{ Adventure & Travel }

Wintry Mix

Five cold-weather ways to take advantage of local natural areas and open spaces.

By julie dugdale

Many of us reluctantly abandon our go-to outdoor havens—community trails and parks and natural areas—once the first big snow falls and the wind takes on a certain chill. We simply don’t realize what we can do at the open spaces and natural areas in our own backyard come December. So we tracked down a few under-the-radar ways to while away a winter’s day close to home.

De-Iced: Paddle through serenity at Horsetooth Reservoir
Stillness blankets Horsetooth Reservoir in winter, adding an otherworldly feel to a landscape riddled with paddle crafts of all shapes and sizes in warmer months. Open year round, the res rarely freezes over entirely, rendering on-ice recreation like skating and icefishing off limits. But when those all-too-common midwinter warm spells bring about a thaw, paddling is still anybody’s game.

“When the ice melts, slip a kayak or canoe onto Horsetooth Reservoir for a winter sojourn on the water,” says Teddy Parker-Renga, community relations specialist with Larimer County Natural Resources. “Even if they live in Fort Collins, people don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s January, the ice is broken up, I can take my kayak out.’ But it’s ideal to escape the crowds and have a different experience than they normally would.”

If you go: Before hauling the kayak out of the garage, call the new Horsetooth Area Information Center (Monday through Friday) at 970-498-5610 to ask about conditions and the best place to launch.

Eagle Eye: Watch them soar at Fossil Creek Reservoir
This National Audubon Society–designated “important bird area” attracts its share of binoculars-toting wildlife enthusiasts eager for their glimpse of raptors, shorebirds, waterfowl, songbirds, and other species. But if you want to see the most majestic of them all—the illusive bald eagle—bundle up, because now is the time to visit the Fossil Creek Reservoir Natural Area. The mighty birds of prey migrate from northern locales in Canada and the Arctic to make the Fort Collins area their winter home, roosting in the cottonwoods around the reservoir in the nearly 1,400-acre conservation area.

Bonus: Volunteer master naturalists lead free guided eagle watches from the reservoir’s small dock on weekends, December through February, beginning a couple of hours before dusk. Guides will provide you with spotting scopes and binoculars if you don’t have your own. “They’ve seen up to 40 eagles there,” says Zoë Shark, community relations manager with the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department. “It’s really cool; you can see all kinds of behavior when they swoop down and get fish or interact with each other.”

If you go: Fossil Creek Reservoir Natural Area is a mile west of I-25, two miles east of S. Timberline Road, on the north side of Carpenter Road. Check the website for eagle-watch weather cancellations and updates.


Roughing it: Sleep under the stars at Flatiron Reservoir
There’s no need to stash the sleeping bags in the garage til June when there are perfectly good campsites open year round at off-the-beaten-path places like Flatiron Reservoir, a peaceful 47-acre gem plunked on 200 acres of public lands just northwest of Carter Lake. For $15 between October 1 and April 1, you get an electric site supplied with frost-free water and solitude galore—the ultimate quick escape, just 40 minutes from town. Though you may find ice during the coldest snaps, beyond that you can toss a line in the reservoir to pull out a rainbow trout or two. The main road of the first-come, first-serve campground is plowed, however: “They don’t actually plow out the campsites to avoid disturbing the ground,” says Brad Frye, department specialist with Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. “So think twice directly after, say, a foot of snow. It’s a very pretty place to go for a walk around the reservoir, with nice red rock.”

If you go: The reservoir is accessible off US-34 about 10 miles southwest of Loveland. larimer.org/naturalresources/flatiron.cfm

Cozy up: Retreat to a cabin in Hermit Park Open Space
This popular summer recreation zone outside Estes Park is closed December 20 through February, but blustery weekends in early December, March and April beg for a rustic mountain getaway with a wood-burning fire. More than a dozen cabins, tucked accessibly off the main road (read: plowed) in these 1,300 acres of ponderosa pines and meadows, can do the trick. In stark contrast to the bustling warmer months, the crowds and tourists here dwindle almost to non-existence this time of year. Amenities are few—bring your own linens, firewood and kitchenware for the propane stove, and be prepared for an outhouse—but it’s an adventure worth having. “The cabins stay nice and toasty, and roads and trails exist for snowshoeing and hiking,” says Parker-Renga. “What makes it nice is that they’re discounted to $60 a night in the winter.”

If you go: All the cabins are first-come, first-served on weekdays during December and March, and half the cabins on weekends as well. The other half are reservable on weekends. Note: US-34 will be closed for repair through spring of 2017. Try the alternate route on US-36. larimer.org/naturalresources/hermit-cabins.htm

Festive Outing: Hit the trail and find your tree near Red Feather Lakes
Twofer December daytrip alert: Get your trail fix and get your Christmas tree all in one outing. Head to the Mount Margaret Trail area near Red Feather Lakes for a winter jaunt without navigating the snowshoe and cross-country traffic that other regional outdoor areas attract. The relative solitude is partially because the snow cover isn’t consistent, thus an excursion on Mount Margaret’s 7.5-mile roundtrip trail might require both snowshoeing and traditional dirt-trail hiking. “Because of the way the snow patterns are up in Red Feather,” says Kevin Cannon, recreation forester for the Canyon Lakes and Pawnee ranger districts, “it’s pretty easy to follow the trails even if there’s a little snow—and sometimes there’s no snow at all.”

Either way, a brisk morning expedition through a secluded wilderness of ponderosa pines, rolling meadows and rocky outcroppings will get your blood pumping for the best part of the day: chopping down your own tree. The U.S. Forest Service has designated a specific area where this is permitted (you’ll see signs as you’re driving into the Red Feather Lakes area on County Road 74E), and you can purchase a $10 permit on site or grab one beforehand at the Forest Service office in Fort Collins. Once you’ve found the one—make sure you’ve brought appropriate tools (axe or handsaw) and enough rope—you’ll have worked up an appetite worth a stop at Red Feather Lakes family favorite Pot Belly Restaurant & Lounge for a hearty burger or a pork green chile smothered burrito.

If you go: Check with the Forest Service for trail details, plus specific December dates, location, and instructions for chopping down your tree. fs.usda.gov