If you drive north on I-25 toward Wyoming, past farms and ranches stretching as far as the eye can see, beyond the Pronghorn grazing in the distance, on winding dirt roads that cover your car with a thick layer of dust, and just as you reach the distinct splashes of red sandy hues draping the mountains, you’ll find yourself in Soapstone Prairie Natural Area.
Soapstone Prairie Natural Area stretches 18,728 acres of shortgrass prairie, foothills shrublands, cliffs and rock outcrops, wetlands, springs, and prairie streams. It is home to over one hundred bird species, deer, badgers, prairie dogs and elk – it’s actually one of the last places in Colorado where elk wander out on the plains. It’s a place with rare plants, historical sites such as the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site, and miles of crowd-less trails to explore.
It closes for the winter from December 1st to March 1st to protect wildlife habitats and trail conditions, right along with Red Mountain Open Space, which is actually right next to Soapstone. The two have an interconnected trail system. Both are part of the Laramie to Foothills: Mountains to Plains Project – which, through numerous partnerships, has created a nearly 200,000-acre corridor of protected lands linking the Front Range and the High Plains, conserving a large working landscape and wildlife corridor. To commemorate this achievement, there’s a time capsule at the picnic space that is scheduled to be opened in 2019.
There are maps provided at the trailhead. TAKE ONE WITH YOU. While you will not get lost, you can get confused as to which trail you’re on, or which one you’re headed to without it. There are some connections and private road crossings that could be better marked. So, take a map, or at least take a photo of the map at the trailhead (this is what I do at almost every trailhead).
Soapstone Prairie’s cultural history dates back over 12,000 of years with the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site, a National Historic Landmark and one of the most well-preserved and extensive Folsom occupations in the American West. This site was excavated in the 1930s by the Smithsonian Institution and the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now known as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science). Many of the artifacts collected are archived and on display at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. The majority of the collection is at the Smithsonian Institution, and a smaller collection is housed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
In addition to the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site, studies also revealed numerous additional sites and cultural features. These include possible Clovis sites dating back 13,000 years ago, numerous stone tipi rings, campsites dating back 200-10,000 years ago, exposed cooking sites on ancient flood plains and sheep camp rock cairns. Artifacts including bone and stone tools, scrapers, spear points and arrowheads, were also discovered and documented.
Portions of historic homesteads and ranches still remain at Soapstone today. There’s a deteriorating foundation of an old schoolhouse that sits near Soapstone Springs, and the Pronghorn Loop trail takes you right next to the Upper Jack Springs Camp – a small, faded red corrugated metal single-room building that contains a wooden table and wooden chair, and looks to have been inhabited during the Warren Livestock era.
The City of Fort Collins Natural Areas often has historical education programs out at Soapstone to help people learn more about the early settlers and ancient Lindenmeier inhabitants.
While generally thought of as a dry and barren landscape, wildflowers speckle the prairie all season long. The earliest flowers of the bloom season start in these lower, warmer areas. It’s one of the best places to get your flower fix before they bloom in the subalpine areas.
When it comes to rare finds, Soapstone Prairie is home to the Colorado butterfly plant, a federally listed Threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 2000. This subspecies is among the most threatened plants in the state of Colorado. The Colorado butterfly plant is a short-lived perennial herb found only in southeastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, and northeastern Colorado. On Soapstone Prairie, the Colorado butterfly plant occurs in wet meadows in the northeastern portion of the area. This population is considered in very good condition; in 2006, more than 11,000 blooming plants were found occupying 650 acres.
The Rocky Mountain blazing star another interesting wildflower to find. It is a common species across its range, but based on currently known distribution, it appears to be quite rare in Colorado. Only 11 occurrences have been documented in the state, and most of those records provide only very general information. Only five occurrences have been seen since the early 1900s – all on publicly owned land along the Front Range.
Pronghorn are easily spotted throughout the surrounding prairie and may be the most easily seen evidence of wildlife at Soapstone. Mule deer, elk, swift fox, black-tailed prairie dog, golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, burrowing owl, and a large variety of prairie birds also inhabit the Natural Area. This is also prime rattlesnake habitat, and you may see some sunning on the trails or rattling in vegetation. Keep your eyes peeled because they camouflage well!
In 2014 the Black Footed Ferret was reintroduced into Soapstone Prairie. The Black-Footed Ferret used to run around these parts until they were thought to be extinct from poisoning and hunting. In fact, they were the most endangered mammal in North America when in 1981, 18 Black-Footed Ferrets were found near Meeteetse, Wyoming and conservation efforts began.
Thanks to the reintroduction program in Northern Colorado, 15 reintroduced Black-Footed Ferrets went into in prairie dog colonies (their natural food source) at Soapstone. This was a big deal, and a historic moment for wildlife conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts alike. As they are nocturnal hunters, you may not ever see them running around the Natural Area, but the Natural Areas department does have educational programs throughout the summer to help with spotting.
Most recently bison were reintroduced to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area with the Laramie Foothills Conservation Herd. This herd is a “seed herd” that will be used to breed more genetically pure herds for reintroduction into other areas. They have over 1,000 acres of land to roam and graze on, so there isn’t a guarantee that you’ll see them. However, you can get lucky on the off chance that they’ll be grazing by the side of the road.
In the future, the Natural Areas Department plans to expand the pasture and they may possibly be seen from the Cheyenne Rim Trail when that development happens.
Hiking and Biking
There are miles of trails to explore in Soapstone, and many times you’ll find that you may be the only person out there. This is a fantastic alternative to when Horsetooth, Bobcat Ridge, and other massively popular trail systems fill up.
I do feel like this is a better mountain biking system and equestrian trail than a hiker’s trail system, though. Granted, I’m not a prairie kind of hiker and prefer the subalpine mountains, but many of the long distance trails on the flatlands can seem drawn out on foot.
I’ve hiked the majority of the trails in Soapstone and really enjoy the short and sweet ones in this Natural Area. Their trail suggestions on their map guides are right on the money – Towhee Loop and Mahogany Loop from the North parking lot are the best hiking trails, while Pronghorn Loop and Cheyenne Rim Trail on the South lot are best for mountain biking and horses.
Towhee Loop: Easy 3 miles
This hike gives you the best views of the whole area while keeping your interest with a plethora of different wildflowers the line the trail. It’s also next to a picnic area, so it’s perfect for families.
Mahogany Loop: Moderate 7.6 miles
This loop actually connects to the Towhee Loop, if you find that one too easy to begin with. The views are about the same with an increase in mileage that takes your deeper into the plains.
Pronghorn Loop: Easy 9.4 miles
On some maps this is labeled as a 7.5 mile trail. I didn’t realize the mileage difference until I was all the way on the back end of the trail loop and started calculating the mileage per section. It’s easy for hikers going through flat trails that wrap around large prairie dog colonies and historical remnants, like the Upper Jack Springs Camp. However, with the length and single-track trail, I think this is an ideal biking trail more than for hiking.
Cheyenne Rim: Moderate 7.6 miles
This section of trail is where the Black Footed Ferrets were released, and where you may have a better chance of seeing the bison once the pasture is expanded. It’s long a flat, winding through some interesting parts of the prarie, then ultimately connecting to Red Mountain Open Space.
Soapstone Prairie Natural Area is a unique area that offers recreational opportunities with fewer people around. The ideal time to visit is right now as the spring snow melts and before the summer sun grows too hot!