Category Archives: Spotlight on Parks

Spotlight on Parks: Jackson Lake State Park

American White Pelican soaring over Jackson reservoir. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Jackson Reservoir, for which Jackson Lake State Park was named, was created over 100 years ago in 1901 and 1902 to serve as a place to store water for irrigation. The lake sits in the middle of farm country out on the plains. It wasn’t until 1965 that Jackson Lake was designated a Colorado State Park. Now, in addition to providing a thirsty area with water, it serves as a draw for boaters, waterskiers, swimmers, and birders. The lake is regularly stocked for fishermen with species such as rainbow trout, large and small-mouth bass, and walleye.

Jackson Lake comes alive in the spring. In addition to the aforementioned human users, the park is an oasis for shorebirds and waterfowl as well as a draw for songbirds. My last trip, though early in the season, was filled with birdsong. I primarily saw and heard American Robins, but the highlight was the mass of Cedar Waxwings giving off their shrill whistles among the Russian olive. Impossible to glimpse, but with their outsize voices on full display, western chorus frogs were also trilling in low-lying swampy areas beside the beach.

A flock of Cedar Waxwings at Jackson Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Jackson Lake boasts 260 campsites and 3,303 acres for recreation. In addition to watersports, there is an off-road vehicle track for dirt bikes and atvs, a volleyball court, and several trails for hiking. The park even maintains a couple of geocaches.

Admission to the park is $7 a day or $70 for an annual parks pass that admits you to all Colorado State Parks for the year. Senior Aspen Leaf annual passes are $60 if you are 64 or over. Information on camping costs and facility or vehicle rental (jet skis, boats) fees are available on the park website.

When I went, the park wasn’t very busy, but I suspect now that the weather is warm and school is nearly out, that’ll change so you may want to visit sooner rather than later!






Spotlight on Parks: Eldorado Canyon State Park

Close to Boulder and a stone’s throw from the tiny, eclectic town of Eldorado Springs, Eldorado Canyon State Park is a breathtaking place whether you’re biking, hiking, or just taking in the scenery. With more than 500 paths, it’s also one of the premier destinations in the U.S. for technical climbing.

A visitor climbs one of the cliffs at Eldorado Canyon State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Prior to the 1800’s, the park was home to the Ute Indians, but the advancement of white settlers drove them from the area and, by the early 20th century, the Union Pacific Railroad was running nearby bringing with it a booming tourism industry. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the park became a renowned spot for rock climbing, but that reputation helped protect it from becoming a rock quarry. In 1978, the canyon was designed a Colorado State Park.

I chose to explore the park one day after work and I wasn’t disappointed. Two things immediately struck me about it: the roaring of South Boulder Creek beneath those impressive cliffs and the sheer number of dragonflies everywhere. Whenever I moved beneath a tree, they would spring into flight, as numerous as raindrops.

South Boulder Creek rapids. Due to changes wrought by the 2013 floods, most boating is prohibited for safety reasons. Photo by Jamie Simo.

A short, narrow path along the river allows close access to the spray off the water; a welcome cool down on a hot day. This was my first destination. Within this riparian zone, I encountered a pair of Lazuli Buntings and an inquisitive Yellow Warbler. Harebells grew in cracks in the cliff face, delicately bending in the breeze. It was truly lovely.

A little farther up the road from the first parking lot is the beginning of the Fowler and Rattlesnake Gulch Trails. I took the Fowler Trail, an easy, wheelchair accessible pedestrian route, which took me along the cliff edge. This gave me a good view of the river and valley below. Although Golden Eagles nest in the cliffs and often several of the climbing paths are closed seasonally due to their presence, I didn’t see any on my hike. I did see several soaring Turkey Vultures and a multitude of White-throated Swifts and Violet-Green Swallows, however.

Fowler Trail opens up into a more shrubby area and Yellow-breasted Chats, MacGillivray’s Warblers, and Spotted Towhees made their appearance as I got even farther up the trail. Mammals were few and far between, but I did see a chipmunk. I wasn’t able to finish the Fowler Trail before I had to turn around and head back, but I’ll definitely be returning.

A MacGillivray’s Warbler checks me out. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Entrance to the park is $8 a day or $70 for an unlimited annual pass that will get you into all of Colorado’s State parks. Eldorado Canyon is for day-use only, but you can consult the park’s website to find other nearby camping spots. Additional fees are also available on the website.

A weekday evening, particularly an overcast one, is a great time to visit the park. As the park’s website warns, weekends and holidays in the summer are very busy and parking is limited, so plan accordingly. Consisting of 1,488 acres, there’s a lot of park to explore and it would be a shame to miss out on it!

Spotlight on Parks: Mesa Verde National Park

Before visiting Mesa Verde National Park this past Memorial Day, I had visions of stark, red sandstone cliffs, and sparse vegetation. I should’ve known better. After all, in Spanish, “Mesa Verde” means green table. Although dry by the standards of the Front Range, the oak scrub and pinyon-juniper woodlands of this southwestern Colorado park is a far cry from the blasted landscape I expected.

Balcony House. Photo by Jamie Simo

The most spectacular aspect of Mesa Verde is, of course, the cliff dwellings for which it is most famous. Mesa Verde was designated a national park on June 29, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt and was the first national park to preserve human culture rather than natural beauty, although it certainly has that too. Currently, the park protects nearly 5,000 architectural sites built by ancient Pueblo people who lived in the area from about 550 to 1300 C.E.

We arrived late afternoon on the Friday before Memorial Day and set up camp in Morefield Campground, which is operated by the vendor Aramark. Although the campground was busy, we were lucky to secure a site that backed up to a tangle of Gambel’s oak that was filled with songbirds, including a pair of Chipping Sparrows that happily brought hair and fluff to pad their nest, oblivious to the human observers sitting mere feet from them. Unique to the other parks I’ve camped at, Mesa Verde has its own gas station, limitless hot water showers in private shower rooms, and pancake breakfasts. I suspect these amenities are due more to the remoteness of the park than anything else, but boy were they welcome, especially the shower!

Chipping Sparrow at Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One of the best parts of camping for me is that you don’t need to set an alarm. Common Poorwills traded shifts with the day birds, including Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees and Hermit Thrushes just before 5am, singing me gently awake. While there were sightings of a black bear sow with cubs in the campground, I was lucky not to run into them the following morning. I did see several mule deer traipsing between tents, however, while I chased flycatchers and bluebirds.

Tickets to the most popular cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace and Balcony House, are just $4 and run on a regular schedule, so we drove down to Balcony House for the 10:00 am tour. Balcony House is built into the side of the cliff and was the next architectural evolutionary step from the pit houses the Pueblo people built on top of the mesas. These pit houses evolved into the “kiva,” an underground room in the cliff dwellings that served as a religious center. The theory for the transition is that moving into the cliff allowed easier access to water. At the back of Balcony House and other cliff dwellings water puddles in the form of a seep spring, so-called because it drips through the porous sandstone until it hits the less-porous shale below, whereupon it “seeps” out onto the alcove floor. The Puebloan people could then gather the water from the spring.

May and June are probably the best times to visit Mesa Verde; on our way down into and up out of Balcony House we got great views of the canyon below and various brightly-colored wildflowers and lizards. We had access to ladders to get back up to the mesa top when the tour was over, but the ancient Puebloans would have used hand and foot holds to free climb. Just thinking about that makes my palms sweat!

Scarlet Gilia. Photo by Jamie Simo.

On our second morning in Mesa Verde we decided to tour Long House. Long House is especially impressive for the sheer number of kivas. Our Park Ranger guide speculated that Long House used to serve as a ceremonial gathering site and that perhaps the large number of kivas allowed different groups of Puebloans the ability to hold religious ceremonies at the same time. While we looked around I marveled at the petroglyphs of hands on the back wall. Who did they belong to?

One of the park workers told us about a mountain lion with cubs denning just off Knife Edge Trail so we made a pilgrimage one afternoon. I have yet to see a mountain lion and was excited to see one with cubs. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the cats. We did see plenty of cottontail rabbits though.

Stone metate and mano used to grind grain, especially corn in ancient Puebloan society. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The entry fee for cars at Mesa Verde National Park is $10 a day in the off-season and $15 a day in the busy season. For motorcycles or bicycles, entry fees range from $5 to $8 depending on the season. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual National Parks pass for unlimited entry to all parks within the parks system. Camping reservations are done through Aramark.

Although it was chilly at night and hot during the day, camping at Mesa Verde was great and I’d love to go back and see some of the sites that we didn’t have time to check out. I’d also love to see the eastern collared lizard that I missed out on seeing. So much to see and so little time!

Spotlight on Parks: Staunton State Park

Pasque Flower at Staunton State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

Later this month, Staunton State Park will celebrate its 3rd birthday as Colorado’s newest state park. Located in Pine, Colorado, not far from Denver and Conifer, Staunton consists of 3,828 acres of cliffs, meadows, and coniferous forest. The largest portion of land making up the park was donated to the state by Frances Hornbrooke Staunton whose family gives the park its name. Her parents were doctors who treated local residents, including Native Americans, in the early 20th century and may even have run a sanitarium for tuberculosis sufferers. Other portions of the park include land on which stood several other ranches and property belonging to Mary Coyle Chase, most famous for her play “Harvey.”

Pine Siskin. Photo by Jamie Simo.

While some of the park is not yet accessible to the public due to ongoing trail and road construction, what is open is gorgeous. Still covered in slushy snow, the resinous scent of pine fills the air. Mountain Chickadees and Pine Siskins flit among the Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs chattering and buzzing, and pine squirrels signal their disapproval of intruders. While I didn’t see any on my visit, larger mammals such as black bear, coyote, and elk also call the park home.

Overshadowing the trail are impressive granite cliffs formed by uplift and erosion. These cliffs may harbor the nests of Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks, to name a few species.

Gorgeous view from the Davis Pond Trail at Staunton State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In addition to hiking and biking, Davis Pond and Elk Falls Pond allow for fishing with the appropriate license. I saw one man taking advantage of this while a pair of Mallards kept their distance. I wonder if he caught anything?

Camping isn’t allowed yet at the park, but a picnic area at Ranch Hand Group Picnic area is available for rent for $90. Otherwise, entry to the park is $7 per day or $70 for an annual state parks pass with unlimited yearly visits.

With the days warming up fast, you’ll want to keep a day open soon to visit Staunton. Maybe you can celebrate its anniversary on May 18th.

Spotlight on Parks: Pawnee National Grassland

Sunset over the Pawnee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In the northeastern quadrant of Colorado lies an oasis of grass. Named for the Pawnee, a Native American confederation of tribes living in nearby Nebraska and Kansas, Pawnee National Grassland is just one of 17 such oases dedicated to preserving North America’s rapidly diminishing prairie and the species that rely upon it. This is in comparison to the 155 National Forests designated by the U.S. Forest Service in the United States.

The short grass prairie, characterized by its dominant “short” grasses and forbs, such as blue grama and buffalo grass, and less than 12 inches of rainfall a year, is one of the most endangered habitats in the United States. This is due to expansion of agriculture, overgrazing, and encroachment due to increased human population. Recent booms in oil and gas extraction have also opened up much of the prairie to human reach, checker-boarding the prairie with roads.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel. This ground squirrel is less social than most other ground squirrels. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pawnee consists of 193,060 acres of land protected by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as additional acreage under other management, such as by the State of Colorado, and private citizens. In particular, Pawnee is known widely for its diversity of bird life, including declining species like Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, which are grassland specialists, but Pawnee is also home to a surprising number of mammals.

My first Burrowing Owl of the season at Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One of the best ways to experience Pawnee is by driving the 21-mile long grassland bird loop. On my recent trip, I saw a herd of pronghorn and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, as well as heard the howling of coyotes. Burrowing Owls are starting to return from migration and I saw my first of the season. To my great surprise and delight, I also saw my first ever Short-eared Owl!

While I haven’t been, I’ve heard that the Pawnee Buttes are a great place to hike. The buttes are 2 sedimentary rock formations that rise 300 feet above the grassland. Cliff-nesting species such as Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons use the buttes as a nursery and so the buttes are off-limits from March 1 to June 30 each year.

All in all, Pawnee National Grassland is a great place to visit. Entry to the grassland is free and it’s rarely busy. It’s possible at certain times of day/year that you may not even encounter a single other person! You just can’t beat the solitude and peacefulness of a sea of grass waving in the breeze. Early morning or late afternoon/evening are the best times to visit, late afternoon particularly if you’re interested in seeing mammals as most are nocturnal or crepuscular.



Spotlight on Parks: Pueblo Lake State Park

It’s been warm the last week or two, but overall it’s been a cold winter, so a nice distraction from that cold weather was a jaunt south to Pueblo Lake State Park. Pueblo Lake, named for the reservoir at its heart, is a great winter destination to look for gulls, ducks, and resident birds reliant on the area’s pinyon-juniper woodland, riparian, and short grass prairie ecosystems. In addition to birds, the park is also home to mule deer, coyotes, several species of turtles, and prairie rattlesnakes.

Pueblo dam at Pueblo Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pueblo dam, which created the reservoir, was finished in 1975 by the Bureau of Reclamation as a way to provide water for irrigation, drinking, and recreation, as well as to prevent floods. Because the rushing waters of the dam prevent the area below the dam from freezing, it’s a good place for waterfowl and the willows growing amongst the sand and rocks harbor small songbirds like Bewick’s Wren and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The dam itself is used for nesting by birds like Rock Pigeons and White-throated Swifts. Fishermen seem to find the area equally good habitat for fish.

Bewick’s Wren among the willows at the base of Pueblo Dam. Photo by Jamie Simo.

My primary objective at the park was to look for rare gulls as we were just learning about them in my Audubon Master Birder class. The lake did not disappoint. In among the more common Ring-billed and Herring Gulls roosting near the boats in the marina, I was able to pick out a Lesser Black-backed Gull and a Glaucous Gull. The latter was particularly striking with its all white primary feathers.

After leaving the South Marina, I did some hiking along some of the trails in the park. As well as being a great place for wintering and resident birds, Pueblo Lake is known for its diversity of plant life. According to the park’s website, it is home to 5 rare plant species:  Arkansas Valley evening Primrose, golden blazing star, Pueblo goldenweed , dwarf milkweed and round–leaf four-o’-clock. While none of these plants were in bloom during my visit, I did get to take in the cholla cacti and the spectacular buttes surrounding the reservoir. It was very easy to imagine a mountain lion prowling among those craggy bluffs.

Cholla cactus. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The park is huge at over 10,000 acres and it boasts 400 campsites and year-round camping due to the usually mild winters. Boating, hiking, biking, and horseback riding are just a few of the activities Lake Pueblo offers.

While my trip unfortunately had to be kept short, you can spend a weekend at Pueblo Lake and still not see or do everything there is to see and do. I’d hoped to see a Scailed Quail after hearing about them from some fellow birders, but ultimately left empty-handed. Guess I’ll just have to come back!

When visiting the park you’ll want to either purchase an annual pass for $70 or pay the daily $7 entry fee. Information about additional fees for camping and other activities is available on the park’s website.

Spotlight on Parks: Golden Gate Canyon State Park

This past weekend I thought I’d ring in the new year (and break in my new snow shoes) at Golden Gate Canyon State Park. About an hour west of Denver and a half hour from Golden, Golden Gate Canyon State Park offers 36 miles of trails to hike, bike, or horseback ride through and over more than 12,000 acres of forest, meadow, and rocky peak.

Snow-covered Frazer Meadow ringed by aspens. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Golden Gate Canyon has an interesting history. Back in the late 1800’s, the Homestead Act promised settlers 160 acres of frontier land if they would farm it for 5 years. Some of that land is now part of Golden Gate Canyon, including land previously owned by John Frazer, a former miner, for whom Frazer Meadow is named. His barn still stands in the park as do a handful of other old buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Golden Gate Canyon was designated in 1960 and became only the second state park in Colorado.

It’s possible to enjoy true solitude at Golden Gate Canyon. Cell phone service is unavailable in most of the park and, for the majority of my hike, I had the Mule Deer Trail all to myself. Other than the occasional hiccup-like bark of the red squirrel or chickaree (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the creak of pines, and the buzz of small aircraft from the airports near Golden, the forest was largely quiet.

A red squirrel checks out the latest intruder in Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

Though I didn’t see any of them on my trip, a number of animals call the park home, including bighorn sheep, elk, bobcat, and porcupine. The park also abounds with birds in the breeding season. In the winter, the avifauna is more limited, but I did see Steller’s Jay, Grey Jay, Mountain Chickadee, and White- and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Passing through lodgepole pine and stands of aspen, I tried to imagine what the park must look like in the full glory of spring and summer, its meadows decked out with black-eyed susan and yarrow.

A moderately difficult hike made somewhat more difficult with the snow, the Mule Deer trail makes for a good half-day excursion if that’s all the time you have. It’s a loop, but I chose to turn around and take a rain check for another, warmer time. I’ll definitely be back to finish it and experience the other trails in the park this summer though. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Like the other parks in the Colorado State Park system, entry to Golden Gate Canyon State Park costs a daily fee of $7 or you can purchase the annual park pass for $70, which grants you unlimited access to all the Colorado state parks within a calendar year. Camping in the park is a popular attraction all year round with several different types of campsites to choose from. Overnight options and picnic site rentals are available for an additional fee.