Spring Fling

A fine spring day in Staunton State Park
Photo by Pete KJ

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.”

Black Mountain Ridge, Stauton State Park
Photo by Pete KJ

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.

Elk Falls, Staunton State Park
Photo by Pete KJ

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.

An Appointment with Enos

Enos Mills
Photo courtesy of
Creative Commons License

One overcast morning last June, I hopped in my car and drove toward Longs Peak. I was on my way to visit a kindred spirit. I had an appointment with Enos!

Enos Mills, conservationist, nature writer, and lecturer among many other things, was a key force in getting Rocky Mountain National Park established in 1915. My appointment wasn’t with him per se, since he died in 1922. Rather I was meeting his great granddaughter Eryn, at the one-room cabin he built at the base of Longs Peak when he was 15 years old. The cabin is now an unconventional museum, run by-appointment-only.

I felt a deep connection with Enos not only because he was a writer who loved to be outdoors, but also because he was someone whose life had been transformed, at a young age, by the power of the mountains.

Enos was born in Kansas in 1870. He grew up thin and sickly. Doctors didn’t expect him to live long. He left home at age 14 to search for better health, or to at least experience something of the world before he died. He hitchhiked to Kansas City and worked in a bakery, then made his way to Colorado and to the base of Longs Peak, where some relatives of his owned a ranch. He began working in a lodge as a housekeeper.

Enos climbed Longs Peak for the first time in 1885. It was a transformational experience. That same summer he began building his cabin at its base, which he finished the following summer. He couldn’t file for a homestead right away because he wasn’t 21; it took him more than a decade to get the patent. He was able to get his 160 acres classified as “unsuitable for farming,” which freed him up to spend summers tramping and nature guiding in the mountains, and winters working in the mining industry in Montana, where he became a licensed engineer.

Enos Mills cabin located near the base of Longs Peak
Photo by Pete KJ

When Enos had time and money, he traveled widely. One day he was walking on a beach in San Francisco, and picked up a piece of kelp, and asked old guy who was standing nearby about it. That old guy turned out to be John Muir, the naturalist and conservation activist. Muir encouraged Enos to pursue his interests in the natural world, to join the cause of conservation, and to write about his outdoor adventures. Enos and John remained friends until Muir died in 1914.

In the early 1900s, Enos bought out his relatives’ ranch and converted it into a lodge, where he set up an early form of ecotourism and trained other nature guides. He also started getting published and lecturing widely. His articles appeared in the leading magazines of the day, and he published 18 nonfiction books in all.

He didn’t live in his cabin much after 1909, since his work on getting the national park established required him to be near a phone (which was across the road at his lodge). When Congress created Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, it was Enos who gave the keynote speech at the dedication.

“I’m late!” I said, eying my dashboard clock as my car sat at a standstill on the road beneath the lofty peak. I had forgotten about the summer road works on Highway 7. Was Eryn going to wait for me?

Not to worry. Eryn was standing at homestead gate with a smile on her face when I arrived. We walked to the cabin, and spent nearly two hours chatting about all aspects of Enos’s amazing life.

“Having a death sentence at age 14 gives you a different perspective,” she said.

Interior of the cabin is now a very special museum
Photo by Pete KJ

“I identify with him,” I said, “Because I feel like I was kind of like him. When I was little, I was timid and nonathletic. I didn’t even want to go outside. But something happened to me in my teens, when I started going to the mountains. I became stronger, adventurous, and confident. I became passionate about life, and I wanted to experience the whole world. All wanted to do was be out in it. That’s what the power of the mountains can do for you. So I’m curious about Enos. Did the mountains transform him too?”

“Yes. Also, he found out he was allergic to wheat,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, and thought: There goes my theory!

“It was after he started working in the mines in Butte,” said Eryn. “He met a doctor there who was from New York, who knew about allergies, who filled him about ‘don’t eat bread.’”

Aha! I thought. Enos didn’t go to Butte until two years after he first climbed Longs Peak. In the interim he built his cabin and tramped all over the Rockies – hardly the accomplishments of a weak and sickly kid. Surely the power of the mountains had infused him, and put him well on the mend before he ever learned about tweaking his diet.

Esther, Enos’s eventual wife, seems to have been similarly infected. She came to Rocky Mountain Park in 1916 with her sister for what was supposed to be a two week vacation. She’d been working as an interior designer in Cleveland, and was fed up. When her two weeks were over she decided to stay and apply for a homestead. Both she and her sister also became a nature guides at Enos’s Longs Peak Inn.

Longs Peak at sunrise
Photo by Pete KJ

One night in the winter of 1917, Esther was feeling cabin fever and decided to take a moonlit walk across the Continental Divide. She wanted to visit some friends who lived at Grand Lake, on the other side. She accomplished the journey in one night.

This caught Enos’s attention. They married in 1918, in the doorway of his cabin.

It is pure coincidence that Enos’s birthday is April 22: Earth Day.

If you’d like to visit the Enos Mills Cabin Museum, go to enosmills.com. You can call the number listed there and make an appointment.