Trail Report: Lake Agnes

 

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Know Before You Go:

  • Trailhead: Winter is a little tricky!  You park on Hwy 14 at the turnoff for the Crags Campground/Lake Agnes Trailhead/American Lakes Trailhead.  See State Forest State Park Winter Recreation Map for details.
  • Website: State Forest State Park; Horseback Riding Trail Map/Brochure
  • Length: ~5 miles round-trip (winter)
  • Closest Town: Walden, CO
  • Green Horse Friendly: Will re-evaluate in summer…
  • Senior Horse Friendly: Will re-evaluate in summer…
  • Barefoot Horse Friendly: Will re-evaluate in summer…
  • Beer Friendly: Yes (3.2% only)
  • Firearm Friendly: Yes, see regulations.
  • Dog Friendly: Yes, on a leash.  See full regulations.
  • Obstacles: Bridges, water, bikes, hikers, dogs, wildlife.
  • Parking: On Hwy 14 in the winter, at Agnes Lake Trailhead in summer.

The Nitty Gritty: 

This was one of the first hikes I organized for the new Hike Like a Woman Locals group I’m leading in Northern Colorado.  We had a great group of women join us who were eager to get out on snowshoes one last time before the snow melted.  Some were seasoned snowshoers and some were first timers but all had a great time!

In winter this trail is a little tough to get to and hike.  Driving up highway 14, you’ll go just over Cameron Pass and on the western slope (heading toward Walden) you’ll see the trailhead sign almost immediately on your left.  In the summer, you can turn on this road and navigate to the Crags Campground and park there for a quick jaunt to the Agnes Lake Trail.  In the winter, this road is closed and you will need to park at the top of the hill just off the highway adding about a mile onto your trek both directions.

There is only parking there for about 10 cars, so try and get there early as this is a popular spot for backcountry skiers and snowsport enthusiasts.  At the parking area, there is a self-pay station and the fee was $7 at the time of this writing.  Those fees can always be checked by visiting the State Forest State Park website.

State Forest State Park is by far one of my favorite places to hike and ride in Northern Colorado.  Its a good bit off the beaten path so it weeds out a lot of the tourists, leaving it far less crowded than other options in the area.  This park borders the northern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, the southern edge of the Rawah Wilderness and the western edge of the Comanche Peak Wilderness so there is no shortage of day hikes, trail rides and multi-day trips you can make here.

I’ve done some other hikes and rides in the area, but hadn’t spent much time exploring via snowshoes until this day.  It was glorious. Due the variations in this trail with the seasons, it was difficult to find accurate information on regarding winter routes and conditions so we had to wing it somewhat. The State Forest State Park site provided the closest to accurate info I could find which quoted it at a 5 mile round trip length.

Their Winter Recreation Guide provides a wealth of helpful information.

The first part of the trail heads downhill from highway 14 and follows a rough, single track road. About 1/2 to 3/4 mile down, you’ll spot a sign for the Crags Campground and the Lake Agnes trailhead directing you to the right. You’ll pass over a fair sized creek and continue following the trail upward. This is a well traveled trail and easy to follow in most places.

The lower part of the trail winds upward through dense forest until you get to the Lake Agnes cabin.  This cabin was built in 1925 and was used seasonally by rangers until 2000.  It was added to the National Historic Register in 2007.

After the cabin, the trail opens into a beautiful valley which, I assume, is absolutely stunning in summer since it was stunning covered in 3 feet of snow. There appeared to be several route options here – mostly for backcountry skiers which were in abundance this day – but we chose to follow the most direct route to Lake Agnes which skirts the eastern side of the meadow.

You’ll return to a brief patch of forest before popping over a small hill and dropping into a bare hillside.  From here, you simply find the most comfortable route up the hill following the vein.  On this day, the headwind was blowing so hard we could barely stand upright and felt as though we were climbing Everest. In reality, on a nice day, I’m sure this climb is rather quick and painless but, on this day, it seemed almost endless.

Despite that, the views from here are nothing short of spectacular. I found myself taking a few steps at a time and then feeling the need to stop (yet again) for the “perfect” shot.

Lake Agnes herself is at the top of the hill, nestled in the Nokhu Crags.  The views here are absolutely amazing and there is no shortage of photo ops.  We were able to catch glimpses of backcountry skiers making clean lines down the slopes to the south of us across the lake as well.  We didn’t linger here due to the windy conditions, but I can assure you that a summer trip will be an order!

While a relatively short hike, this was an exhausting one on snowshoes.  The trail varies greatly with the season.  In summer, it is a mere 1.6 mile hike with a 400 foot gain and in winter, it increases to a 5 mile hike with a 1000 foot gain.

I highly recommend it and will definitely do it again but, be sure you wear comfortable shoes and good socks as I think we all ended up with pretty significant blisters by the time we made it back to the parking lot.  In retrospect, I could’ve left the winter boots at home and just worn my regular hiking boots given the conditions of the snow.

The State Forest State Park ranger station is very helpful and can generally give you the most up to date conditions for all of the trails in their jurisdiction.  This state park has yet to disappoint me and remains one of my favorites!

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Trail Report: Montgomery Pass

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Know Before You Go:

  • Trailhead: Zimmerman Lake (parking), Montgomery Pass (trailhead)
  • Website: Montgomery Pass
  • Trail Map: State Forest State Park
  • Additional Info: Poudre Wilderness Volunteers
  • Length: 3.6 (round-trip)
  • Closest Town: Rustic
  • Green Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Senior Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Barefoot Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Beer Friendly: Yes
  • Firearm Friendly: Yes
  • Dog Friendly: Yes
  • Obstacles: Wildlife, bikers, hikers and small water crossings
  • Parking: Large semi-circle lot at Zimmerman Lake trailhead, lightly used and plenty of horse trailer parking
  • Water: Parking lot is next to Joe Wright Reservoir and Joe Wright Creek, several small stream crossings along trail

The Nitty Gritty:

To get to the Montgomery Pass Trailhead, you’ll head west on highway 14 for about 57 miles past Ted’s Place to the Zimmerman Lake parking area which will be on your left.  The paved parking area just past Joe Wright Reservoir (also on your left) has vault bathrooms available and ample room for cars though use is fairly light throughout the year.   The actual Montgomery Pass trailhead is across the road from the parking area and is pretty darn hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for.  For reference, from the bathrooms, look across highway 14 and slightly east and you’ll see a small wooden sign denoting the trailhead.

This trail is absolutely spectacular for wildflowers.  This time of year, the asters were in full swing along with the columbine, balsamroot and, my favorite, Indian paintbrush.  Immediately past the trailhead sign, you find yourself in a dense pine forest surrounded by a blanket of wildflowers that extends almost the entire trip to treeline.  The sound of Joe Wright Creek flowing down the mountain is faint in the background until you see it come into view about ¼ mile up the trail.  It’s a world fit for Disney.

The trail itself is a great one for beginners and, I imagine, a fantastic horse and snowshoe or cross country ski trail in the winter.  The wide, two-track trail is actually an old Jeep trail left over from the numerous mining camps in the area way back when.  In fact, there are actually several old mine cavings and cabin reminisces when you reach treeline.  In general, the trail is easy to navigate to treeline with minimal toe-stubbing or ankle-rolling probability.

The trail travels through the thick, stately pines for about 1 ¾ mile until you reach a fork.  A wooden sign will point you in the direction of the “Bowls” or the “Pass” and from there it’s up to you to make your decision.  We chose the bowls but I’m definitely heading back to hit the pass.

The ¼ mile to the bowls is not for the faint of heart.  From the sign at the fork, the trail hits an almost 90 degree angle and scrambling a bit is to be expected.  The trail fades out a bit toward the top of the initial hill but there are fairly well-marked cairns that mark the path of least resistance.

Then, the best thing happens.  The ground levels and you find yourself in a spectacular alpine meadow right on the edge of treeline and you half expect Julie Andrews to be running over the hill belting out a tune.  There’s no trail after this so you’re on your own to explore how you wish and explore we did!  We checked out a few old mine cavings, what was left of an old cabin, a creek down the hill a ways and the plethora of moose tracks.  There was a gnarly set of pines grouped together on the south side of the meadow that had obviously been shaped by the seasonal snowpack.

We found a lovely spot to eat lunch while looking out at the Nokhu Crags in the distance and the dogs ran around happily.  Though we did this trail on foot, I fully intend to come back with the horses as it appears to have great access to the rest of the State Forest State Park trail system for some longer, backcountry rides.  It has it all; forests, flowers, creeks, snow, above treeline, expansive views, wildlife traces and historical significance.

Trail Report: Red Mountain Open Space

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Know Before You Go:

  • Trailhead: Red Mountain
  • Website: Red Mountain Open Space
  • Trail Map: Red Mountain Open Space/Soapstone Prairie
  • Length: 11.8 (our route, round-trip)
  • Closest Town: Wellington
  • Green Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Senior Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Barefoot Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Beer Friendly: Debatable…3.2% only (Regulations)
  • Firearm Friendly: No (Regulations)
  • Dog Friendly: No, this is a dog free open space (Regulations)
  • Obstacles: Gates (5 on our route), water, switchbacks, wildlife, bikers and hikers
  • Parking: Separate lot for horse trailers with 7 designated spaces
  • Water: None at trailhead, several stock tanks along the way and seasonal creek

The Nitty Gritty:

An unseasonably warm March day allowed for a chance to ride the trails at Red Mountain Open Space with a few good friends.  This ride had been on my radar for quite a while but during the prime riding months my attention is generally pointed toward the remote mountains.  Boy, am I glad we made it here!  This is a prime, start of season, conditioning ride with varying terrain and fantastic views.  Though its managed by Larimer County Open Space, it is far enough away from major hubs that use is sparse, making for a quiet day on the trail.  The trailhead is well marked along the way in, has bathrooms, picnic areas and there are trail maps available.  There are two separate parking areas – one for cars and one for horse trailers with seven designated (and very large) parking spaces.  No water was available at the trailhead that we could find, though there were several stock tanks and seasonal streams along the way.

Our route was a large loop around the whole open space area which left from a gate on the north end of the horse trailer lot along the Rising Sun Trail.  This trail merges with the Sinking Sun Trail which then takes you to a dry creek bed called the Big Hole Wash Trail.  While there are metal trail markers at most junctions directing you to the trail of your choice and maps at regular intervals along the way, your route once in the “wash” trails (all dry or mostly dry creek beds) are marked by encased rock columns (basically large cairns).  Keep your eye out for these as they will be your main directional beacons.  We turned Northeast once in the Big Hole Wash and followed this to the next junction at the Salt Lick Trail.  If you were on a bit of a time crunch or wanted to make your ride a bit shorter, you could follow the Salt Lick Trail to cut a bit off your loop, though we opted to stay on the Big Wash Trail and head to the Cheyenne Rim Trail.  This part of the Big Wash Trail turns into a narrow two-track road leading to a gate which denotes the transition to the Cheyenne Rim Trail.  From here, the trail begins to climb along the ridge, offering some amazing views and photo opportunities of the Mummy and Never Summer Ranges.  There are several more gates once you get to the top of the ridge and you’ll pass through some seasonal cattle leases as you cross over into Wyoming.  As you head back down the Cheyenne Rim Trail, you’ll enter a set of narrow switchbacks which can get a bit hairy if heights aren’t your thing.  The descent continues into a breathtaking red stone canyon where the trail meets the Ruby Wash Trail and heads South.  This trail weaves its way through a steep walled canyon that will make you think you’ve entered a 1950s western movie and John Wayne will surely be right around the corner.  The first junction you’ll come to once on the Ruby Wash Trail is the K-Lynn Cameron Trail which heads to the west and would make a nice additional loop to your ride if you had the time.  We did not so we kept moving south to meet up with the Big Hole Wash Trail again which heads to the East.  At this junction, there was a fair bit of water present in the washes and would make for some excellent water crossing practice if your horse was in need.  A little under a mile along the Big Hole Wash Trail and you’ll come to the junction of the Sinking Sun Trail on your right hand side which will take you up a small hill and head back south toward the parking areas.  The Rising Sun Trail (the one you started on) will split off to the left and this can be followed back to the trailer parking lot.  We opted to stay on the Sinking Sun Trail to the car parking lot since we needed a pit stop.

All in all, this trail exceeded my expectations.  You truly get a little bit of everything; rolling hills, beautiful vistas and Southwestern canyons.  A good portion of this trail is spent in sandy, dry creek bottoms and along flat, non-rocky terrain that allows plenty of opportunities for long trotting and loping (even a little bit of 4th gear if you’re into it).  Because of this, I’ve rated it as a barefoot friendly trail though there are some rocky areas that may worry the tender-footed horse owner.  Our route was just under 12 miles and we only passed 2 bikers and a handful of hikers along the way.  There was one other small group of riders on the trail but our paths never crossed once leaving the parking lot.  Keep in mind this trail is on the far, Northern border of Colorado and Wyoming and you spend a good deal of time exposed.  Wind is inevitable…bring layers.  This is an Open Space area and, therefore, has strict regulations on firearms and alcohol (among other things) so I encourage you to read the regulations for more info.  There are several trails at Red Mountain that are only open to hikers so take care when reading your map to make sure you don’t end up on a restricted trail.  The Red Mountain trails link into the Soapstone Prairie trails which is where the bison were released last fall.  You could easily make this into an all day ride and ride both areas.

Trail Report: North Fork Canadian Yurt & Kelly Lake

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Know Before You Go:

  • Trailhead: Jackson County Road 41 (8.5 miles from the entrance of State Forest State Park)
  • Websites:
  • Length: ~5.5 miles one way from North Fork Canadian Yurt
  • Closest Town: Walden
  • Green Horse Friendly: No
  • Senior Horse Friendly: Yes, depending on fitness
  • Barefoot Friendly: No
  • Beer Friendly: Yes (though there are times you’ll wish you had a cup holder)
  • Firearm Friendly: Yes
  • Dog Friendly: Yes (summer)
  • Obstacles: Gates, water, bridges, rocks, narrow trails, wildlife, dogs, hikers, bikers, livestock, hunters (depending on the season)
  • Parking: Circle drive, designated trailer parking (~6 spots)

The Nitty Gritty:

This ride took place a bit before the creation of Backcountry Horseman so forgive me that there’s not more exact mileage and notes!

August 2013: We, on a mid-week whim way back in 2013, decided to take a camping trip with the horses. Where to go? Well, we decided to make the trek across the divide through Cameron Pass to the severely underutilized State Forest State Park. This park is part of the Colorado State Park system and located just outside of the sprawling metropolis of Walden, CO. The drive itself is pretty darn awesome. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll head up the Poudre Canyon via CO Highway 14. Though there are several places to visit and get some grub on the way up the canyon, there are no gas stations to speak of so top off the tank prior to hitting the canyon.

This place is one of the few public places in Colorado that offers yurts and huts for its visitors to stay in. The yurts are subcontracted through a company called Never Summer Nordic and they handle all the reservations. They recently went through a change of ownership but when we went, horses were allowed at one yurt – the North Fork Canadian. Dogs are allowed at the yurts only during the summer months.  In the winter, the snow around the yurt is utilized for water since the river is frozen and they do their best to limit the “yellow snow” element.  There is a buck and rail fence surrounding the yurt with a gate and its about 100 yards from the North Fork Canadian River making for more than reasonable horse accomodations. The yurt itself is a little over a mile from the parking area so packing in supplies is totally doable if you’re staying a few days. There are horse pens and camping areas at the trailhead if you’d rather stay there (cheaper) and those reservations are through the Colorado State Parks website. The yurt is essentially a dry cabin. There are basic amenities like a wood stove (even in August, we were VERY glad we had this), pots, pans, utensils, bunk beds, wood and a small propane cooking stove. For you ladies who are like me, you don’t mind going in the woods but if you don’t have to, so much the better. Well, have no fear, there’s an outhouse (and a fairly nice one at that)!

There are several trails you can access from the yurt but we chose to head to Kelly Lake. If I remember correctly, it was about 5.5 miles one-way from the yurt and had an elevation gain of about 2000 feet. There are amazing aspen groves along the way, plenty of water and, when we went, the wildflowers were in no short supply. There was one half mile stretch of some very sketchy rock scrambling where we dismounted and led the horses (ours did fine but likely not green horse friendly). The lake itself is above treeline and in a bit of a craggy area but is quite picturesque. We saw multiple moose on this ride so be prepared! Also, be prepared for rain as our entire ride back to the yurt was spent in a deluge.

This was a fairly short visit for us so we didn’t get the chance to explore the other, numerous trails around the yurt.  I have yet to find a good map that focus solely on the State Forest State Park trails but most of the commercially available maps of the area have both the trails within the park and the yurts well documented.  I would suggest having one of those handy as the trails, in general, weren’t terribly well marked and there were many spur trails (likely from the free range cattle).  We highly recommend this combo though as it makes for a great, animal friendly weekend adventure.

Trail Report: Mount Margaret

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Know Before You Go:

  • Trailhead: Mount Margaret
  • Website: Mount Margaret Trailhead
  • Length: 6.5 miles (our route, round-trip)
  • Closest Town: Red Feather Lakes, CO
  • Green Horse Friendly: Yes (if they’re ok with water crossings)
  • Senior Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Barefoot Horse Friendly: Yes
  • Beer Friendly: Yes
  • Firearm Friendly: Yes
  • Dog Friendly: Yes
  • Obstacles: water, gates, wildlife, dogs, hikers and bikers
  • Parking: 5 designated trailer parking spaces with circle drive

The Nitty Gritty:

6/9/2015:  While I’m undeniably happy that our state is receiving much needed rainfall, this also means many of the trails on my radar are still under several feet of snow. That said, we decided to try out the Mount Margaret Trail with some hesitation. Being fairly close to Ft. Collins, that it was free fishing weekend and that it was not raining for the first time in weeks, I expected this trail to be jam packed with outdoor enthusiasts. I am pleased to announce this was not the case! While on the trail, we passed only a handful of people (a few with dogs) and no other horses. A few of the trails allowed bikes though we did not see any.

This is by far the nicest trailer parking at any trailhead I’ve been to yet. There are 5 designated, pull-through spots with a circle drive which makes for an easy exit. Side note – don’t park where we did. The “no parking” signs were down on the ground so we didn’t see them right off and we made the adjustment after the pic was taken. There are clean, vault toilet at the trailhead along with two hitching racks. I did not see any water at the parking lot but there is a creek along the trail.

This is a well maintained, easy riding trail that would be good for riders of most levels. Green horses should do ok so long as they aren’t opposed to water. Lone Pine Creek is running pretty darn high currently and we both got our feet wet going through it (see pictures). No bridges that we came across but there are a fair number of gates to deal with (great option if you want to practice your gate skills so long as you don’t get lapped by hikers like we did while trying to win an argument with your horse…). We saw LOTS of fresh moose tracks so just a reminder that it’s calving season and they’re not the friendliest of creatures. Also, in the several hours we were on the trail, we had sun, rain and hail so come prepared!

From the parking lot, you’ll start by going through a portion of burned forest and come to Lone Pine Creek about 0.7 miles in. As I mentioned, it’s much larger than normal currently and gets unexpectedly deep in the middle so take it slow. It’s 1.4 miles to the first gate. After going through this gate, you’ll have the option to continue on the main trail (979) or turn left onto a spur that leads you to a T for 503 or East Dowdy Lake trail. We took this spur to he left and then another left onto East Dowdy Lake trail (503). From here you’ll follow a relatively wide trail to another gate. If you continue through the gate, at 2 miles (from the parking lot) you’ll see a small trail heading to he right which takes you to Dowdy Lake. We made it to the lake just to check it out and then turned around. Once back through the gate, we kept straight on 503 (this is a good area to let your horse stretch their legs a bit) and at 3 miles you’ll note some cool rock formations on your right. Go another half mile and you’ll come to a large intersection. From here you can go to the left (9 o’clock) to check out the frog pond (503.1), straight (1 o’clock) to Mount Margaret or right (5 o’clock) to the main trail (979). There is another right (3 o’clock) that was originally the Loop A (503c) you see on the maps. We did take this but it appears the forest service is making attempts to restore this area so we didn’t continue. All in all the route we took was about 6.5 miles.