Wilderness Walks in the Colorado Front Range

It is perhaps only in North America, amongst western societies, where true wilderness is revered and efforts are made to retain it. Bookshops reveal extensive literature in which the quality and appeal of wilderness is laid out, with champions in recent history stretching from Thoreau through to John Muir, Aldo Leopold and on to Stan Rowe, each grappling with their own experience and understanding. I have just spent 10 weeks walking in the natural landscapes of North America, mostly to pursue a passion for wildflowers, but increasingly, in my own mind, to try to understand how it is possible for people and wilderness to coexist without the total exclusion of each other. Those books have helped, but there is nothing better than to experience it for yourself, to see the patterns and interactions, and to learn from it.

The exclusion of the influence of people is important to me as a wildflower enthusiast since the slightest intervention can affect habitats and thus the flora that can grow there. This is the key problem with being a wildflower enthusiast in the UK - in almost every case I have to accept the loaded compromise that virtually everything I see is shaped by the demands of agriculture and not by an unfettered nature. But maybe I am a purist in my pursuit because even driving a trail through a wilderness habitat creates an edge that can vary from its surroundings in moisture, light or fertility and thus in the species that may grow there. Since I want to see wildflowers growing entirely "in habitat" - because it provides me with the most information and gives me the greatest pleasure - I am wary of wildflowers growing on the trailside. I will only "log" a new wildflower if I see other specimens away from the path.

Plantlife is shaped by more than just soil, water and light conditions. The puzzle of naked flower stems on yucca was cleared up when I saw blacktailed deer grazing off the flowers. The deer keep the spread of yucca in check, preventing the mass infestation seen on the plains now ungrazed by bison, and the deer will be kept in check by mountain lion and wolves where they still have a presence. Fertile wetland meadows are created from the build up of alluvium and rise up from receding waters when a beaver dam gives way. Other interactions are more subtle: the flower of the western wallflower deepens from yellow to orange after an insect has visited, maybe signalling to other insects that it no longer needs a visit, and allowing the interested observer to track the progress of pollination.

So you see that all the ingredients have to be there for true wilderness to succeed. A burgeoning population of elk may be a boon to mammal enthusiasts, but it spells disaster to the wildflower enthusiast as it results in over-browsing of flora. Hence the need for the reintroduction of the wolf so that the balance in nature can be restored. This is an owning up to past mistakes for those that seek to apologise to Mother Nature for their bad management, because it is about mis-management that we are talking about. In the main, people bend nature to their own ends, over-extracting resources and eradicating the awkward or feared and then having to institute some compromise management plan that is only a short term fix. It is a fix because it often relies on a dependence on people for its effect rather than letting mother nature get on with it with her full complement of tools in place. We may pat ourselves on the back that we have come up with the use of livestock to maintain flowery grassland habitats in the UK, but can these habitats really be classed as natural? Are our peatlands a true natural reserve when it is likely that they resulted from our wholesale felling of trees thus creating, often downstream, a vegetation-drowning artificial wetland? Would either grasslands or peatlands exist in a wilderness state here? How would we "manage" our landscapes to give true wilderness a chance?

I accept that every continent needs and has its own solutions, but that doesn't stop me from thinking that we have it totally wrong in the UK, and I get tired of arguing this when there is inspiration elsewhere that we can learn from. Just a portion of my journey can illustrate this and, I hope, get us to start to think more clearly. It centres around two weeks in June, walking in the Front Range hills of Colorado. While I list a lot of wildflowers, and give a bit of history that adds colour, it is the locations themselves that are the real message.

Deer Creek Canyon Park, off Grizzly Drive, is one of 23 Open Space Parks that Jefferson County maintains from a 0.5% sales tax voted through in 1972 by the citizens of that county. The park, in the foothills to the west of Denver, encompasses 1,881 acres of hilly, scrub oak habitat, which is home to mule deer, elk, turkey, mountain lion and bear. It is accessible through 12 miles of well-marked trails, some open to horse-riders and bikers but a third are "Hiker Only" and allows the full value of the park to be realised.

I chose to walk a 3.5-mile loop in this park based on a guide - Colorado's Best Wildflower Hikes - which said I might find prairie starflower in bloom there. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be seen, but I did see many, by now, old friends such as juniper, mountain mahogany, sego lily, copper mallow, yucca, scarlet gilia, prickly pear cactus, sulfur weed, pussytoes, golden banner and heart leafed arnica. After two weeks of hiking in the Front Range hills, I was able to recognise and read the wildflower combinations of the different life zones. Here, at Deer Creek, I also found wildflowers in bloom that had been in bud elsewhere - a magnificent clump of beebalm and some early blooms of goldenrod.

In earlier centuries, this area of the foothills had been a campground for the nomadic tribes of the Ute and a base for the Arapaho. They lost the use of it in 1872 when, through the drive to populate the western frontier, an English immigrant, John Williamson, took possession of the land under the Homestead Act and set about producing hay, wheat and corn crops from its flatlands. Williamson may also have profited from gold and silver mined from the hills and, along with many homesteaders, he must have been a tough, resourceful and colourful character. For instance, it is known that he gave haven to Jesse James, The Whole in the Wall Gang and Horse Thief Thompson. I encountered a number of these homesteads with their abandoned makeshift wood cabins while walking in the foothills-montane of the Front Range. The Act that gave birth to them encouraged settlement in the natural meadow clearings of the foothill woodlands, allowing land to be bought cheaply, and cheaper still if evidence of rootedness was shown. Surprisingly, the Homestead Act, first enacted in 1862, was not repealed in America until 1972, and not until 1986 in Alaska.

The snow-capped mountains provided water and the woodlands surrounding homesteads provided timber, fruit and wild protein with surplus crops from the meadows and eggs from fowl being carted downhill for sale into a nearby town. It must have been a hard but simple life with great rewards for those that could appreciate the natural world. Some homesteads were ruthlessly exploited for their resources, but all lost their economic viability as transport improved food distribution and the agriculture of the plains to the east grew during the first half of the 20th century. This led to homesteads being bought up and combined into much larger holdings, which even then made little economic sense. Thus the opportunity for their eventual purchase for public ownership in the 60's and 70's and their subsequent regeneration to wilderness (the poor economic viability of UK upland farms at present has parallels).

Conservationists please take note - the approach to regeneration and re-vegetation is to ban for ever access to livestock (except llamas!?) and to ban people for the period of regeneration, thus allowing mother nature, seed banks plus wild animals to get on with it. It works so successfully probably because there has not been the wholesale "improvement" of farmland in the foothills and closeby plains that has characterised Europe, nor the wholesale slaughter of wild mammals and, in general, the soils are invariably dry and poor. In fact the only "management" I saw in any of the wilderness parks was the moving away of fallen trees from across trails and the periodic rogueing of non-native wildflowers that threaten to swamp out habitats i.e. yellow toadflax, mullein and mountain knapweed. Mother Nature occasionally adopts a more traumatic route with wildfire, but it is not as regular an event as some people suppose.

A number of Colorado counties own and operate open space parks. Boulder County to the north of Jefferson County has some particularly good ones such as Rabbit Mountain Open Space. Walking the Eagle Wind trail there, a plains lifezone, I found plants of the parched prairies such as the mauve prairie verbena, locoweed, sunflower, skullcap, yellow salsify, yellow coneflower, yucca and prairie clover. Colorado itself operates open space as State Parks, although their functions vary. Some are for outdoor water sport and recreation, but the gems have a more restricted use for trails-only, some with backcountry camping, and I enjoyed the rich wildflower life in those as well. Castle Canyon State Park is a long gash in the geology south of Denver, and it showed me that the aridity of a rocky landscape is no barrier to plantlife diversity. Roxborough State Park combined a lush basin of wildflowers flanked with the beauty of emerging and towering fins of red sandstone rock. The line of red sandstone stretches N to S along the Front Range, and much of its length has been incorporated into state or county open space parks such as the geological phenomenon of the Garden of the Gods with its rock formations looking as though balanced on top of each other; the native American cliff dwellings of the Anasazi culture at Manitou Springs; and the natural amphitheatre in Red Rocks State Park where outdoor concert seating for 9000 has been superbly designed to fit in between two of the more massive red sandstone fins.

In larger scope come the national parks of America, of which Colorado has two: the well known Rocky Mountain National Park and the Mesa Verde National Park. If the foothill walks of the Front Range were occasionally lungbusting at 7000-8000 ft., then trails in the Rocky Mountains at 9,000 to 12,000 ft. needed care and acclimation to avoid the debilitation that can come at these altitudes. The views of the snow-clad peaks (over 14,000ft) were breathtaking. This was a magical place, giving access to the lifezones of montane, sub-alpine and alpine. Each walk brought new finds: on a four mile return trail to the Calypso Cascades (9200 ft.) in the Wild Basin Area, came the exquisite calypso orchid and the pale blue and yellow columbine (Colorado's state flower); to the globeflower found on a wetland meadow, tramping up through occasional snow, still covering woodland floors in June, to Emerald Lake (10,080 ft.) enclosed by the snow-covered mountains of Hallett Peak (12, 713 ft) and Flattop Mountain (12,324 ft). The location, combined with the emerald colour of the lake water, made it a unique place of enchanted fantasy. Unfortunately, the fantasy was rudely punctured by a thunderstorm, but then you have to dodge those from the moment you arrive in Colorado.

Trail Ridge Road runs E to W through the national park and is the highest public road that is kept open year round in America. At its highest point of 12,183 ft. it provides a panoramic view of the northern and southern peaks of the Rockies and of the continental divide. One of the more challenging trails leading off the road is a walk across the tree-less alpine tundra just a few feet lower at Rock Cut (12,110 ft.). The high wind is a constant threat there and, combined with the altitude, means that walking is best done with at least five layers of clothing on and in slow motion. Nevertheless, I found 12 alpine flowers, all very low growing and one, a miniature forgetmenot, having a surprisingly strong scent when you consider that the wind must blast the scent everywhere.

The Ute Trail is another trail off that high road (10,500 to over 11,000 ft) and it marks the migratory route of the nomadic native tribe as it traveled back and forth across the Rockies. This elevation marks the upper extent of the tree line, with a very few windshaped and stunted conifers struggling to maintain a presence. The climate was, by comparison to the summit of the road, relatively softer and many of the flowers and grasses were able to grow a little taller and form a more satisfactory meal to the elk and yellow-bellied marmot that I shared the trail with. As I had done on a number of occasions, I couldn't help feeling that here was an unchanged landscape that would have been familiar to the native Americans of hundreds to a thousand years ago.

A last walk in Colorado took in a three-mile loop in Meyer Ranch Park (Jefferson County Open Space) that the guidebook promised would provide an orchid called spotted coralroot. Well, I didn't find that orchid, but I found another coral root and three other plants in elephant heads (because the individual flowers of the spike look like little elephant heads), a ground clematis, and a dwarf lousewort that I had seen in bud elsewhere. As with all the wildflower walks I took in North America, this one showed the benefits of land being allowed to flourish as wilderness, untrammelled by agriculture, but accessible to people. It crowned what had been an extraordinary plant search and, as well, an exploration of the concepts of wilderness as found in the Front Range hills of Colorado. Surely there are some lessons in there that can be well learnt?

Mark Fisher, 28 July 2003


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk