Spring, in our foothills, is the metallic call of the sleek and shining redwing blackbird perched on the flaking old tuft of last year’s cattail. It’s the full out, web-extended urgent brake of the northbound teal throttling down to rest a night in an overfull pond. The nose of a spotted fawn peering up through the bent and broken old grasses, looking for mom and seeing the wide new world through brown liquid eyes.
Cutleaf daisies, clustered together as if for warmth, hold their brave faces to a blue and blustery sky where hawks ride the billowing air, circling into the sun. A beaver smacks the water and cracks the air.
We stretch our winter-stiff legs and breathe deep. Our cramped souls expand again, hard buds opening to the light.
All of this and more can be found close to Cheyenne at the “John and Annie Woodhouse Recreation and Wildlife Habitat Area.” It’s about twenty-five minutes away.
Set aside to preserve a three mile stretch of North Crow Creek, beavers were first invited to do their work. With only willow branches and mud they’ve done a fine job, weaving a meandering string of terraced ponds through the valley floor.
And you– and your dog–are invited to walk the gentle dirt roads along each side of the creek. On your right hand, across the tawny grasses, buck brush hills soar upward to a long wall of red and gray limestone, cresting six hundred feet above at Table Mountain. On the left rolling rounded hills are crowned at the horizon with small pines. If you walk to the north end on the road closed to vehicles you’ll come to the concrete remains of the original John and Annie Woodhouse ranch house. They homesteaded here in the 1890’s.
There are a couple of copses of cottonwoods offering shade, and even one stand of stately white aspens.
According to Don Woodhouse, grandson of John and Annie, the ranch was purchased by the City in the 1930’s to obtain water rights. In 2004, with the urging of the Woodhouse family, the Board of Public Utilities made an agreement with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to manage it for wildlife and recreation. Game and Fish have improved the roads, built parking areas, a vault toilet, fences and care for the fisheries.
If you are an ambitious hiker two road cuts invite a steep climb to the limestone table top. The first as you enter is a new road behind a locked iron gate leading through accessible state land to a radio tower and panoramic views of Iron and Pole Mountains, Turtle Rock, the wind farm and the shimmering plains.
The second cut is up the next gulley to the north. Its red scar is visible above the crumbling ruins of an old cabin, across the rising meadow. This road stops abruptly at the state fence where there was once a spring. If you are intrepid you can climb it and make your way through the tall, scrappy brush following deer trails to the top. To make a high loop come up this cut and, when on top, head to the radio tower where you’ll find the first road for your easy trip down.
If you’d like to probe the depths for fish the beaver ponds are stocked with brook trout. The little Lower North Crow Reservoir, at the start of the Recreation area, holds stocked rainbows and browns.
If you go….
Drive west from Cheyenne on Happy Jack Road (WY 210) about 15 miles. One mile past the Bunkhouse Bar and Grill you’ll see the first brown and white sign. Following its arrow, turn right on Rd 109. Good signs will guide you all the way in. Just past an old, gray schoolhouse turn left on Hyde Merritt Road, then turn right on Valley View Road. Valley View leads into the Recreation Area.
Entrance is free. Dogs are allowed. A vault toilet is provided and three parking areas. There is no drinking water. No shooting or off-roading is permitted.
For a downloadable map see: https://wgfd.wyo.gov/accessto/access/johnannie.pdf
The road into the Recreation Area is often in poor condition making a high clearance vehicle preferable but probably not necessary.
Post Script: During the spring of 2016 a flash flood blew through the beaver dams, blasting out a gap in the first one, cutting a deep trough in the bed of mud beneath. One after another all of the downstream dams breached. It must have been quite a sight. The spring of 2017 shows only a little beaver activity, slowly rebuilding upstream. What was once a beautiful string of ponds is now largely desiccated. Even the stream disappears under the muck at times. The road, washed out, has now been repaired and regraded.
Post Script 2: My visit yesterday, May 16, 2020, left me happy. Beavers are well underway to restoring the ponds. They’ve made a home and a few dams near the lower end and at least two other groups are working at the upper end. The shimmer of water, the splash of ducks and geese have returned. I wonder how long it will take them to restore the long middle? I’ve been told that beavers can be busy….