Different Ways of Seeing the Land

North Lone Pine and Bald Mountain Trail

North Lone Pine Trail, Red Feather Lakes

Location: Just west of Red Feather Lakes

Directions: From Ft. Collins, take Highway 287 north and turn onto CR 74E (Red Feather Lakes Road) toward Red Feather Lakes for approximately 22 miles. Once you see the sign for Red Feather Lakes village, take your second left onto Deadman Road. About three miles up Deadman Road you will pass a metal gate that may or may not be open (it typically opens late June and remains open as long as the roads are passable). The trailhead will be on your left a mile past the metal gate. If the gate is closed, you can park to the side of the gate and walk up the road the rest of the way to the trailhead, which will add an hour to your hike.

Duration: 2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go all the way to the summit of Bald Mountain and where you are able to park.

Access Notes: Deadman Road may have a few rough patches in late spring, but the road up to the metal gate is generally accessible by passenger cars. The stretch of road after the first metal gate may be closed as late as mid-June depending on the conditions on the pass, and if it is, you can simply park to the side and walk up the mile to the trailhead. It is an uphill walk all the way to Bald Mountain from where you’ll park, so be prepared for a good workout. The trail itself may be wet and muddy in late spring, and you may have to cross a rushing creek one-third of the way up if you plan on summiting Bald Mountain, so it’s good to wear waterproof hiking boots. On weekdays in summer, especially if the gate is locked, you will have the trail to yourself. This is a quiet trail on weekends, too, compared to many Front Range trails like South Mesa in Boulder or White Ranch in Golden, and this is one reason I selected it for a summer hike. There are picnic tables at the trailhead and parking area. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The hike:

Even though you won’t see any fourteeners or rocky, snow-capped peaks surrounding this immediate area, don’t be fooled. The trail starts at an elevation of 9,400 feet and climbs to 10,900 feet at the summit of the mountain, if you decide to go that far. Before you enter the woods, you’ll want to walk over to the picnic tables at the parking lot and look at the distant view of the hills to the east and north of Red Feather Lakes, extending into Wyoming. The landscape gradually softens to a wavy roll where the hills end and the flatter plains of Wyoming and northern Colorado begin. The view of the Mummy Range, which is southeast of Bald Mountain, is blocked at this vantage point.

As you start out, you’ll be walking on a narrow trail in a mixed forest of pine, spruce and aspen, shaded from the sun and without views for the most part. In late spring or early summer, particularly after a period of rain or snow, you’ll walk across tiny channels of water streaming downhill across the trail toward a larger creek that carries all the water down the mountain. You’ll pass an area of uprooted trees, evidence of some past windstorm. Imagine hiking in the middle of such an event! The downed trees are gray and weathered and young trees have sprung up to replace the decay.

There will be large, smooth and lumpy rock formations in the woods, places that offer shade and shelter for various small animals. These are the same types of rock formations you may have seen on the drive up from Ft. Collins, and are also the same as the rocks atop Horsetooth Mountain in Loveland. You can see how the geology of the Front Range foothills is similar from south of Highlands Ranch all the way to the Wyoming border.

You’ll come across a mysterious dilapidated structure about a quarter of a mile up—something that looks like a screened-in porch that has caved in. You’ll also notice evidence of various types of human activity here, from the way the trail has been meticulously constructed to allow water to channel across and away, to the clean, sawed edge of logs that have fallen across the trail. You’ll see the work of humans when you walk on top of the rock supported trail near the stream, and wonder about the former function of a large, rusty pipe that lays abandoned on the side of the trail. You are in the midst of Roosevelt National Forest, at the edge of the Rawah Wilderness, and yet this place has been experienced and worked over by many people in the recent and distant past.

Seeing the Land

When I was a kid, my parents owned a travel trailer with which we used to go on long vacations that involved a lot of interstate highway travel. I used to brag that I’d “seen” more than 35 of the 50 states, but really what all that seeing amounted to was a blur out the back window of the Oldsmobile as I sleepily longed for the end to day’s travels. We never took the scenic route, except when we drove through National Parks like Yellowstone or Zion. We traveled on major freeways and stopped every couple of hours to stretch our legs, get gas or have a meal at Stuckey’s. Although I did see the way the landscape changed from the flat farms of Michigan and Ohio to the rolling green hills of Kentucky to the walls of trees running parallel to I-95 through Georgia, I didn’t get to see much of the nuances of the land in very many places. We stayed in KOA campgrounds that had the same general layout, the way hotel rooms all look the same inside, no matter if you’re in Alaska or if you’re in Miami. My parents weren’t into hiking or exploring. They were into visiting tourist traps, shopping for souvenirs and walking around city centers.

About fifty miles south of this trail is Rocky Mountain National Park, a place that as of 2010 boasts more than 3 million visitors per year. How many of those visitors actually get out of their cars, other than to use the facilities or check out the visitor center? How many of them just go for the dizzying drive up Trail Ridge Road, stop at the summit gift shop, then drive back down to Estes Park for dinner before heading home? Granted, even from the inside of a car, there’s a lot to see in Rocky Mountain Park. Rarely will you drive through without seeing at least a small herd of elk. You’ll enjoy vistas of mountains and tundra that are breathtaking. You’ll see wind-twisted trees, crows and hawks and maybe a pika or two.

A tree growing out of a tree

Seeing the land from a car is one way of seeing. It’s very limited, because you’re driving past at a speed where details are lost. It’s difficult to spot smaller animals and practically impossible to identify individual species of plants when you’re busy watching the road, or gazing passively out the passenger window. What impression would someone have of Denver or Boulder if all they did was drive through it along I-70 or the Boulder Turnpike. Would it be a good impression or a bad one?

When you drove up to the Lone Pine trailhead, you experienced this kind of seeing. This is a very brief snapshot of the land. The details are a blur. You’re probably thinking about how much farther your destination is, how many more turns in the road before you see the sign for the trail. You can’t feel the ground beneath your feet and you can’t hear and smell much of anything except the interior of your car. It’s not a good way to get connected to the land.

When you enter the land, actually get out of the car and walk onto a landscape, you experience it in a more vibrant, naked way. You hear birds, wind, and airplanes overhead. You feel the way the land slopes up, down or sideways. Even a road that seems perfectly flat when you’re in the car is not flat when you’re walking—your effort and breathing tell you so.

Why even bother getting out and walking the land? Because the way you see the land affects how you feel about it. The more you see, the more you experience, and the more interesting it seems. The more value it acquires in your mind and heart. Seeing a mountain from a car for a few minutes isn’t the same as backpacking it over the course of days.

Life is everywhere, even in the rotting crevice of a fallen tree.

By slowing down even more, you can heighten your experience in ways that will stick in your memory for a long time. When you’re seeing something passively, you’re missing out on a lot.

For example, have you ever driven along a road and realized afterward that you couldn’t recall its features because you were so lost in thought? Have you ever hiked a favorite trail and couldn’t recall a single unique feature of your surroundings a day later, because you were preoccupied with a conversation with your hiking partner?

Cultivating a deeper seeing is one way to develop mindfulness and presence, so your experience of a trail is not only more rewarding, it is more memorable.

The activity:

Regardless of where you parked your car, start by stepping up the slope of the picnic area of the trailhead to look at the view. Think about what you were noticing while you were in the car on the way up. How does that compare to what you notice now, as you look out to the distant plains of Wyoming and northeastern Colorado? Consider your impression of the view. Do you think what you’re seeing are places where a lot is happening, that are full of interesting things to see? Why or why not?

Begin hiking the Lone Pine Trail at a pace that’s comfortable to you, even if it’s brisk. Notice what you see while you’re walking. Where do you place your gaze most? Do you notice the sights or the sounds more?

After sitting for at least 10 minutes noticing everything around you, stand up and take a look at the spot where you’re sitting—the tree, the log or rock under you. Look closely at it. What do you notice about it that you didn’t notice while you were sitting on it?

You can keep doing this until you reach the smallest object or life form you’re able to perceive, whether it’s a moss or an insect or a strand of spider web. Describe it.

You can “see” deeper by using other senses. Scrape up a bit of soil with a twig and place it in your palm. Imagine what it smells like before actually smelling it. Does it smell how you imagined? How do you describe the smell?

With your eyes closed, touch the place you were sitting. Does its texture surprise you in any way?

Think back to one of the first questions of this exercise, which was to consider the distant landscape and whether it seemed to you that there was anything of interest going on out there. Has your impression changed?

This deeper perception makes me see how life, great and small, is happening on every square inch of this world. From the tiniest microscopic bacteria in the soil, to grasses, trees and animals, there is no such thing as a place where there’s “not much there.” Life is everywhere, and there’s life and death drama occurring despite what humans are doing or what value we place on the land in our minds.

As you complete your hike, imagine how your experience of Red Feather Lakes would be different if you never got out of your car.

How to Do a Medicine Walk

Coulson Gulch Road/National Forest Trail #916

Location: West of Pinewood Springs, between Lyons and Estes Park

Directions: From Boulder take the 36 through Lyons toward Estes Park. Immediately past Pinewood Springs, turn left (south) on Cr-118, where you’ll see a brown sign for Big Elk Meadows and National Forest Access. Drive another 3 miles until you get to the “Y” fork in the road. Take the left fork, following the sign pointing toward National Forest Access. This last half mile is a very rutty dirt road best accessed by high-clearance vehicles. Park along the road in front of the metal barrier. Walk south past the metal barrier where the road continues and spreads out into a bigger area. Veer slightly east where there’s a second metal barrier and locate the narrow dirt trail directly west of it that descends into the trees below, indicated by a brown National Forest Service sign that states “Trail 916.”

Duration: 4 hours or longer

Access Notes: Camping is allowed at the trailhead in certain areas, so you may encounter a few cars already parked at the trailhead in summer. The last half mile of dirt road is not maintained in winter, so this hike is accessible when the roads are dry—after Memorial Day. Elk hunting is permitted in this National Forest area during the fall, and it is advised to wear bright orange during that time when hiking in National Forest. There are no facilities or restrooms at the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

This is one of the trails within 30 minutes drive of Boulder that feels like you’re stepping into wilderness. It’s quiet, bucolic in summer, with no road noise (except maybe ATVs in nearby Big Elk Meadows and Johnny Camp) and long, green views of the valley between Pinewood Springs and the north Boulder foothills.

The start of the trail is a narrow slit in the dirt that cuts through a sloped, grassy meadow that descends into the trees. It then follows a small creek through a thicket of woods and brush at the bottom of a gully. In the spring and summer you’ll see a variety of wildflowers dotting the trail, including lupines, yellow peas, prairie chickweed, western dayflowers, columbines and others. The view of the meadow below (Higgin’s Park) is most spectacular the first portion of the hike, before you enter the woods.

After the cool and pleasant walk in the woods next to the stream, you’ll come to a more exposed section of the trail where you can look across the valley to the west and south. After a steep and sketchy descent down a section of trail with a lot of loose sand and gravel, you’ll come to an old abandoned log cabin—a relic of the earlier part of the last century. There’s no roof, but a rusted bed frame, mattress springs and headboard are propped up inside the decaying structure. There’s even a rusty skeleton of a wood-burning cookstove flung onto the forest floor nearby. It feels odd this far into the trail, and makes you wonder how people used to bring in such items this deep into a forest. A little further down, an old livestock enclosure fashioned out of logs borders what once was a home to someone who lived this close to nature.

As you come out of the woods past this abandoned homestead you come upon Higgins Park, a large, rolling meadow with views of Cook Mountain and North and South Sheep Mountain. As the trail turns east and away from the grassy hill, you have to make a decision—go another half hour toward Button Rock reservoir or another 20 minutes to a footbridge over the St. Vrain river, following the trail until it dead ends up the river.

There are many opportunities to view and listen to wildlife along the way—chirping and crowing birds, squirrels, elk, or deer. Sometimes the more open you are and in tune with the land, the more animals you notice.

The remote feel and peaceful setting make it an excellent location to do a Medicine Walk.

Medicine Walk

Native Americans believed that every animal or object in nature had a spirit and contained special powers that were beyond the normal ability of humans. The landscape and its inhabitants was not an inanimate object to be quantified and assessed for monetary value as it is in Western culture, but a place alive with mystery and purpose, omens and symbolism. The spirit, or wakan in Lakota, of hawks, coyotes, elk and other animals symbolized such qualities as courage, success in courtship, or a deep and clear seeing. When animals appeared to humans, whether in reality or in dreams and visions, it held special meaning. There was an intimate connection between the animal realm and the human realm, each one needing the other.

It was believed that every person had their own spirit guide from nature, represented by some animal or object. This spirit guide gave the person emotional strength to endure challenges in life and the insight to succeed in hunting, love or leadership.

Spirit guides were particularly important during vision quests. Vision quests were sacred rites of passage in Native American culture where adolescents (and sometimes adults, when seeking answers to difficult questions) would fast in the wilderness for three or four days, which helped incite hallucinations and an altered psychological state in order to get a vision to guide them in their life. The quester would bring along talismans of their spirit guide they carved or created on their journey, packed in a sacred medicine bag.

During their time in the wilderness, there was symbolic meaning from things they observed from the weather, animals and the landscape that they interpreted in relationship to their own life. The “messages” they received told them of their purpose in life, revealed their special gifts and talents, and instructed them how to use those gifts to benefit their tribe when they returned.

A medicine walk is like a short vision quest, during which you pay attention to the omens in nature in order to find your medicine, which in the Native American sense is anything that is healing  and positive to body and mind. During a medicine walk, you find a place where you can spend at least a half a day alone, walking, sitting and meditating in nature with as few distractions from civilization as possible. You focus on an important personal issue and seek wisdom and guidance in nature by looking for symbolic meaning from the things you observe.

Medicine walks can be undertaken in preparation for important transitions in life: a new job, a divorce, a new relationship. It can be a healing, insightful practice when you’re feeling stuck or confused about something in your life. The insights you receive from a medicine walk can be subtle or immensely profound, and sometimes the answers aren’t what you were expecting. But simply by embarking on a medicine walk, you invite a more mystical quality in your life. You acknowledge that the world is more than a collection of profane objects, but rather a world alive with both meaning and mystery.

To prepare for a medicine walk, you select a place where you will spend a half day or longer, a place where there aren’t too many people (preferably a trail that has little or no visitors on certain days of the week). If you have a favorite trail or a place that draws you in some mysterious way, that’s a good place to go. The key is to have a place where you’ll feel comfortable and unembarrassed to walk slowly, sit for long periods of time or even have a conversation with an animal or plant. The reason you want to be out for at least a half day is because you’ll naturally come with a lot of mental chatter, and it will take at least a few hours for that chatter to subside enough for you to be open to what the outside world is trying to say.

It can be a time during which you take water, but no food. The reasoning behind this is that because fasting can further eliminate distractions.  Personally, I think hunger is a bigger distraction and I prefer to take along a snack. In planning for your walk, be prepared for any weather possibility since the weather can be completely different at the end of your walk as it is when you embark. Or, try to plan your walk on a day when you know the weather will be as agreeable as possible. Be sure to tell someone exactly where you’re going and what time you expect to be back home, in case you get injured or something happens and you’re out longer than you want to be.

I selected the Coulson Gulch trail for this activity, because it is on National Forest land and has less visitors than other trails near the Front Range, especially on weekdays. It feels like you’re deeper in the wilderness than you actually are, and provides the solitude and quiet that you’ll need in order to benefit from this contemplative activity.

When you arrive at the trail, set an intention for your medicine walk. You’re here to ask guidance from nature and you want to stay open to all omens and signs. Perhaps you’re confused about the direction you’re going in life. Maybe you want guidance about what your true talents and gifts are, and what to do with them. Whatever the question, it should be of a personal nature.

Find an imaginary threshold that you will step over to begin your medicine walk and journey into dream time, or a period of time when everything that happens and everything you observe has special and sacred meaning. You will be stepping back over this same threshold upon your return. This threshold could be the metal barrier to the trail, or the trail sign, or a stand of trees.

Walk purposefully and slowly. Allow your curiosity to seek out things that capture your attention. Don’t analyze everything you observe for meaning, because sometimes the best guidance comes in subtle ways when you least expect it.

When I went on my first medicine walk, I wanted answers on how and when to transition my career. I had a hard time receiving the messages at first. I was looking at everything and assigning meaning. Did the stand of broken aspens mean that I was making changes before I was ready? Did the wind pick up and shake the leaves on the tree because it acknowledged what I just said? Did that deer symbolize something positive or negative? Nothing I was considering felt right. It was as if I was trying too hard and making up my own meaning instead of letting the mystery unfold.

After a few hours, I started to feel tired and hungry and turned around to head back. As I was thinking about my hunger, a strange thought came over me. I looked to the grass in the meadow and was convinced I could dive into it and find food in the form of insects. This wasn’t a logical thought or even a momentary musing. It felt visceral and real, and my body almost followed my eyesight into the grass.

I had no idea where the thought came from. It didn’t feel like any I had experienced before or since. It was as if, for a brief moment, I channeled the thoughts of a bird. The sensation felt wild, foreign, and intense.

Ironically, after all that analysis of every unusual thing I observer, I came away from my medicine walk with just one simple message: don’t try too hard. Stay open. Allow the spirit guide to come to me, instead of searching it out. This could mean staying open on contemplative hikes, or it could mean staying open to what happens in life and allowing opportunities and answers to unfold instead of forcing a direction.

I haven’t channeled any bird thoughts since that one time, but now, coincidentally or not, almost every time I go on a contemplative hike I see ravens. Ravens flying in ecstasy overhead. Ravens sqwaking at me. Once, I observed two ravens, one chasing the other one that had something in its beak. As they flew right above me, I willed the raven to drop his prize, and he did, and whatever it was landed just a few feet from me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find whatever it was since it was small and landed in the snow. But in that split second when I thought, “drop it” and the bird let go of what he was holding right as he flew overhead, there was a connection between us. Once, on a hike with my husband, I was telling him about the special symbolism of ravens and how I experienced the thought of getting food from the grass, and within moments of saying that, we came upon a big raven, pecking at the grass in front of us on the trail. Coincidence or not, I felt validated somehow. The raven then flew up into the trees and watched me. It was surreal.

But what does it all mean?

To me, ravens symbolize freedom and intelligence. Their croaky cry echoing across valleys or the way they seem to fly just for the fun of it is their way of and reminding me about my own freedom. They link me to my own wildness. They’re a reminder not to take life too seriously, but to stay curious and revel in the feeling of the wind in my wings, so to speak.

When you go on your medicine walk, you will find your own spirit guide and message. Remain open but don’t try too hard to read what you’re experiencing. The best guidance comes when you least expect it. Your spirit guide will find you. You don’t need to go looking for it.

To heighten your experience, stop and have a conversation with a being. Tell a tree about yourself. Ask a bird what his life is like. Sometimes it will seem like creatures want to communicate something to you. Birds will follow you. Deer will stare at you. Trees will tremble as you approach. What is it they’re trying to say?

When you complete your walk and step back over your threshold, take a minute to offer gratitude to the land for showing you its ancient and eternal wisdom. You can bow, say thank you, lay your hands on an object or tree and offer it positive energy. Record your impressions in a journal when you get home, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

Summiting Horsetooth Rock (Loveland/Ft. Collins Area)

Hikers summiting Horsetooth Rock

Via the South Ridge Trail to Audra Culver Trail and finally to the Horsetooth Rock summit

One of the more popular hikes in the Ft. Collins/Loveland area is summiting Horsetooth Rock. There are a variety of multi-use trails with access to this summit at the Horsetooth Mountain Open Space Park, maintained by Larimer county, where you can park your car, picnic and use the restrooms for a fee of $6 for the day.

We started our hike late in the morning, around 11 a.m. The parking lot was already getting close to full, and by the time we returned to our car around 2:45 p.m., cars were idling at the entrance, waiting for someone to leave so they could take their space. It was a warm and sunny day weekend day yesterday, with a high of about 72 degrees, so I’m not surprised that people wanted to get out and enjoy the first of just a few really warm days so far in 2010. This probably would be a beastly hike in the middle of summer, on a day where it was 80 degrees or warmer. There is little to no shade three-fourths of the way uphill along the east to south-east exposed face of the mountain. But it’s a perfect hike for a mild spring or fall day or even in the winter, as long as there isn’t too much snow on the ground.

I hadn’t planned any new contemplative activities for this hike because I just wanted to enjoy a good workout with my husband David and dog Skillet. However, I did suggest that David do the Drawing Yourself in the Landscape activity, which he found to be fascinating, thought-provoking and fun.

Horsetooth Rock from the Audra Culver Trail

We selected to embark along the South Ridge Trail because of the western-facing aspects and occasional beautiful views of Long’s Peak and the western foothills. The trail was dry and with temperatures in the 60s during our 1500 foot elevation gain to the top, the hike itself was pleasant. There is a little bit of road noise from Road 38E below that reverberates up the mountain, but otherwise it was a quiet, un-crowded hike.

We veered onto the Audra Culver trail mid-way to the summit, which was an excellent decision. The trail weaves through the trees and becomes exposed on the western-facing slope, where the views would have been even more breathtaking if it wasn’t for the schmutzy day. There were no other hikers on that particular trail, but we did run into a small group of mule deer, which excited my Jack Russell terrier as they bounced down the forested slope away from us. I can’t even imagine what would happen if Skillet was off-leash. She would have been GONE, bye-bye, never to be seen again, as she would have leaped down the slope after the deer. The encounter charmed us and woke Skillet up from her uphill walk stupor, and for a while afterward she yanked and tugged and snorted every single bush and rock looking for evidence of the wild animals that came and went.

I told David that he would be “drawing himself in the landscape” at the beginning of the hike, and at this point I suggested he start to select a spot that felt right to him, where he could sit down and draw. He picked a shady spot under a ponderosa, sitting on a cut stump, overlooking the western view. I sat nearby, eating my lunch and enjoying the fresh air and calm attitude of the mountain.

Here’s what he drew.

The central figure is a deer, which isn’t surprising since we had just witnessed that group bounding in front of us just 15 minutes prior. He drew himself as a meadow, not as a human figure in the landscape per se, with his eyes as pools and eyebrows as bushes. I thought the eyes looked like fried eggs, and wondered if he felt hungry (he did). He said that the land’s view of him, according to his drawing, was that he was circumstantial, neutral. He was neither necessary nor detrimental to the land at that moment.

After mulling the various subconscious meanings of the drawing, we advanced to the summit of Horsetooth Rock, another half hour hike away. Up through granite boulders and more trees, and then finally to the horse tooth-shaped summit. The last few hundred feet are a scramble to the top up a rather slippery, gravel and dirt slope. The views from the top are grand, but not much different than the views from the Audra Culver Trail a few hundred feet below. You summit because it offers a sense of accomplishment and a goal attained. I usually don’t give a crap about such goals, sometimes feeling just fine hiking for a full 3 hours and turning around 100 feet short of the end or the summit (especially if it’s precarious or can result in a twisted ankle) because to me, the journey is more important than the goal. This is why I don’t particularly like trails that are hours of uphill hiking in the woods without variation in landscape, only to be rewarded in the last 50 feet with a clearing and view. I like the journey as much as the destination, and on some hikes it’s pretty crowded at the top, and therefore annoying.

View from summit

Horsetooth Mountain Open Space can be a great place for the following contemplative activities, which I’ve recommended for other trails, but can be adapted to this one: Drawing Yourself in the Landscape, Feeling Your Place in Time, the Spirit of a Place, Cultivating Inner Knowing (especially if you’ve never hiked this area), Gratitude Hike. The one aspect of this trail that I found particularly unique was the wide, distant view of the eastern horizon, and for that reason I think this would be a good place to do a sunrise hike or the Winter Solstice ritual, especially for folks who live near Loveland or Ft. Collins. I’m not sure what happens when you arrive before sunrise, or if the parking area is even open and accessible, so don’t quote me on that—but maybe later today I’ll call and find out. When you take the South Ridge Trail for about 20-45 minutes up, you’ll come across a place where you can sit on the edge of the ridge, dangle your legs safely (it’s not too steep below, it’s just a grassy hillside) and watch the sun as it rises up over the Eastern Plains. I bet it’s mesmerizing from this vantage point.

If anyone reading this has ever done a sunrise hike on the Horsetooth Mountain Open Space Park, I’d love to hear your impressions in the comments area below.

A Secret World in the Bobcat Ridge Natural Area (Loveland)

bobcat ridge natural area viewLocation: Bobcat Ridge Natural Area, West of Loveland near Masonville

Directions: From I-25, take Hwy. 34 west to Loveland/Estes Park. Turn right (north) on CR27 where the sign indicates Masonville. Go north on CR27 approximately 4.7 miles and turn left (west) on CR32 at the Bobcat Ridge sign. Go another ¼ mile to the parking lot for Bobcat Ridge Natural Area.

Duration: 2- 1/2 – 3 hours

Route: The Valley Loop Trail, a 3.8 mile roundtrip.

Access Notes: Some trails may be closed due to muddy or slick conditions, so check before you go. The parking lot fills up fast, even on a weekday off-season, so arrive early (before 10 a.m.), especially if you want solitude. Dogs are not allowed, but horses and bikes are allowed. There are many flash flood warning signs surrounding the parking lot and access road. Check the weather before you go and be cautious about using this trail during times when heavy thunderstorms are predicted.

The hike

After blasting past the mile markers on I-25 at 75 m.p.h. and then driving through the strip-mall-lined streets of Loveland, the first impression you get when you step out of your car (especially early in the morning) at the Bobcat Ridge parking lot is…silence. Blessed, soothing silence. Sure, once in a while a plane will rip through the sky overhead and rumble its way east or west, but otherwise this long valley nestled between Horsetooth Reservoir and the western foothills is calm and peaceful. To the east of the valley are red-capped cliffs that are reminiscent of extreme western Colorado and Utah canyon country. To the west are rolling hills that bear the scar of a fire that raged through the hills in 2000. Charred tree trunks dot the hills where the fire destroyed the forest, but to the north and south the hills appear untouched and green with pine and spruce.

view of valleyThe valley is lush with native, tall grasses that cover the gently rolling ground. In spring through fall you’ll hear meadowlarks calling out with their distinctive chortling warble, or you may spot one perched atop a thick blade of grass or a shrub. There is a historic cabin along the Valley Loop trail (if you start counterclockwise) as well as a few present-day ranches and small farms that are situated to the north of the parking lot.

The Valley Loop trail cuts across the valley meadow and up into the pines at the base of the burn area, affording you a beautiful and expansive view of the valley below and Horsetooth to the east. If you choose to go on the Ginny Trail further west, you’ll get an even better and higher view of the western mountains as well as the valley. Adding that trail will probably add another hour or two to the total hike.

I did this hike in very late winter, right before the first day of spring, on a day when it was mostly clear and sunny and the high temperature climbed up to a pleasant 65 degrees. This is a good hike for either cloudy summer days, or in the spring and fall, because most of the trail is exposed and I can imagine it can get fairly beastly on a hot summer day. The exposed nature of the trail can also make it a challenging hike on windy days.

A Secret World

deer scatOne of the first things I noticed on the trail was the large amount of deer, elk and coyote scat right there on the trail. It was everywhere! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much scat without being deep in the woods somewhere west of the foothills. The coyote scat is obvious, since dogs aren’t allowed on the trail and this stuff was full of gray fur from the rodents they’d been eating. I didn’t see one single deer or coyote while hiking, which made me wonder when these animals actually come out to hunt and defecate on the trail. At dusk? In the middle of the night? I realized there’s a secret world that I’m not privy that exists when I leave or sleep at night, and I found myself imagining catching a glimpse of it. There’s a sign at the parking lot that access to this area is only allowed from dawn until dusk, so I doubt very many people have seen the secret world of coyote packs hunting down voles and deer herds foraging in the meadow.

This scat was evidence of beings that were in existence somewhere now, napping or hiding in their dens or foraging in more remote and private areas of the woods during the day. They are just out of reach and out of eyesight. But they exist in this moment in time.

Then there are the creatures that existed in a different moment in time, creatures that I know very little about and have never seen, nor will you or I ever see, alive and in person. Those are the creatures that lived on this ground 28 million years ago, when the Front Range was a different eco-system and the entire region between Kansas and the deserts of Nevada began to rise to form the Rocky Mountains. Volcanoes erupted up and down the Front Range in throughout Colorado. All that remains of the sedimentary blanket that extended west before the Rockies formed are blocks of rock that rise perpendicular to the ground. These rocks can be seen along the trail, some as large as suitcases and some like books, lichen-covered and dusty, sticking straight up or at a 45 degree angle out of the ground.

The burned out trees speak of a moment in time in the past when these hills were burning almost out of control. In February, 2009, the fire burned about 52 acres here. In 2000, a fire burned more than 20,000 acres.

rocks jutting out of groundThe activity

This is a good activity for kids ages 6 and up as well as adults.

Find a place to sit for about fifteen minutes where you can have a good view of something that feels compelling.

Take a few minutes to think about everything you’ve seen and heard that is evidence of a being passing through and living its life in a different time in the past. It could be animal scat from the day before, a dead tree, a sedimentary rock formation millions of years old. What other evidence have you seen that speaks to a secret world, or of creatures that can be thought of or heard, but not seen?

Imagine seeing the past like a slide show. First, 30 millions years ago when this area was much, much flatter and the mountains hadn’t yet formed. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Then the upheaval of the ground and the formation of the Rockies. Ancient horses and mastadoons, then the ice age, then the arrival of humans, all the way up to the present moment. You are sitting here, a snapshot in a moment of time. See it as you see a time-lapse series of photos. See trees grow and decay, snow melt and fall, erosion reshaping the hills.

Imagine what this land may look like in the future, in months, then years then millennia.

How does it feel to see yourself here in such a brief moment in time?

How does contemplating all the beings that were here before you, even only minutes ago all the way up to hundreds of millions of years ago, make you feel about being here now?

Does imagining all the things that have lived and died here make you feel more like a part of the Earth or less? What is your part in the story?

Author, philosopher and anthropologist Loren Eisley once pondered what human or non-human creatures a million years from now or longer would think if they came upon his bones in the sediment. Here he was, examining ancient bones in the desert, wondering who would examine his bones in the future.

Almost everything that has ever existed, still exists in some form on Earth. Decaying plants and animals break down into chemicals in the rock or nutrients in the soil, which then get absorbed into new beings like trees and insects. The Earth takes in sunlight energy and a few random rocks and dust from space, and churns out new forms of life every day. If you were to view the Earth from space in a time-elapsed series of photos, you’d see the face of it swirling, shifting, moving underneath the constantly moving clouds. Landmasses pulled apart and stacked back together in different arrangements. Ice encroaching and receding over mountains and oceans. Water moving like blood, circulating from the air to the land and back out to sea.

The Earth is in constant state of change, from the molecular to the global level. The arrow of time never changes direction as far as we know.

What evidence of its existence do you think modern Industrial Civilization will leave behind in the landscape?