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.