Now that snow is dusting and caking Colorado’s Front Range, it’s time to hike the lower lands. In 2009 the City of Fort Collins gave this type of trekking a big boost when it opened Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, a huge swath of near-pristine high prairie hills along the Wyoming border. If you haven’t yet sampled the vast trail system in this glorious 28-square-mile space, now would be a good time to do so!
You’ll need to hurry. Soapstone’s landscapes are prime wintering grounds for migrating mammals, and to give these creatures their peace, the entire park closes from December 1 to March 1. This makes November prime time on Soapstone Prairie, not least because that’s when you have the best chance of meeting said migrators. More on that in a moment.
The scale of Soapstone can be daunting, but every hiker will enjoy the Towhee Loop. This easy 3.5 mile ramble gives you a taste of everything. From the parking lot, views are superb of the snow-graced Mummy Range to the southwest, reclining on the horizon like a giant gauze-wrapped cadaver. The path ascends gently through mountain mahogany to top out on higher ground with prairie views eastward that stretch to infinity. Rarely along the base of the Front Range do you see such little evidence of human incursion. On the return portion of the loop you are treated to some of the chalky magnesium-rich cliffs that give this open space its name, and all along the way you might see mule deer, jackrabbits, coyotes, and golden eagles.
Want more than 3.5 miles? No problem! At the top of Towhee Loop you can turn onto Canyon Trail and walk westward, basically, forever. Or as far as your feet can take you in a day.
That’s what I did last week and it was wonderful. By my seventh outbound mile I had entered the adjacent Red Mountain Open Space and turned north on Cheyenne Rim Trail. I’d been walking in solitude for hours; it was just me and the prairie. So accustomed I was to being totally alone that, when I saw a form-speckled hillside ahead of me, at first I didn’t know what I was seeing. Then I gasped.
Pronghorns! About thirty or forty of them! Unlike me, they knew what they were seeing. As I fumbled for my camera, they spirited themselves away, disappearing silently within seconds into farther folds of earth.
Pronghorns are good at the running away thing, have been for eons. The fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere is often cited as the second fastest in the world, beaten only by the cheetah. In fact, pronghorns are probably this fast because they used to get eaten by now-extinct American cheetahs in times circa the last ice age. Though they can’t sprint quite as fast, they outclass cheetahs in the long run by maintaining upwards of 40 mph for miles. Large windpipes, hearts, and lungs help them do this, along with extremely light bone structure and hollow hair. Built for speed, they are not great jumpers. Ranch fencing can impede their range, forcing them to go under rather than over it.
These beautiful animals are often mistakenly called antelopes (I committed this error in Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range). Though they do resemble the venerable Old World creature, in truth they are the only surviving member of a different family called Antilocapridae. The closest living relatives of pronghorns are in fact giraffes and okapis, which share their superfamily.
Prognosis for pronghorn survival looked pretty grim in the early 1900s. However effective conservation measures greatly improved the situation, and now there are upwards of a million roaming their ancestral lands in western and central North America (it helps when all the predators who could catch you are extinct). This means that parts of Wyoming and northern Colorado have more pronghorns than people. This doesn’t mean you will see them, or see them up close, I can attest! But if you trek Soapstone Prairie in November you have a decent chance.
Other viewings at Soapstone are more certain. You can see bison grazing, for example, in designated pastures along the entry road. They were brought here from Yellowstone in 2015. As of 2016 six calves had been born at Soapstone through a breeding program that used purged semen and in-vitro methods to ensure the offspring would be free of brucellosis and other diseases afflicting the Yellowstone herd.
Then there is the Lindenmeier Overlook. For this you must brace yourself—not so much for a stunning view, but for a stimulated imagination.
In 1924, A. Lynn Coffin and his dad were searching for arrowheads on this portion of what was then the Lindenmeier Ranch. They found some fluted points in the side of a dry streambed that didn’t match the others in their collection. It wasn’t until two years later, when similar points were found near Folsom, New Mexico, that their significance began to emerge.
The area below the overlook was excavated by the Smithsonian in the 1930s. It is the largest and most complex Folsom Culture site yet found. At the time it shook up prevailing archaeological thinking, which held that humans crossed into North America in about 2000 BC.
How did it shake things up? This site revealed bones of giant bison that were long extinct by then, along with a “smoking gun”: a man-made spearpoint imbedded in one of those giant bison’s vertebrae—proof that humans coexisted with these ancient creatures. Radiocarbon dating has since pegged Lindenmeier artifacts to about 9000 BC.