December 22nd, 2020
After living nearly eight years in hot climates with mild winters, I’m beyond excited to reacquaint myself with white winters and snow-covered hiking trails. From what I can tell, Colorado winters can be oppressive, especially in those high-elevation areas in central and western Colorado (fun fact: Colorado has the highest mean altitude of any state at 6,800 feet). Here in Colorado Springs, we’re just below the state’s mean altitude at 6,035 feet, which is still 755 feet higher in elevation than Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, home of the Broncos.
I expect that we’ll get some snow over the course of the winter, but this early in December the few little dustings of snow disappear quickly in the warm midday sun. But on one recent weekend, a combination of good planning paired with a break in a three-day long stretch of light snow meant we could get out for a trek on trails with an inch-thick blanket of newly fallen snow. With Cheyenne Mountain State Park located on the southwestern end of the city, Stacia and I decided to stay close to home and head out just after sunrise.
A fog of snow clouds rested atop Cheyenne Mountain as we headed out counter-clockwise on Blackmer Loop Trail. The temperature gauge read 20 degrees and we were lucky to have a calm, windless few hours for our adventure. What a serene scene for a morning hike.
The only tracks that preceded ours on Blackmer Loop Trail were from two mountain bikes, along with a scattering of rabbit tracks crisscrossing the trail in every direction. We moved along, enjoying the quiet morning as visibility of the mountain diminished. The first mile or so of the trail spread out over grassy terrain. As we moved closer to a wooded area, we began seeing deer tracks following along in the same direction. The prints revealed bits of the dirt trail underneath, indicating the tracks were made this morning after the last bit of snow had fallen.
Then, as we rounded a slight bend we spotted two does--one licking snow off a giant boulder, the other eating in the grass. We moved slowly, trying not to frighten the deer while snapping some pictures. As we moved closer, one doe walked slowly off down the trail and ducked into a narrow opening in the underbrush, while the other remained, set on finishing up her morning snack.
We decided to move on, but as we followed the trail around the boulder and into the trees, we spotted a third mule deer--this time a young male chewing on some bark and mountain mahogany shrubs. This buck was at ease with our presence, allowing Stacia to take several pictures before he made a move to skirt us. Judging by his small antlers, the spread contained within the space between his ears (and the fact that he was hanging around here, not easily spooked), I’d say this guy was a year old, maybe pushing two. Of course, I'm far from an expert on this subject!
After hanging out with these three deer for several minutes, Stacia thanked the young buck for posing for his photo shoot and we moved on. As we walked slowly up the trail, eyes and ears on alert for more deer or wildlife, we saw the buck jump back on the trail and join the two doe in the shrubs. We hadn’t realized until that moment that, for those few minutes, we had been standing in the path between him and the does.
What an exciting encounter! From that moment on, we did our best to be more in-tuned to our surroundings, scanning the underbrush, observing the animal prints in the snow, listening for rustling leaves or snapping twigs.
From there, Blackmer Loop trail wove through a stretch of forest at the base of Cheyenne Mountain. We gained 602 feet in elevation over the course of four miles, with the trail offering several brief overlooks of the rest of the park below and the army base directly to the east.
That’s always the double-edged sword with Ankylosing Spondylitis--there’s a fine line between just enough exercise and too much. We traveled 4 miles out at Cheyenne Mountain State Park (a park that offers 28 miles of hiking trails) on this particular morning, and that was clearly too much for my hip joints. We had to slow down during the last mile of the hike, being careful to avoid sudden twisting movements and making sure to move cautiously when descending boulders and downhill slopes to limit impact on my joints.
I forfeited the rest of my day to pain and recovery, but this first hike of the winter was well worth the consequences. We saw seven mule deer, lots of deer and rabbit tracks along with coyote prints running along one stretch of the trail. I discovered that four miles was too much for my joints to handle for now, and that trekking poles might have helped ease the impact experienced by my hip joints!