Moon of the Yellowing Leaves

Some days assume an ethereal quality during the living, and October 1 was just such a day. In search of fall colors, my husband and I traveled to Mueller State Park in neighboring Teller County, about 30 miles (48 Km) west of Colorado Springs. 9 o’clock in the morning found the thermometer flirting with a refreshing 39 degrees F (4 degrees C), inducing us to don an extra layer. At nearly 9,000 feet (2.700 meters), our favorite aspen trees were busy with their annual endeavor of turning into gold.

This year’s haphazard weather, characterized by searing heat and parching drought, made it difficult for experts to forecast the pinnacle of this avidly anticipated autumn spectacle. And while a fraction of the trees was still green and another had already shed its leaves, plenty of aspens were in the midst of their miraculous transformation, delighting us not only with cheering sunshine hues, but also with a euphonious symphony of rustling foliage, in addition to a pleasing choreography of pirouetting leaves on their way to converting into a crunchy, crispy carpet. The sky, after being obscured by haze from wildfires repeatedly in the preceding months, was nearly as blue as is its wont, and the sun raised the temperature to a very-comfortable-at-this-altitude 60 degrees (15 C) .

Enchanted with what we found, we scrapped our plans to return to Colorado Springs via a loop road, which, on account of being gravel, would have taken us many hours to drive. Instead, we hiked a nearly 7-mile loop that undulated through expansive meadows, scattered strands of trees, and dense forests. We took our time enjoying the vistas and the balminess of the sun’s rays, but also the intermittent breezes hinting at harsher times to come. Next to a verdant pond in an otherwise desiccated meadow we sat cross-legged and savored our lunch, with squirrels chattering and birds calling.

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Ending the afternoon at a picnic table with coffee and pumpkin muffins, we were accosted by the curious, always-hungry, and at-times-brazen avians aptly known as camp robbers—the irresistible Canada Jays. When the crumbs that drop from visitors’ picnics aren’t sufficiently sating, they will help themselves to whatever edibles aren’t nailed down.

As the westering sun dappled the light, warmed our aging bones, and made us appreciate the simple pleasures of the moment, from high in the sky came a vociferous reminder of the passing of the seasons. Craning our necks, we espied a flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes on their way south. In tandem with our earlier experiences, they uplifted our souls with another token of nature’s comforting, recurring cycles in otherwise disturbing, unsettled times.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

PS: Thanks to my husband for coming up with this post’s title. It was inspired by author Mari Sandoz, whose books include descriptive names for the different months used by the American Indian tribes she wrote about. I have introduced her in a previous post.

PPS: Mueller State Park was also the topic of another previous post.

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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