At the very tail end of November, I decided to take a drive up into the mountains. My destination: the simply, yet aptly, named State Forest State Park. It was designated a state park in 1970 and its 71,000 acres of wilderness borders both Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park. State Forest is about a 2-hour drive from Fort Collins through the rocky canyons along State Highway 14 beside which runs the Cache la Poudre river.
On my drive, I saw a small herd of big horn sheep and lots of dead lodgepole pines sticking up like porcupine quills out of the rocky soil. The dead pines are due to a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetle is about the size of a grain of rice and is native to the western United States, but has been increasingly destructive over the last decade or two due to warmer than average winters that have failed to keep its population in check.
Despite the pine beetle activity, State Forest is a scenic and peaceful park known for its large number of moose, the largest population of moose within Colorado. My first stop was the modern and very well-equipped Moose Visitor Center so that I could find out where the best chance to see moose might be. Bolstered by the fact that the ranger on duty had seen two big bulls and a cow with calf in tow on her drive into the park, I hit the trail.
The park lies between 8,500 and 12,500 feet in elevation and so I was certainly glad for my thermal underwear! Though sunny, the day was very windy and recent storms had brought with them 4 to 5 inches of snow. It was definitely a workout to trudge along on even the compacted snow on the trail between the visitor Center and Ranger Lakes campground. Snowshoes or cross-country skis probably would’ve been a big help. The snow was great for seeing tracks though. In addition to a lot of moose tracks, I saw the tracks of several rabbits and a coyote.
I didn’t see a single soul on my trek and I could almost pretend I was the only person in the world. I also didn’t see any moose, though I passed by several stands of willow. The moose is the biggest member of the deer family and is almost an aquatic animal, being a good swimmer. One of its favorite foods is the willow, which grows along most of the streams within the park.
Determined to see a moose, I returned the next day with my husband. Moose, like deer, are most active at dawn and dusk, so we headed up to North Michigan Reservoir mid-afternoon. Despite carefully combing the area, we remained unsuccessful in our hunt.
While I struck out with the moose, I did see several types of song birds. The bird feeders behind the visitor center were swarmed with Stellar’s jays, grey jays, mountain and black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos. I also saw a couple red squirrels. They were a good consolation prize.
I left State Forest after only scratching the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what it offers. For example, did you know the park boasts the only undisturbed, cold-climate sand dune in Colorado? Truly, State Forest State Park subscribes to that old adage “always leave them wanting more.” I’ll definitely be back to explore more.
Entrance to State Forest State Park is $7 a day or $70 for an annual park pass. Tent camping is possible at several campgrounds throughout the park and cabins and yurts are also available to reserve.