of Wildlife and is operated as the Dome Rock Wildlife Area which allows seasonal hunting. The remaining 5,121 acres opened to the public in 1991 as Mueller State Park.

Mueller State Park Visitor Center

     The Visitor Center, which commenced operation in 1997, houses informative exhibits about the local history, both natural and manmade. After the area’s seasonal use by the Ute Indians throughout centuries, in the 1800s it attracted trappers, homesteaders, ranchers, farmers, and was furthermore mined for gold and timber. In the early 20th century, some of its meadows brought forth Pikes Peak lettuce which was shipped as far east as Chicago and New York City, in boxcars cooled by blocks of ice from local ponds. Twelve historic buildings in various stages of decay still dot the landscape and give fodder to our imagination.

Former Cheesman Ranch

     From Colorado Springs, the park in Teller County lies about an hour’s drive west, between the towns of Divide and Cripple Creek, just off Colorado Highway 67. Nestled on the back side of Pikes Peak at an elevation of 9,600 feet, it affords fabulous vistas of Colorado’s western Sangre de Cristo and Sawatch Mountain ranges.

View of the western mountains from Grouse Mountain Overlook

We have explored its extensive and varied terrain during successive day trips, either by hiking or snowshoeing on the trails which amount to roughly 50 miles. A few years ago, we spent two chilly fall nights in one of two tent-only campground loops with walk-in sites. The park is extremely popular among RV users and offers 132 electrical sites. A third type of accommodation is also available, but until this month, we had only cast curious glances at the three cabins of Mueller. Since we enjoy practical presents, I gifted my husband two nights at the smallest, Pine Cabin, knowing full well that it wasn’t entirely altruistic.

Pine Cabin

When I called for the reservation in late November, I was given a code to the door. Months later, we were relieved when it yielded to our punched-in numbers and we inspected the well-appointed log structure with delight. The kitchen/dining room came with all necessary appliances and utensils, the small living room with a gas fireplace, the bathroom with towels, and the two bedrooms with beds fully made. High use notwithstanding, everything was refreshingly spic and span.

Kitchen and dining room

     In planning our trip for early March, I was hoping for enough white cover to snowshoe, but because this winter has been mild and dry, we tramped around in hiking boots, rather than snowshoes. The weather was sunny and clear, albeit windy, with the temperature ranging from the mid 30s to the mid 50s.

Elk Meadow, with view of back side of Pikes Peak

The park is famous for its wildlife, including bugling elk in the autumn, but, maybe not surprisingly for this transitional period, we only encountered a small group of Mule Deer, a number of Common Ravens and American Crows, a lone Clark’s Nutcracker, numerous chipper Mountain Chickadees, a few soaring Red-tailed Hawks, and two hungry Gray Jays (aren’t they always?).

Mule Deer resting

Gray Jay, aka Whisky Jack, aka Camp Robber

Content to walk for a few hours each day, we spent the remainder of our waking hours with reading, writing, and lounging in front of the cozy fireplace.

     We are grateful to the Mueller family for preserving a substantial parcel of land with a relatively intact ecosystem. It provides respite from the hustle and bustle of the ever-expanding Front Range population, and we look forward to returning to this elevated topography in different seasons of its and our lives.

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Time Travel

     Colorado is known for its outstanding natural beauty and wildlife, but it is also nearly impossible to wander anywhere without stumbling across historic relics. Castlewood Canyon State Park is among our favorite destinations which afford glimpses through the window of time, and insights into the lives of those who left their tracks on this landscape. Located about 40 miles north of Colorado Springs, it occupies 2300 acres of rugged rocky ravines and prairie habitat, and straddles the meandering early course of Cherry Creek which eventually joins the South Platte River in Denver, at present day Confluence Park.

Cherry Creek at Castlewood Canyon State Park.

Cherry Creek at Castlewood Canyon State Park.

     During a visit a few months back, one of the many hiking trails led us to the ruins of the Lucas Homestead whose appearance took us somewhat by surprise. We expected a toppled log cabin, or an old foundation, but faced instead the residual walls of a concrete, church-like structure.


Former Lucas Home

Its occupants, Margaret and Patrick Lucas, probably perpetuated the architectural style of their native Ireland in their adopted country. They homesteaded 160 acres in what is now the northern fringe of the park, from 1894 until 1941, when Margaret moved away to Denver, six years after her husband’s death. A path connects their former residence to remnants of buildings indispensable for their self-sufficient lifestyle, such as the spring house covering their well, used to refrigerate perishable food, and dairy products from their cows. I was most touched by a surviving apple orchard whose gnarly trees continue to bear fruit more than a century after the Lucas’ planted them. In my mind’s eye I saw Margaret collect, wash, and slice ripe green globes, like the ones on the branches in front of my eyes, before baking apple pie for her husband and their ten children, the mouth-watering aroma wafting through the open door, beckoning hungry mouths to the kitchen, most likely the favorite room in their dwelling.

     We were relieved to learn that their family survived a major catastrophe that befell the area in 1933. In 1890, Cherry Creek had been dammed, in order to entice settlers with the assurance of a reliable water supply for irrigation. According to all accounts, the construction leaked from its inception, and despite multiple repairs was never completely watertight. After decades of concerns about the dam’s safety, and repeated appeasements by engineers, the naysayers were, unfortunately, proven right. When it rained for three consecutive days in early August 1933, the walls gave way, and 1.7 billion gallons of water and debris poured out of the breach at 1:20 at night. By seven in the morning, it reached downtown Denver, over 30 miles away, where it wreaked havoc: inundating buildings, washing out roads and bridges, and burying the floors of Union Station under two feet of mud.

Historic photograph showing the flooding in Denver

Historic photograph showing the flooding in Denver

Thanks to rapid responses by the dam keeper and the telephone operator, a warning about the impending flood alerted communities downstream, so that “only” two people perished. The Lucas house, less than a mile below the dam, was elevated enough to remain unscathed, even though some of their land and livestock might have suffered, because numerous wild and domestic animals lost their lives. To this day, the ruins of the dam and the scoured walls lining the creek bed serve as sobering reminders of that calamitous incident.


Remains of Cherry Creek Dam. The field behind it would have been flooded when it was in place.

     We are spoiled with a wide variety of outdoor attractions along Colorado’s Front Range, but Castlewood Canyon State Park holds a special place in our hearts, always rewarding us with a fascinating visit.

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Did They Dance the Charleston?

Unexpected discoveries often occur in unusual locations. During a camping trip in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest a few weeks back, my husband and I enjoyed two calm nights under a full moon at Davenport Campground adjacent to Squirrel Creek, where large historic markers recount a fascinating chapter in the local history, and what follows is my own simplified version.

In the wake of southcentral Colorado’s devastating Ludlow Massacre which affected coal miners and their families in 1914, unions gained increasing influence, working conditions for various laborers finally improved, and vacation time was at their disposal for the first time. The working classes became interested in recreation, and discovered the plentiful woods west of Pueblo as a camping destination. It soon became evident that the unstructured foray of masses of humans into the forest created attendant problems.


Arthur Carhart (1892-1978)

In 1919, landscape architect and World War I sanitation officer, Arthur Carhart, was recruited by the National Forest supervisor to come up with solutions to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and destruction of land and timber. Arthur was a visionary who anticipated the growing utilization of natural places, and the resultant need for infrastructure. When Congress refused to allot funds for recreation for the Forest Service, he did not capitulate, but founded a private non-profit corporation, with Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron one of its major contributors, the same responsible for the infamy committed at Ludlow.

Mr. Carhart is credited with designing the first modern campground along Squirrel Creek, with each site including space for tents, picnic tables and benches, fire rings, and access to so-called “sanitaries”, ensuring the separation of human waste from drinking water. Having camped at numerous private, state, and federal campgrounds, we were intrigued to learn who masterminded this nearly ubiquitous layout. In 1922, he also adapted a wagon trail along the stream for automobile use, which became known as Squirrel Creek Road and improved accessibility to a mounting number of recreation sites.


Camping before the advent of structured campsites

For travelers not inclined to sleep under canvas, Carhart planned the Squirrel Creek Lodge in 1922, a two-story structure whose rooms were complemented by a center hall, two large fireplaces, a roomy kitchen and — a dance floor. What else could one ask for after escaping the sweltering heat of Pueblo, but to seek shade under the cool forest canopy, and to cut a rug, dancing the wildly popular Charleston during the Roaring 1920s?

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Great Depression followed the upbeat twenties, and additional tourist attractions by the early 1940s led to a decline in the popularity of the Squirrel Creek developments. The death knell was sounded in 1947 after a flood washed out portions of the road and campgrounds, plus several bridges.


Hiking trail along the former Squirrel Creek Road

For modern day visitors, this story comes alive along the former Squirrel Creek Road, now a hiking trail, which starts at Davenport Campground and connects to the Pueblo Mountain Park approximately 5 miles east, as the crow flies. Along its course are scattered remnants of picnic tables, fire rings, concrete anchors for wooden guardrail posts, and a reconstructed Adirondack-style picnic shelter. After years of disuse, a conflagration claimed the lodge in 1979, and all that survives today is its foundation.


Foundation of former Squirrel Creek Lodge

However, when I listened closely, mixed in with the murmuring of Squirrel Creek, the breeze stirring the boughs of ponderosa pines, and the haunting tune of a hermit thrush, I’d swear I heard soft notes of dance music drifting through the air.

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