Maybe it was the sky. Grey cotton-wool pressing, lowering down, an ominous ceiling; beneath it scudded trains of white clouds. The sky promised rain, threatened snow.
Maybe it was the surprise. I didn’t know this place was down here. Hidden behind a nondescript hill, hidden behind an everyday name—Lone Pine Creek—burst this canyon. Topped by crags, then cliff walls, boulders, scree all in a rose-gray granite, brushed with orange. They launch from graceful hills, expansive lawns of native grass leading to curves of buck-brush, dots of juniper. And at the bottom narrow leaf cottonwoods in spring green-gold, growing and glowing along miles of rushing waters.
Stunned perhaps by the deep silence, the absence of movement. Not a person. Not an animal. But yet not silent. The steady talk of water, the whisper of wind. The startling buzz of a dive bombing, but always invisible, hummingbird. It had been an hour since I had seen anyone. There were two on horseback. Another lone hiker, then a young couple enjoying the outing and each other.
But after wading the creek, thigh deep, feet reaching for purchase midst slick rocks, deep solitude hung on the trail. No one ahead. Maybe I’m the first this far this season. It only opened a week ago.
Then I realized it.
I was stunned by whispers, but not of the wind. Silent voices speaking not to ears but to eyes. “Look here!” they called, “and here!” “We built this, this rock wall, this fence.” “We cut and peeled these posts, planted them deep and solid, strung that wire, now left to rust in the ground.” They wanted to be noticed, to be acknowledged. They had my attention. Now they were calling from everywhere.
“See this ditch, following the contour just so… dug it behind the mules, straining at the fresno. We blasted the rock, iron bars wrenching them out. Johnny built the flumes. We cleared the stone from these meadows you’re admiring. When was it? back in the 1890’s?”
“And when we opened the ditches, water flowed like quick-silver, flooded the grass. Hay growed as tall as a man’s chest. See that Jayhawker hay hoist leaning over there? Cut and stacked and piled it, all by horses. Had 50 head down here.
“Yeah, and these power lines in the 40’s; tractor bucked and roared as we drilled them holes, mounted that glass, hoisted those poles, dropped ‘em with a thud.”
They pointed out old building foundations, the road I was walking along, cut carefully into the hillside, supported with enduring rock work. Led me into the cabin, hand hewn, still shaded by a mighty broad-leafed cottonwood, old when the cabin was built. Ancient now.
I admired their ambition, their dreams. The owner’s fierce fire. Such sweat, such toil, performed for little to nothing with skills that are scarce today.
Then the whispers changed, turned to questions…
“Why are our ditches filled with earth? Why no teams come to cut hay? Why are the fences down and the power poles leaning? And where are the cows? The finest Herefords grazed and watered here…”
I quietly explained. Times, they had changed. New economics. The land was now given to the deer. “The deer? But what of all our work, now sinking into the earth, our irrigation moldering…” Cattle grow fat in feedlots now, I answered, over in Greeley, and even Florida. But mulies, they only grow well here on these hills, in this wild. So it’s been given back to them. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has the land now. For the deer.
The voices grew quiet. I missed these men, their stories, their laughter, their banter. Nameless. Unknown. Old bones sinking in country graves, headstones leaning, some missing.
I saw that the work of the wildlife men was sinking back to the earth, too. Choke cherry trees they planted were still fenced but un-watered. The irrigation pumps have lost power. I-beam bridges, four or five of them, tossed about by the flood of 2013, not a one of them even close to their crossing now.
The canyon was quietly taking it all back.
Not with anger. Not with malice. Just doing what rock and water and wind and time will do.
May Lone Pine Creek long nurture the deer. And the rare hiker, horseman or hunter that spends a day in its spell.
Should you go on a sunny day I think you’ll find a different mood. But I’m glad to say I walked it when the skies were lowering, the clouds threatening, when the ghosts whispered in the wind.
Want to go?
Lone Pine State Wildlife Area is about an hour away from Cheyenne near Livermore, Colorado off of Red Feather Lakes Road. Take I-25 south, exit at Owl Canyon and head west on CR 70. At the end of 70 turn right on CR 21 following the signs to Owl Canyon. At the end of 21 turn left on CR 72. At its end turn right on Hwy 287. After dropping through the road cut you’ll come to “The Forks”. Turn left on 74E toward Red Feather Lakes. The parking area and sign is 7.6 miles on the right.
As far as parks go, this is your father’s Oldsmobile. There are no privies, no water and, once you leave the illegible map at the parking area, no signs of any use. But it is a canyon, you can go up it and down it and if you remember how you got in, you can get out.
The adventure begins by hiking up the rutted path climbing 200 feet to the brow of a gentle brown hill. At the top you’ll see what you came for. The canyon walls spread out and, in spring, the path leads into a rolling ocean of green grass. Meander down (about a mile from the car) to merge with a two track, then continue until you “T” onto the main trail, an old two track paralleling the creek..
If you turn left, upstream, you can go for about four miles, down to the creek, then up above to bypass a narrow gap, then down again, traipsing through the old hay meadows.
After a mile or two you’ll come to the first of four water crossings. This may be the place to turn around. In spring the creek can be deep and swift, up to three or four feet. It is dangerous. If you decide to cross definitely keep your boots on, face upstream and feel each step. Keep any pack you’re wearing loose so you can jettison it if necessary. You’ll need to have nylon pants on for quick drying.
The canyon does get more exciting the further upstream you tread, with pines and firs coming down the hills and the hills themselves, particularly on the south, becoming cliff and rock.
Eventually the old road leaves the creek, heading to a gap up and to the left. A white rock cairn marks the point where the faint footpath cuts down and to the right, leading to a bend of the creek and an old campsite. Somewhere here the trail crosses the creek again to make a very ambitious loop all the way behind the rugged cliffs.
If instead, back at the “T” you turn right, going downstream about a mile, you’ll come to another wet crossing and then an old cabin. You can continue, taking the loop trail up and to the left or following the well graded road back around to the trailhead.
The best map I’ve seen is online at: www.justtrails.com/trails/lone-pine-state-wildlife-area/. Al Walsh, who publishes the remarkable JustTrails site, walked it with his GPS unit to give you this free map. He shows the loop trail that ascends above the canyon into and through the remote high country beyond it. Let me advise you, this twelve-mile trip is one serious, all day endeavor for the most physically fit. Also be advised that there are more wet crossings along Lone Pine Creek than he identifies. The flood of fall 2013 took out the remaining bridges.
This is Colorado’s official site for Cherokee Wildlife Management Area, Lone Pine Unit: http://cpw.state.co.us/swa/Cherokee.
The area is only open to hikers from May 1 through August 31. No fees or wildlife stamps are now required. Dogs are allowed under voice command.
Lone Pine is a remarkable equestrian area with sure trails and no overhanging branches to scrape you off. Mountain bikes are allowed as well.
You might stop at The Forks to outfit your picnic or to celebrate your adventure. It’s a fine deli with good ice cream, and a bar with good beer and a great view. (The bar maid may just call you darlin’.) And if you want a shot of rot gut to commemorate those ranch hands from the 1880’s and 1940’s just ask. Those old timers drank at The Forks, too.