Spring can be a tough time for a Front Range Colorado hiker. I love to walk the winter lowlands, but as soon as the snow level begins to retreat, I start to ache for the high country. Then things stall. The peaks look alluring, but continued cool moist weather keeps them white. A little lower, trails that had begun to open up in March return to needing snowshoes again, compliments of April snow dumps which can be among the year’s heaviest. Same thing can happen in May – even late May! By June I know my high mountain wandering options will be endless, but what am I supposed to do in the meantime?
Keep a list of great spring hikes in my back pocket, that’s what. This past week I added a bunch, in the form of Staunton State Park!
Staunton is an awesome new place to go spring hiking, only one hour from Denver. I knew I was in for something special when I pulled in last Thursday. Soaring red granite cliffs of Black Mountain rose above, and continued along a ridge of spires and domes, much of it above 9,000 feet, lit up snow-free in southern exposure sunshine.
“How come I didn’t know about this place?” I asked the attendant at the welcoming booth, as she grinned and handed me a trail map.
“We opened in 2013, so a lot of people don’t know about us yet,” she said. “Maps and guidebooks are still playing catch-up.”
In case you’re wondering, it is very unusual to have a new state park appear in the Denver metro area in this day and age. The last time it happened was 1978. And Staunton isn’t just any park; it is more than 3,900 acres of high rocky foothills, pristine forests, wet and dry grasslands, and stream corridors. It’s hitting its stride now with over 27 miles of superbly-built trails, and more trails are being added. It’s also a rock climber’s paradise, with Red Hill, Staunton Rocks, Lions Head, and many others welcoming climbers when raptors aren’t nesting (which is pretty much the second half of the year).
How could this happen in 2013, only 40 miles from Denver?
Here’s how. When doctors Rachel and Archibald Staunton moved to Colorado in the early 1900s and set up their Denver practices, they started hanging out in these Black Mountain hills. Hooked, they bought 80 acres with a cabin in 1918. They also applied for a homestead patent. Within a few years Dr. Rachel was able prove up around 600 acres by living here for seven months of the year and raising crops and livestock. She also provided medical services to locals. The Stauntons increased their holdings to over 1,700 acres in the 1920s, encompassing wonderful Black Mountain.
Rachel and Archibald had one child: Frances, who maintained the ranch in one piece after her parents died. In 1986, three years before her own death, Frances donated the land to the state so that it could become a public space. It took several decades for the state to purchase adjacent land, with big help from Colorado Lottery proceeds. Some of these purchases were crucial since public access to the ranch was blocked by wealthy mountain subdivisions. In 2006 a final key puzzle piece was added: the former property of Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Mary Coyle Chase (of “Harvey” fame). And in 2013, this expansive, gorgeous wilderness that hardly anyone had seen before opened to the public.
“What am I going to do?” I asked myself, as I drove past the poured foundation of the future Visitors Center and parked in the huge new empty lot at the main trailhead. I’m done writing Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range. The hikes are in the can. The maps are drawn. The book launch date is next April.
“Simple!” I realized, looking at the map the attendant had given me, highlighting her favorite hike which culminates in a breathtaking 100-foot waterfall. “Start walking!”
Eleven happy miles later, I stumbled back to my car, clear on which hike was getting booted from the book to make space for Staunton’s Elk Falls. No way could this hike wait to appear in a sequel!
Meanwhile, I look forward to my personal sequels: more happy spring (and fall and winter) days in Staunton State Park, exploring other trails. I can’t wait to hike up Lions Head – a trail goes there but it’s not on the map yet. I also need to do the Catamount and Pikes Peak Overlooks, as well as hike the northern loop of Black Mountain, where I’ll find the ruins of a 1930s logging camp.
To get to Staunton State Park, take US 285 south to Shaffers Crossing, 6 miles west of Conifer. Turn right on Elk Creek Road and continue 1.5 miles to the park entrance, on the right.