No time for a full-day hike? Don’t let that discourage you from hopping on a trail in one of our gorgeous state parks for a short outing. Oh, the things you’ll see!
For example, a friend and I, plus my dog Sage, recently took a short hike on the Horseshoe Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, which is 16 miles northwest of Golden. We lacked the time to walk the nearly 4 miles round-trip to Frazer Meadow, a beautiful area that was homesteaded in 1880 by John Frazer (only crumbling remnants of Frazer’s barn remain, but there’s an interpretive sign with interesting information about him). But the Horseshoe Trail is so lovely, and so nicely shaded, one of Sage’s requirements, that we decided to walk it for about an hour and then turn back. We knew that going out a short while on this trail was a much better idea than not going at all.
From our homes in southeast Denver, it’s an easy drive across town and up the 13 sinuous miles of beautiful Golden Gate Canyon. We stopped at the park visitor center to check the list of wildlife sightings and were thrilled to see that a moose with two calves recently had been spotted in the northern reaches of the park. The short drive to our trailhead showcased several new road and parking lot improvements, including the recently paved 14-car lot at Horseshoe trailhead, and multi-car overflow parking on both sides of the road just south of it. Wooden steps, framed by slopes of newly planted native vegetation, led up to the trail.
Horseshoe Trail, one of the park’s most popular, was busy with fellow hikers out to enjoy a warm fall day. Sage was disappointed to find that the seasonal stream paralleling the trail was dry. But she happily slurped from her own water bottle.
As we moseyed and meandered up the trail, we saw a tapestry of fall colors in the beautiful foothill forest. Deep greens of conifers contrasted with oranges, yellows, and reds of fading shrubs, grasses, ferns, and wildflowers. Purple was the color of the season’s last wildflowers. Fleabane clumps dotted the trailside, narrow lavender leaves beginning to curl around their sunny centers. One perfect, deep purple bellflower leaned over the trail, looking as fresh as if it were August and not October. The plump berries, or “hips,” of wild roses served as brilliant scarlet accents.
We noted lichen spilling down the sides of a rock wall just off the trail. The rich brown-orange hue made me think of one of the favorite Crayon colors of my youth—burnt sienna.
A busy female hairy woodpecker (very similar to downy woodpeckers, but a bit larger with longer, stouter bills) took little notice as we stopped to watch her fly from tree to tree, investigate openings in the bark, and forage for tasty snacks. She wears two black stripes across her face and a third stretches like a cap from her eyeline down the nape. Her flights were quiet, but she invariably landed on tree trunks with a short, sharp “peek.” We encountered possibly the same bird on the way back to the car. That part of the trail, with aspen and conifers, must be one of her favorite spots. Seeing her there twice made it one of our favorite spots as well.
All along the trail, brilliant aspen trees, backlit by the autumn sun, softly showered the trail with their leaves, turning it magically to a golden path.
Beautiful short walks, long walks, any distance you want walks, are waiting for you in Colorado’s state parks. For more information about Golden Gate Canyon State Park, visit the park’s website or call (303) 582-3707. A one-day parks pass costs only $7 per vehicle.
Written by Linda Pohle. Pohle is a freelance writer and is a volunteer at Castlewood Canyon State Park.