Friday, February 20, 2015

Hangman's Gulch Trail

Trail sign from the Plum Creek Trail
Hangman's Gulch that is a trail name oozing with history, of intrigue, maybe even murder along the open plains...Plus it makes a great cross trail!
So, how did Hangman's Gulch get its name?  I went to the Douglas County History Research Center at the Douglas County Library to ask someone who knows.  This story goes back to the time when Colorado was still a territory.  The Pikes Peak gold rush began in 1859. The Colorado Territory was established in 1861 and Colorado didn't become a state until 1876. Towns were very few and far between.  The land was mostly claimed by native american tribes and the area was sparsely populated with people crazy enough to live in a place like that.
The story goes that back in 1867 (before the town of Castle Rock was settled) a homesteader along East Plum Creek was murdered by two men who were passing through the county.  The settler's body was discovered the next day by neighbors and the murderers were tracked to the area around Palmer Lake.  When they were confronted, several articles belonging to the murdered man were discovered in their possession.

Paintings on the railroad bridge walls
They then "all but confessed".  One of the men became violent and the posse quickly hung him from a nearby tree.  The second man was taken to the area about one mile north of Castle Rock and after a "short trial was hanged there".  He was buried in the gulch, only to resurface a few years later when his grave was washed out by a flood.  The skeleton was put together and was used by the public school science classes until the building burned in the 1880's.
Shaun Boyd, the Archivist at the Douglas County History Research Center told the Hangman's Gulch story to me and shared some inconsistencies about the report.  There are several problems proving this account including; a lack of names, no mention of a death or murder in the area, why they took the accused murderer to Castle Rock instead of the then county seat at Franktown, the wrong date for the school burning down, or even a mention of the hanging itself.  Apparently this is what a legend is, some event where the details have faded from memory.

The trail under the railroad bridge

This bridge was built in 1918, about 97 years ago

More paintings

Hangman's Gulch Trail opened in May 2013 and will eventually take hikers coming from Chatfield State Park to the Cherry Creek State Park along the Front Range Trail.  We hiked the trail this day from its connection on the Plum Creek Trail.  It runs about one and a half miles from Plum Creek to Woodland Boulevard and is open to bicyclists also.  The trail climbs up the gulch and winds its way toward the Douglas County High School and the Castle Rock Rec Center.  The first of 3 bridges it goes under is the railroad bridge.  This bridge was built in 1918 which was almost a century ago.  The wall to the south has a painting of Castle Rock, the north wall has a railroad engine, both painted in a very creative way with the use of a flock of birds.

Old highway 85 bridge

The old highway 85 bridge from uphill
The trail continues uphill along the gulch.  An old silo sits off to the north in the field and there are trees with birds chirping as you go.  The next bridge the trail goes under is the old Santa Fe Trail or Highway 85, which used to go straight through downtown Castle Rock.  The paintings at this bridge tell the agricultural and Native American stories of Castle Rock.  The second picture shows the cattle that were ranched here along with the garden and chickens on the retaining wall.  The trail continues climbing up the gulch.  The mountains start coming into view to the west as the trail climbs the hill.
The next roads the trail goes under are Interstate 25 and Front Street.  Here the Douglas County High School students have painted several literary sayings on the wall and have decorated the bridge with the school mascot and colors.  I like the way winter is depicted in prose.  This long tunnel is lit.
From here the trail continues climbing the hill to the Castle Rock Recreation Center.  It meets up with the Castle North Trail connecting neighborhoods to the High School.  Continuing across the street uphill from the Rec Center takes you into the Woodlands Trail and Park, from which you can continue uphill to Founders Parkway near the intersection with highway 86 and Ridge Road.  Just northwest of this intersection begins the drainage called Hangman's Gulch.

Downhill entrance at I-25

The first literary promise is a proverb

More prose

And more...

And more...

The uphill entrance of the bridge tunnel under Front Street
To hike the trail, you can park at the Meadows Trailhead and follow the Plum Creek Trail south to the junction with Hangman's Gulch Trail.  To get there, from I-25 take exit 184, go west to the Meadows.  Cross Highway 85 and the railroad bridge, then turn left into the parking area.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Hidden Mesa Trail

Hidden Mesa Open Space Picnic Shelter
To the east of Castle Rock is the trailhead for Hidden Mesa Trail.  This trail runs east-west from the farm valley floor of Franktown to the top of Hidden Mesa, near the Terrain and Founders neighborhoods.  Today I hiked the eastern portion of the trail that runs from highway 83 to the paved Cherry Creek Trail.
The trail runs over 7 miles round trip and winds through the rolling 1224 acre property. Cherry Creek runs through the property and brings the riparian area to meet the grasslands. The uplands include shrubs and forests along with the cap rock on top of the mesa.  4.7 miles of the trail are natural surface and the paved Cherry Creek portion runs .3 miles.  The valley portion of the trail is rated moderately easy with the mesa portion rated moderately difficult.

Trail sign along farm lane
Along with day hikers, this trail is popular with mountain bikers, horseback riders and families with children and pets.  Drinking water and a Port-a-let are available at the picnic shelter.  The parking lot handles cars and horse trailers.  The original farm house stands closed here, a reminder of simple architecture and of additions as the family changed.

R & D Center sign
At this trailhead, Douglas County is conducting a research project with the Tri-County Health Department and Colorado State University to study growing fruits and vegetables without using chemicals in the local climate.  The orchard trees include figs and hazelnuts, and an edible honeysuckle called heskap is also being studied in the garden.   The plan is to provide local farmers and gardeners potential groundbreaking techniques for growing foods from around the world naturally that have never been tried here before.  They will publish the agricultural details once they determine how well the plants and trees grow in the greenhouses and orchard here.  Last year 1500 pounds of natural produce was given to the nearby Parker Task Force to feed families.  Tours are conducted throughout the year if you are interested in seeing the garden or fruit trees. The inner gardener in me is pleased the county is willing to experiment and to grow the plants naturally.

The hike through the open field to Cherry Creek follows the old farm road as it slants downhill toward the trees by the water.  You pass an old pond on the left with a birdhouse perched on the dike.  As you near the creek the trail bends north, then turns back south before crossing it on a steel bridge.  

Cherry Creek flowing north from the bridge
Pausing on the bridge, I watched the water flow by and listened to the birds and the wind in the trees.  I could not hear the highway down here.  I continued on to reach the Cherry Creek Trail.  The paved trail runs north-south here.  To follow the Hidden Mesa Trail, turn right and continue following the trail over the rolling meadow.  At about one third of a mile, the Hidden Mesa Trail turns left and climbs toward the hills to the west.  The web site and trail sign mileages don't seem to match, oh well.  A trail map is available HERE.  This is where I turned around and returned to the trailhead as the sun was setting.  

Go right and turn left onto the Mesa Rim Loop
Even though I was just off the highway, the whole area was peaceful and I noticed I felt relaxed like I do when I hike in the forests.  Night birds were darting about, eating dinner from the bugs buzzing along Cherry Creek.  Several old trees stood tall and quiet as gray sentinels.  An owl hooted from a high branch.  Old, dried and decaying trees laid upon the ground, their age lines, cracks and wrinkles showing unusual bends in the fading light.  I was entranced and enjoyed it.  I will hike the rest of this trail soon!  I walked slowly back uphill to the car.

All of Colorado is a rattlesnake area, right?


To find the Hidden Mesa Trail, drive east from Castle Rock on highway 86.  At the intersection with highway 83 in Franktown, turn left.  The trailhead is one mile north.  Turn left by the large Hidden Mesa Open Space sign.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hike Planning for Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter
Of all the wild and beautiful places in Colorado, one of my favorites is Rocky Mountain National Park.  Covering over 265,000 acres (415 square miles), the park hosts 350 miles of hiking trails.  The park is surrounded on 3 sides by National Forests.  While the "official" summer season is over 90 days away, and the high country is still under several feet of snow, I like to look at the areas of the park to visit and plan a few backpacking trips.

RMNP Lawn Lake
I have day hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park many times over the years but have not yet backpacked there.  Bicycling Trail Ridge Road in 2001 as part of Ride The Rockies was beyond incredible!  I remember the Long's Peak Trail hike being awesome up to Chasm Lake and the views of the Mummy Range from the Lawn Lake area really cannot be beaten.  Never Summer Mountains is also a place I plan to backpack, as is the North Boundary Trail. The Poudre River Trail and the Wild Basin areas are also calling my name.  There are lots of trails to waterfalls and lakes as well as peaks.  I'll start with an overnight trip or two and expand into a 2-3 day backpacking trip by summers end, scheduled around my work and family obligations.

RMNP Alpine Wildflowers
This hiking link contains the top 10 hikes in the park, many of which take you to areas which are backpack-ready.  Pack your ultralight pack, bring your down quilt, your Esbit stove and some food and water, and prepare to be wowed by the scenery and fantastic views.  Dress in layers, plan on it being near freezing during nights near mountain tops.  The streams are guaranteed to be cold where you filter your water.  Do bring a map and compass.  Remember to leave no trace.

RMNP Never Summer Mountains
For hiking with the family or taking your children for a day trip, here are the best easy day hikes in RMNP.  Don't forget to drive Trail Ridge Road over the top.  Beware of the elk jams.
Road bicycling in the park is good (if you are careful).  The surrounding National Forests provide miles of off-road riding and the Colorado mountains have excellent road bicycling.
Plan on lots of people visiting the park with you.  RMNP have averaged over 3 million park visitors each year, most arriving during the three summer months.
Even with all those visitors, you can still enjoy a peaceful trip in the park by backpacking a few miles in from the trail head.  This list of all 80 trails in the park will provide you with enough miles to hike most of the summer.
Do read about the trails that were damaged by the 2013 floods.  Most of the roads and trail access should be open by this summer, but there are a few areas that are not yet restored.  If you have questions about a trail, call the parks Information Office at 970-586-1206.

RMNP Alluvial Falls
To help with planning your trip, here is a zoom-able PDF map of the park with the trails shown.
You will need a bear-proof container to store your food as it is required for protection of the black bears in the park.  The one I am looking at is the Bare Box Contender for my short trips, and big thanks to Section Hiker for such a good product evaluation.
For permit-planning, here is a RMNP brochure that will answer all your questions.  There are also many trail guides, maps and other material available about the park.  Check out these pages from the Rocky Mountain Conservancy shop or search online for Rocky Mountain National Park at Amazon.

RMNP Trail to Longs Peak
These blog photos are copied from the RMNP website.  All the photos I have are of my family there, so I won't show you those.  I promise to photograph the alpine vistas myself for the rest of the stories I write.
For permits (required for backpacking) call the Backcountry Office at 970-586-1242.