The March blizzard left me with a near lethal level of cabin fever. Imprisoned in cold and brown and bleak the pressure was building to bursting. I had to grasp those prison bars, bend them apart with my bare hands and plunge a big booted foot through, escaping to find some glimmer of spring.
The fecund smell of living earth, the sound of bird life, a hint of green. If it exists within an hour of Cheyenne it would be happening along the lower Poudre River, the eastern edge of Fort Collins, Colorado. I sprung the bars, leapt into the car and headed south.
Running Deer Natural Area
Just off Interstate 25 at Prospect is Running Deer, one of a series of natural areas that open the Cache la Poudre River flood plain to exploration. It’s a mix of ponds, cottonwood tangles and open meadows strung together like assorted beads along the narrow river.
Trails loop and circle and connect through parks running along the river all the way from I-25 through Fort Collins to Laporte, Colorado.
Running Deer seemed like a good place to start. At first it’s not much to look at. Reclaimed gravel pits, thick walls of young cottonwoods, grass and brush. Not that pretty. But the wildlife they nurture is gorgeous.
Ducks and geese and shorebirds of all kinds live here or pass through. I hijacked a local birder at Pelican Pond and with his help began to compile a list. Shovelers, goldeneyes, red necks, mallards, mergansers, perhaps a canvas back. Kildeer twisted in the air. Great blue herons flew overhead. Canada geese were nesting. The glorious sounds of spring. At last..
He expected far more birds by mid-April. Birders have identified more than 200 species in these open spaces.
He pointed across the grasses to a small stretch of cottonwoods near a compost facility. (I told you it isn’t all that pretty.) “There’s a great grey owl in there with a couple of owlets.” Saying thanks I wandered over to see. There she was. Another birder loaned me her binoculars. (Note to self: bring your own next time.) She was huge. (The owl, not the birder who was very petite.) On the nest one of the chicks stood up and stretched. The chick was huge.
Am I sounding a bit manic? Sorry. (Did I tell you it’s been a long winter?)
Running Deer is a good place to start if you’re walking and without dogs. Bikes and canines aren’t allowed. So it offers more peace for wildlife and people even though it is within the hum of I-25. With your dog or bike you would want to start just north at Riverbend Ponds.
Riverbend Ponds Natural Area
Beginning to find relief from winter’s grip I took a trail that crossed Prospect Road to enter Riverbend Ponds Natural Area. Sparkling waters, seven ponds, hugger-muggered together. They reflect a shade of blue deeper than the blue of sky, the brilliance of space below and above reaching ahead, inviting. This park is lovely to look at.
An osprey soared overhead with a purpose. The most gorgeous of birds from below, all white and barred and wonderful. Then a second, the mate. A ranger told me they had arrived from the south just two weeks ago. This is their summer home. He loved to watch them dive for fish, he said.
I was gap-awed in awe. And In danger of swallowing gnats that came and went in small swarms. Another harbinger of spring. One a little less welcome.
As I continued around Big Pond with the Poudre River beside me I realized I had approached this part of the hike all wrong. The loveliness of the ponds had beguiled me.
This park is made to walk with your ears.
Redwing black birds. They were click clicking and sending out their metallic trills, calling and answering each other, filling the space with an overflow of sound. Invisible at first, they hide down in the thick beds of last year’s cat tails. As the afternoon eased into evening they came out, clinging sideways to narrow twigs and reeds, bending them with the weight of their song.
The trails are right for listening, flat and level enough to close your eyes. Punctuating the blackbird chorus were the muffled honks of geese, the occasional coo of a dove. Oops, I nearly tumbled into a pond.
After Riverbend lies Kingfisher Point. The next park, it is dominated by a paved bike path following the river through a canopy of cottonwoods and meadows. This is the Poudre River Trail and those on bikes were clearly enjoying whizzing past my clomping form.
Quiet and lovely little riverside hidey holes beckon. Come sit a spell, visit or just think, watching the current roll along. A woodpecker broke the silence, jack-hammering an old snag. A pair of blue jays screeched overhead. Robins were in the brush looking for worms. A small pond held a chortle of frogs croaking, about sex I suppose. I think that’s about all they sing about.
Nix Farm, a lovely restored pair of houses with a barn, is worth a look. It serves now as the Fort Collins Natural Area Headquarters. An historic suspension flume spans the river. It was built to slosh sugar beet waste from the plant onto the farm for fertilizer. The Brooklyn Bridge they call it.
And beyond Kingfisher is Springer, then Williams, then Homestead, then more and more. My legs were sore before I finished Kingfisher. But for a bike…
When you go…
Need a dose of spring before it finds its way to Cheyenne? Take it on me. It has arrived and there are plenty of trails along the Cache la Poudre River to find it. The paths are easy and level, just right for winter cramped legs. And the music of the birds is a tonic.
For Running Deer take the Prospect Road exit off of I-25, go west toward the mountains just eight tenths of a mile. Turn left into the parking area. Sorry, dogs are not allowed here. Nor are bikes. Free maps of the Fort Collins Natural Areas are available at a kiosk. There is a pit toilet but no drinking water. Parking and entry is free.
An entrance and parking is also available at the Colorado Welcome Center. Look for the trail signboard on the west. From there the walk to the ponds is a bit longer.
Most of the ducks are on the far eastern side in a pond on adjacent Cottonwood Hollow Natural Area. An old fire lookout (without its legs) is interesting for history buffs but a bit out of the way on the south end of Running Deer.
For Riverbend Ponds also take Prospect Road but go one mile west from I-25. Entry is on the right. (Look for a small brown sign.) Biking is allowed. Dogs are welcome on leash. The area is patrolled by rangers. Maps are available here, too, and so is a toilet. You’ll want to bring your own drinking water.