Spotlight on Parks: San Luis State Park

One of the items on my bucket list is to visit all of our National Parks (if you have this goal too or even if you just visit the same park a lot during the year, I highly recommend purchasing the annual National Parks pass. It pays for itself after 4 visits.) Ever since moving to Colorado I’ve been knocking them out pretty fast and furious and this past Labor Day I decided I’d go visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. That campground was full when I decided to make my reservation, so instead I reserved a site at San Luis State Park.

View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from San Luis State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from San Luis State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

San Luis lies only 15 to 20 minutes away from Great Sand Dunes. In fact, you can see the dunes from the park. It’s also fairly close to 2 national wildlife refuges: Monte Vista and Alamosa, so there’s plenty to do if you spend a long weekend there. The park consists of 2,054 acres and lies in the San Luis Valley surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

San Luis is known for its large lake where you can go boating or do some wildlife viewing. The lake is a “playa,” or dry lake, which is a shallow lake that is seasonally wet. San Luis’ lake is filled from snow melt in the mountains. However, due to the low amount of snow, the lake was dried up when we visited. We had some strong wind on the Sunday we were there and it was pretty impressive to see the dust lifting off the dry lake bed and blowing around.

Just because the lake was dried up didn’t mean that there was no wildlife to see though. Sage thrashers and Say’s phoebes flitted around the rabbit brush in the morning and barn swallows sailed around all day long. I also saw plenty of rabbits, including a black-tailed jackrabbit, only the second time I’ve seen one of them. I’m always amazed at just how big their ears are.

A black-tailed jackrabbit hightails it in the early morning light. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A black-tailed jackrabbit hightails it in the early morning light. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Because the towns around San Luis aren’t very big and are fairly spread out, the park doesn’t suffer from a lot of light pollution. That means the amount of stars you can see in the park is incredible. The highlight of my time there was watching shooting stars while listening to distant coyote howls. I also enjoyed watching the resident bats and feeling the slight breeze as they swooped past me. The park has central bathroom and shower facilities and the lights attract a lot of moths and other insects. This provides a smorgasbord for the bats and was the best place to see them.

San Luis’ campground closes on October 1 (the bathrooms are already closed for the season), but the park is open all year round, so if you’re in the area, you should check it out. The entry fee is $7 a day or you can buy an annual Colorado State Park Pass for $70, which gets you into all 42 Colorado State Parks.

Autumn is Coming

The days are getting shorter and the nights and mornings cooler, but the cottonwood trees are only just starting to get that lime green color before they turn full-on blazing yellow and the days are still pretty warm. But autumn is coming for sure. How do I know? The animals tell me so. 

Blue Jay in flight over water with acorn. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Falls NY. Photo by Susan Phillips.
Blue Jay in flight over water with acorn. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Falls NY. Photo by Susan Phillips.

In the corner of my neighbor’s yard is an oak tree and it’s going to be a good mast year this year. “Mast” is the term used for the fruit of nut-bearing trees, which includes acorns. A mast year is when there is a prolific amount of nuts and acorns. Already the oak tree is heavy with immature green acorns and it’s become one of the hang outs of the neighborhood blue jays. After being largely inconspicuous all summer, the blue jays are out in force, squawking up a storm. You wouldn’t think it to look at them (how do they get such huge things down their beak anyway?), but acorns are one of their favorite foods. Just like squirrels and chipmunks, blue jays may either eat the acorns or stash them for later. Because they don’t have great senses of smell, some of the acorns the jays don’t retrieve grow up to be new trees, just like the forgotten acorns harvested by squirrels and chipmunks. However, blue jays can fly, meaning they can disperse those acorns much farther than either of those mammals, helping hardwood forests to spread.  

Just like the blue jays, the squirrels around here are also pigging out on acorns, but they’re also busy winterizing their homes. Just the other day I saw one run down the sidewalk with a mouth stuffed with what looked like a clump of dried leaves. Tree squirrel nests are either platforms consisting of leaves, twigs, and/or grass called “dreys,” which are used mainly in warmer months, or a den in a tree hollowed out by woodpeckers. Contrary to what you may think, tree squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter, though they are often less active. To stay cozy, several squirrels may share a drey or den. Ground squirrels, by contrast, do hibernate, though some, like the golden-mantled ground squirrel, may awaken several times during the winter to eat and urinate.

Golden mantled ground squirrel carrying a bunch of leaves. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Golden mantled ground squirrel carrying a bunch of leaves. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Just today I had some new visitors to my backyard: a pair of Wilson’s warblers gleaning insects from the trees lining my fence. Yes, it’s already migration season, and the Wilson’s warbler is just 1 type of warbler heading through Colorado on its southerly flight. It will spend the winter in Central America before flying back through Colorado in the spring on its way to northern Canada to breed. The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory starts fall bird banding on September 16 at the Fort Collins banding station and I can’t wait to see what other birds they might catch. You can see where banding is happening in your area by visiting RMBO’s Web site.

Keep your eyes open and see if you can see other signs of autumn coming your way.

Happy Birthday To You

Party turtle by Jamie Simo.

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which was passed into law on September 3, 1964 and all around the country, communities are hosting a wide variety of celebrations. You can check out what’s happening in your neck of the woods here.

The Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, formally defines “wilderness” as:

an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

The Act initially set aside 9.1 million acres of land as Wilderness Areas where human activity is limited to preserve the natural character of the land. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System includes 757 Wilderness Areas comprised of over 100 million acres. Most states have designated wilderness areas, excluding Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island, with the majority of those areas focused in the west.

Colorado has a pretty good chunk of wilderness with 43 Wilderness Areas totaling over 3 million acres of wild lands. Those lands are managed by some combination of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, or the Fish and Wildlife Service. With so many wild areas to choose from, there’s sure to be one that strikes your fancy. So to celebrate this landmark anniversary in style, why don’t you take a hike…to a Wilderness Area near you?