There are a few things I’m looking for when I hit the trail – solace, solitude, sweat, and soul-searching. To make sure I get all points, I usually hike alone in areas where there are few people. With the exception on Rocky Mountain National Park – I will suffer the crowds for those vistas any day. But, these are the reasons why I loathe the idea of hiking Horse Tooth and Grey Rock, or any of the other points of interest that are packed shoulder to shoulder with people trying to get in some kind of outdoor escape.
It’s hard to get all John Muir in your thoughts when people are listening to music on their phones like a boom box, or not understanding proper trail etiquette (I will write a post on this, I guarantee it).
Over Labor Day weekend I didn’t know where to go for my weekend escape. Everyone was camping in Poudre Canyon. Hell – everyone was everywhere. My husband suggested I hit up Red Mountain Open Space.
“Uh, where?” I asked dumfounded. I thought I knew of most of the natural areas and open spaces in Larimer County. Apparently not. So, that’s where I began my exploration of a new space, a space that I soon discovered was shockingly underutilized because very few other people knew about it, too.
Red Mountain Open Space is a 15,000 acre open space in Northeast Colorado, on the border of Colorado and Wyoming. Here’s the PDF map that includes directions. It closes for the winter from December 1st to March 1st to protect wildlife habitats and trail conditions.
The semi-arid climate and ecology are not my favorite, as I’m more of a subalpine lover. However, each visit grew on me and I appreciated the unique grassland beauty and historical experience it provided. It often reminded me of my childhood outdoor experiences growing up in Utah, between the likeness of the southern Utah climate, dynamic geological environment, and the vast interest in our western heritage.
There are 15 miles of trail systems in this area, all connected like a maze. This open space is also connected to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area by two different trails, which is in effort of the Laramie Foothills Mountains to Plains Project to protect and conserve the 55,000 acres of surrounding landscape. There are maps provided at the trailhead. TAKE ONE WITH YOU. While you will not get lost, you will get confused as to which trail you’re on, or which one you’re headed to without it. There are map stands throughout the open space, and trails are clearly marked when you switch systems, but you really do need one.
When you first drive out you’ll notice a few things – first that it feels like you’re way outside of Fort Collins when it’s truly not that far at all. You’ll drive by farms and ranches that flank the road. The ranches have open range rights, an inherent right passed down from the laws of the 1880’s. You’ll notice cattle crossing the road, and sometimes on the road. Not only that, there is grazing managed within the open space and there may be times you share the trail with a cow or two. I did and it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing on that particular day, and all I said out loud was, “Oh, come on. Really? Can’t you find a different trail?” They picked up their pace and went on their way.
Aside from noticing private ranches, open range cattle, and a few herds of pronghorn, you’ll also notice a large sign at the open space gate that warns everyone of it being a rattlesnake wintering area. I’m sure this will deter a few people from going there, mostly because we hear horror stories of rattlesnakes on the trails and would rather avoid them. They aren’t going anywhere, and actually, we need them for healthy ecosystems.
There’s a hibernaculum in the area where the snakes are born and leave a scent trail when they venture out. There’s about a five-mile range that snakes travel in, so where there are rattlesnakes, there are places for them to hunker down for the winter not too far away (Devil’s Backbone and Horse Tooth, anyone?). The hibernaculum isn’t particularly easy to find and depending on foot traffic in the area, they may move to safer places with fewer people. Snakes really don’t want to get all up in your business.
But you will most likely come across one on the trails here, and especially during the months of April and October when they start to come out of and go back into hibernation. I did hike by one – while initially startling, and the sound of a rattle near the trail made me jump 10 feet up and yelp like a Hanna Barbera cartoon, that was it. Knowing that I was headed into a snake habitat I kept my eyes on the trail at all times because they really blend in well. These were the slowest hikes I’ve ever done, because they were careful and calculated steps (especially when the grass was overgrown on some of Big Hole Wash), and I’d have to stop to look around to view anything above my feet.
While you may find a snake, it’s not like coming across a mountain lion or any other predator on the trail. Larimer County Natural Resources Community Relations Specialist, Rob Novak and herpatologist Bryan Hughes had some great insight to share about snakes in the area for this post and some simple tips when it came to sharing space with them. There is also an informational pamphlet at the trailhead for you to read:
- If you come across one on the trail – DON’T MOVE IT. This is one of the top reasons for people getting bit. Rattlesnakes bite because they are defensive and they will try to protect themselves from people attempting to poke them with sticks to get them off the trail. If a snake is on a trail and not moving, try getting out of sight for a few minutes. The “predator” (you) goes away, and the snake feels safe to continue on its way.
- The striking range for a snake is typically about half of their body length. The top size for a rattlesnakes in Northern Colorado is about 3.5′, so one step in the other direction is a sufficient safety buffer.
History and Geology
This area is rich in history that dates back to prehistoric times over 12,000 years ago. It’s prevalent enough that there’s signage everywhere reminding you not to touch or pick up artifacts. You may come across Lindenmeier arrowheads or trade beads. Most of these could possibly be around the K-Lynn Cameron trail. Along that trail is the Stone Circle loop where there are archeological campsites as well.
In addition to early native artifacts, there’s deep western heritage in the area. There are historical cabins, homesteads, barns, and a school house – but they are located on the private ranch lands surrounding the open space. You won’t be able to see them from the trails. If you do find any artifacts, leave it on the trail, mark GPS coordinates, and call the Department of Natural Resources.
Aside from historical aspects, there is incredibly unique geological points of interest in the area. There’s the Lykins Valley Site with a gypsum sink hole. Big Hole Wash is pretty much a geologists’ heyday. The hike isn’t the most pleasant because you’re trudging through the sands and gravel of a dried wash, and it feels like hiking on a beach for a few miles. This is the space where you’re most likely to find geodes, fossils, and other interesting rocks. Remember, leave them there. You can’t take anything with you out of the open space.
Hiking and Biking
I’ve hiked about half of the trails in the area, having to bail twice because of hail and lightning storms with one of those times while I was on my bike. Talk about being on a traveling lightning rod. The storms roll in very fast in that area, so be prepared to turn around the minute you hear thunder rolling in the background. It’s been a hard lesson for me to learn this year.
The Best Hike: Bent Rock Trail. It’s a short and easy 2 mile loop, which is partly under flood damage repair at the moment. It has some of the best scenery in the area – lush vegetation and wildflowers, follows Boxelder Creek and includes a few rock crossings. I really enjoyed this trail experience, and it’s for hikers only, which is a plus.
Mountain Biking Trails: The trails are multi-use so you could see horses and mountain bikers (if you see anyone at all). Chris is planning on doing some trail rides out there. I rode on Sinking Sun Trail for 1.3 miles, which was a great section of trail for bikes. However, beyond that? You have to go through the gravel sands of Big Hole Wash.
Red Mountain Open Space is a unique area that offers recreational opportunities with very few people around. That’s something you don’t come across very often in Northern Colorado. Take advantage of these trails before they close for the winter and get a chance to experience something new!