Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Colorado

Summer Fades, Winter Enters

Golden aspens and creek in Rocky Mountain National Park

While the snow may be falling and the vegetation dying, I am still alive and well here in Northern Colorado. This past spring, I somewhat rapidly went from working zero hours per week to working 50-70 hours per week which, as they say, “crimped my style” when it comes to photography.

We’ve had a glorious month of unseasonably warm fall weather here in Colorado and I was fortunate to get the chance to take several trips into the high country over the past few weeks to photograph fall colors. The presence of a leaf blight on many aspens in Northern Colorado (due to a fungus that took hole during our spring & early summer deluge) led to dire speculation that this season’s leaf show would be a letdown. Indeed, I did come across occasional unsightly stands of aspen with leaves that looked as though they been crisped by a torch. But many other locations appeared completely unaffected and lived up to the annual hype. Enjoy the photos!

Note: 2016 photography calendars will be available soon! Details to come…

Golden aspens and creek in Rocky Mountain National Park

Aspens along the lower Roaring River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Red, yellow, and green aspens

A bright palette of red, yellow, and green aspens in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park. Nature’s stoplight! Just not quite in the correct order…

Golden aspens near Pennock Pass, Colorado

Pennock Pass, Colorado

Golden Aspens near Pennock Pass, Colorado

Pennock Pass, Colorado

Fallen aspen leaves on a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Fallen leaves litter a trail in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Poison ivy changes colors in the fall

Aspens aren’t the only plant that change color in the fall! Poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) can often have colors to match.


Greyrock Trail Loop, Poudre Canyon, Colorado

Poudre Canyon before sunset
view of greyrock mountain and meadow

Greyrock Mountain and Greyrock Meadow

And now for a few more photos from before winter roared back into Colorado this past week:

Earlier this winter we took a day trip up Poudre Canyon, about a half hour northwest of Fort Collins. One of the more popular trails here is a ~5.5 mile loop combining the Greyrock Trail and the Greyrock Meadows Trail. A short spur trail heads up to the summit of Greyrock Mountain (pictured above) near the apex of the loop but we opted to pass on this route due to icy conditions and dwindling daylight. Despite ranging in elevation from 5,500-7,000 feet, the trail was surprisingly snow free, save for the lower sections that were well-shaded by the canyon walls.

The highlight of the hike is most certainly the spectacular granitic rock formations surrounding Greyrock Mountain. I say granitic because the rock here is actually not granite but what geologists call quartz monzonite; essentially granite with slightly less quartz and slightly more feldspar (hence the pinkish color). A seemingly trivial difference perhaps but an important one to geologists trying to unravel the history of the rocks. The steep, smooth faces of Greyrock Mountain wouldn’t look out of place amongst the granite domes of Yosemite National Park. There’s also some good sized pegmatite dikes that criss-cross the area. We found some very large and attractive quartz and feldspar crystals poking around the meadows that surround Greyrock Mountain.

A view of Greyrock Meadow

Standing on a large pegmatite dike looking down into Greyrock Meadow. The continuation of the dike can be seen as the prominent vertical pink stripe on the hillside just beyond the meadow.

On a non-geology note, the trails winds through several different burn scars, apparently of different ages based on the amount of regrowth in different areas. Many of these burned areas are likely due to the High Park Fire of 2012, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history which ravaged the lower sections of Poudre Canyon. There had apparently been a large windstorm here recently, as there were numerous downed trees, some dead snags but some still very much green and alive, strewn across the trail:

downed Ponderosa Pine on the trail

One of many large, recently downed Ponderosa Pines on the Greyrock Meadow Trail.

On the hike back down to the trailhead (on the Greyrock Meadows Trail), we were treated to a spectacular sunset over Poudre Canyon as well as views of the distant Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Poudre Canyon before sunset

Golden hour light looking east down Poudre Canyon

Sunset above Poudre Canyon

Sunset over Poudre Canyon


Fun in the Fort Collins Foothills

Horsetooth Rock

Horsetooth Rock, a famous Fort Collins landmark, is composed of hard Precambrian pegmatite.

It is currently snowing so hard I can barely see across the street. Fortunately, I haven’t been able to say this very often this winter, and I strongly suspect it won’t even be true 10 minutes from now. After six winters in the Pacific Northwest, once again residing somewhere where “warm” and “dry” are not mutually exclusive weather conditions has been quite refreshing. The mild weather has made hiking and all the other outdoorsy things that are practically a prerequisite for obtaining a Colorado driver’s license quite enjoyable. I’ve written about some of my adventures up to Rocky Mountain National Park but have yet to share any photos of our more immediate surroundings here in Fort Collins.

Fort Collins itself, lying at the extreme western edge of the Great Plains, is…well…flat. The only sledding hill I’ve yet seen here is a pathetic 20 foot run down the side of a large pile of gravel in the corner of the college football stadium parking lot. (As you’ll notice though, there is very little snow in any of these photos, so this is sort of a moot point.) Immediately west of town though lie the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a beautiful landscape of ridges and valleys that mark the boundary between the plains and the Rockies.

Fort Collins at sunset

Overlooking Fort Collins just before sunset from cuestas (ridges) between town and Horsetooth Reservoir.

Lichens on sandstone boulders

Colorful lichens coating sandstone ledges of the Cretaceous-age Lytle Formation, Coyote Ridge Natural Area.

Geologically speaking, the foothills are fascinating (though geologists find just about any landscape fascinating…heck even Iowa has one of the largest asteroid impact craters on Earth lurking just beneath its surface) because they¬† represent where the Rocky Mountains pushed their way up through the crust. Prior to the uplift of the Rockies, this portion of Colorado was covered in a thick, continuous stack of colorful but more or less flat-lying sedimentary rock layers, much like one sees at the Grand Canyon today. Eventually, the Rockies thrust their way upward through the sedimentary rock, forcing the formerly flat layers to tilt toward the east. Over time, the softer sedimentary layers were (relatively) easily eroded away, forming long north/south trending valleys. Other layers were harder and resistant to erosion, forming dramatic sloping ridges known as cuestas and hogbacks that parallel the valleys.

The resulting pattern of alternating ridges and valleys is striking and has practical uses as well. In many places, streams flowing out of the mountains have been dammed at the point where they slice through the ridges, forming long, slender reservoirs that flood the valley bottoms. Horsetooth Reservoir, which provides some drinking water for Ft. Collins and irrigation water for the plains, is perhaps the best example.

Devils Backbone hogback

Devils Backbone, a nearly vertical hogback of Dakota Sandstone south of Fort Collins.

Slightly further west, the landscape changes as the sedimentary layers give way to the igneous and metamorphic rocks that compose the bulk of the Rockies, forming famous local landmarks such as Horsetooth Rock (above) and Arthur’s Rock.

The plethora of city, state, and county parks that protect large swaths of the foothills are increasingly important as the cities below the foothills encroach on wildlife habitat. Mammals like deer, elk, bobcat, and bear are abundant in the foothills. As the cities below continue to push up against, and even into, the foothills, it’s not uncommon to read stories in the local newspaper about a moose, bear, or mountain lion wandering into town.

Mule deer on cliff

Mule Deer, Maxwell Natural Area

Black-tailed prairie dog, Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Black-tailed prairie dog, Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Cottontail rabbit in snow

Cottontail rabbit, Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Eagles Nest and Cache la Poudre River

Eagles Nest Rock and the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River

Mahoney Park, Bobcat Ridge Natural Area

Mahoney Park, Bobcat Ridge Natural Area