Denver Trip: Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak

We closed out last year’s trip to Colorado with visits to Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak,* two geological marvels. By this time we had moved our base of operations to Mueller State Park, which was delightful in its own right. The Park offers excellent campsites with access to good facilities, hiking trails, and gorgeous landscapes. During these few days even our downtime was filled with breathtaking natural scenery.

This was all during my 2017 bird blitz, so of course I can’t talk about any part of the trip without including some birding notes. In Mueller State Park we were welcomed by turkeys and pygmy nuthatches, and harassed by uppity gray jays. It was here I saw my first Williamson’s sapsucker. We also shared the space with crows and magpies, as well as mountain chickadees and Steller’s jays. At Garden of the Gods I only tallied seven bird species, but four of them were life birds for this East Coaster. High above the rock walls flitted many white-throated swifts, and I spotted a soaring prairie falcon. Closer to the ground I was introduced to a pair each of spotted towhees and Woodhouse’s scrub-jays. My Pikes Peak list was even shorter: American pipits and Lincoln’s sparrows were the only birds I could identify.

Birds were but a small piece of the overall majesty of the area. The view from our campsite in Mueller State Park spoke of the beauty and wonder that was to come. We enjoyed a few short but lovely hikes in the park between our ventures farther afield, and all were rewarding. I would spend a few days here again, given the chance. More forested slopes, broad vistas, and sheltered beaver ponds await my return.

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The view from our campsite

A few more views from the park

It’s hard to do justice to impressive rock formations with still two-dimensional images, but Garden of the Gods is a heck of a place to try. The reddish stones loom over vast acres of fields, pockmarked with holes and crevices. Even in September, ice can be seen peeking out from some of these hideaways. A loop drive offers several access points to hike through the interior, and the access to the public is well set up and seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Pikes Peak beckons as a backdrop to the whole stunning scene.

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Pikes Peak standing behind some of the Garden’s formations

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Speaking of Pikes Peak… that was our next (and final) destination. I admit I had some reservations, fearing it to be a bit of a tourist trap. It felt like maybe it was cheating to just drive up such a tall mountain. I was wrong. I couldn’t categorize anything about Pikes Peak as disappointing. It was stunning. If you seek one of those places that makes you feel small in the face of the universe, this is a place for you.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to show you what Garden of the Gods looks like from the summit of Pikes Peak.

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Yep. It’s those few pieces of gravel there under the arrow. I don’t think I can say much more except to throw a lot of superlatives and let them run down the page, so I will close with a collection of photos from our ascent and the summit.

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This beautiful lake sits at the foot with the peak in full view

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An alternative means for ascending the mountain

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*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.

 

 

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR & Florissant Fossil Beds

It’s hard to choose a favorite site from last September’s trip to Colorado. As amazing as Rocky Mountain National Park was, I perhaps equally enjoyed our time at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is a place with engaging natural history and fascinating human history. Once a biological weapons facility that dealt untold damage to the local ecosystem, the site is now a refuge and a shining example of conservation. There is an excellent wildlife drive and plenty of available hiking trails. It also has one of the better visitors’ centers I have seen at similar facilities.

After the mountains, there was a different but equally real sense of immensity to this place. In this habitat, one can see the whole place opening before you on approach. Despite the openness, the wildlife can be hard to spot at first. This visit was just one more time I was struck at how adept animals can be at not being seen.

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I think the first critter we spotted (and definitely the one we saw the most of) was a black-tailed prarie dog. I realize these adorable guys rate somewhere between “background presence” and “irritating pest” to the locals, but I couldn’t help but enjoy every one that scurried away or fixed me with a wary gaze. They’re so easy to anthropomorphize, with their social behavior appearing so comically playful. One imagines they are the true inspiration for the game “whack-a-mole.”

Other than the prairie dogs, the drive was largely uneventful for the first twenty minutes or so. We crawled through mostly open plains, scaring up the occasional vesper sparrow (identified by a flash of white outer tail feathers). Eventually we spotted a red-tailed hawk posing atop a telephone pole and paused for a photo.

Soon after, we began to see them: small, black dots on the horizon, yet unmistakable through my binoculars. American bison! Perhaps, like the prairie dogs, these creatures are not very exciting to anyone from the Great Plains region. I admit I would give some side-eye to anyone similarly amazed by a herd of cattle. Something about the buffalo (not this oddity of grammar) just strikes all the right chords of natural wonder. Especially once you see them up close. Clearly these beasts were the stars of the refuge.

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With the wildlife drive completed, it was time to slow things down for a closer look. We chose the Lake Ladora loop trail for our hike, and were well-rewarded for this choice. We took our lunch at a picnic table near the trail’s namesake, watching cormorants dive and California gulls circle. Then we strolled through a naturalist’s paradise. Avifauna was a theme, but the flora was stunning as well and butterflies were omnipresent. The variety of bird life really spoke to the overall productivity of the environment here. I only counted 23 species of birds on our 2-hour hike, but the varied niches they occupied were the real story. I notched three species of raptor (red-tailed hawks, a Swainson’s hawk, and an American kestrel). Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and belted kingfishers shared the lake with ducks, geese, grebes, and American coots. The fields were interspersed with vesper sparrows, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and western meadowlarks. I even found one rock wren along the dam. All too soon it was time for us to be going.

Our next destination was Florissant Fossil Beds. I have to admit, this place somewhat disappointed me. It just felt like their public face was dedicated to all the wrong things. There was a brief video, which did a fine job of presenting the context of the site and building anticipation. Ancient fossils of fish, insects, leaves and more! Wonders of natural science unmatched anywhere! After the video, we joined a ranger-led tour group, anticipating all manner of scientific nuggets would be revealed to us. What we got instead was mostly stale repetition of the video, plus tales of Walt Disney purchasing a petrified stump and thieves stealing pieces of petrified wood. There was a good ten minutes on why metal bands were looped around the largest stumps (an early, ill-advised effort to excavate with dynamite).

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I mean, the petrified wood was pretty cool on its own, but…

These stories of course have their place, but they were related at the expense of learning much about the actual fossils or the window into ancient life they gave us. Eventually we slipped quietly away from the group to explore several of the short hiking trails on our own. This improved the experience somewhat, allowing us to see more of the grounds and picture the modern natural landscape in juxtaposition with the ancient one.

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This mormon cricket seemed an echo of the giant insects represented in the site’s fossil record.

I think the biggest disappointment was the limited array of fossils available for viewing. Apart from the stumps there was a small room with perhaps fifty specimens on (confusingly presented) display, but absent was the staggering variety described in their video. I’m sure some of that is due for the need of research and study, but very little information seemed available about said research, except as it related to petrified wood.

The value and importance of Florissant Fossil Beds to the natural sciences is immense and unambiguous, and usually I try to write positively about such places. Here, though, something vital was missing in the presentation. Even with those shortcomings, the landscape was beautiful, and taken together with the refuge this made for a couple of great days exploring nature.

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain National Park

Our recent trip to the Rockies was really about people. An old college friend and his wife had moved to Denver  and we’d been meaning to go visit them. Another friend’s wedding in Lincoln, Nebraska got us about two-thirds of the way there so we tacked a Rocky Mountain vacation onto those travel plans. It was a fantastic trip with great company all around. Yet for me, any trip to that part of the country without exploring nature is unthinkable.

From the moment we landed at DIA (no, not a spell dealing light holy damage… an airport) the Rockies beckoned. It’s a challenge to do justice in words or photos to the awe these mountains inspire in a Mid-Atlantic mind. They grab one’s concept of “mountain,” stuff it in a canvas bag, and swing it against a brick wall. No lens angle is wide enough to bring back the proof of this. Numbers like 12,005 and 14,115 (feet above sea level) or 35 (miles of visibility) don’t really do the job either. The photos below almost capture my earliest impressions.

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Our first direct exposure to the mountains was a couple of days spent hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is so majestic that it was tempting to compare its eastern cousin (and one of my favorite places), Shenandoah National Park, unfavorably. Really everything about the two parks, except for the well-maintained road and facilities, is just different. Indeed I learned early on that even the seemingly familiar was subtly otherwise. On our first hike alone, before we got to a really high altitude, I picked up on a lot of this. I spotted wild geraniums, but these would prove to be the Fremont geranium (Geranium caespitosum), as opposed to the G. maculatum I am used to. The least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) is much bolder than its eastern relatives. Of course the trees at these elevations are also quite different, dominated by species like quaking aspen and ponderosa pine. White-tailed deer are present but joined by the similar mule deer.

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A least chipmunk inquires if I might have something to offer it

This first hike to gem lake was a perfect introduction to hiking at altitude. It was a short, moderate-difficulty hike with a gorgeous destination. It taught us that in addition to the flora and fauna both the landscape and the very air are alien to dwellers of the coastal plain.

In the evenings, we made camp at the Lumpy Ridge Campground. Here our education on the eccentricities of our temporary new environment continued. The camp host regaled us with stories of the local black bear population. Apparently one small group learned to identify and target a specific make and model of car whose doors would pop open if a bear jumped on the roof in just the right way. For this and other reasons bear safety seems to be taken about thrice as seriously as in Shenandoah, despite Shenandoah’s higher population density of bears. We also learned that a bull moose had been spotted in the campground the previous day, and were cautioned to give him, too, a wide berth. Alas we did not get the opportunity to decide just how wide. It was also here that I started to spot the local bird species: Steller’s and gray jays, mountain chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.

We spent the second day driving the Trail Ridge Road and pausing for several short hikes. Eventually the alpine forests give way to tundra, and here the views are stunning. I will never forget my first time standing above the treeline looking down at it, or my first glimpse of one of the beautiful montane lakes. Nor will I forget our encounter with a pika (Ochotona princeps) – a sort of rabbit-gerbil only found at very high elevations. This part of the trip also included my first sightings of mule deer, elk, and yellow-headed blackbirds.

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Treeline from above
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A lake at the Continental Divide

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It’s unlike me to include so many landscapes and so few wildlife images, but it was the landscape that had me reaching for the camera in this park. I haven’t run out of things to say or images to share about Rocky Mountain National Park, so if you’d like to see more feel free to look me up on Instagram (where I am also wildlymistaken).