Coming & Going

One of the many joys of spending time on the Great Plains is the opportunity to observe the sky on a grand scale. I find it fascinating to see weather events forming while still many miles away, and to witness the often dramatic interplay of clouds, colors, darkness and light—always changing, never the same show twice. On this day, we watched as a spring shower approached rapidly from the northwest…

32 minutes later—a look at the cell’s backside as it passed to the southeast…

And two minutes after that…

As I’ve said before, standing on the prairie makes you feel tiny.

Weld County, Colorado

(These prints and many others may be purchased at gallery.ridingwithcarl.com.)

Rio Blanco

Though I’ve logged many miles across Colorado over the years, this spring’s road trip gave me my first look at the northwestern part of the state. I knew nothing about the area…never heard any stories from those who have been there, so I really had no expectations going in. But if I had, those expectations would have been blown away. Nothing against the other amazing places in this wonderland of a state, but…wow. Garfield County and Rio Blanco County had me enjoying every moment behind the wheel. Sparsely populated, painfully scenic, a driver’s paradise; a beautiful combination of mountains and buttes and valleys and idyllic ranches.

Speaking of, if you happen to know any ranchers in this area who might have a room or apartment for rent—say, for the next 20 or 30 years—I can pack up and move in anytime. References available.

First photo: Atop Douglas Pass in Garfield County, Colorado
Other photos: Rio Blanco County, Colorado
May 2019

East of Eden

My hike from Buffalo Peaks Ranch to the top of South Park’s Bald Hill

It’s not just me; any visitor to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch will tell you how Reinecker Ridge draws your gaze in its direction. The ridge is an important component of so many of the ranch’s scenic views, and it finds its way into nearly every photograph taken at the BPR. From my very first visit to South Park, I was fascinated with Reinecker Ridge and the thought of hiking to the top. Even more so, I was dying to see the mysterious land on the other side of the ridge.

Two years ago, my friend Jay and I unlocked that mystery with a successful hike to Reinecker’s summit. Looking eastward over this ridge for the very first time, we beheld scenery as grand as anything we could have hoped for: A large valley, devoid of human habitation, ringed by hills and distant mountains, looking as though very little had changed over the last few million years. In the center of the valley stood a large, lonely hill, known to geographers as Bald Hill. We were blown away by this sprawling vista of incredible natural beauty, and expletives were flowing freely as we voiced our excitement. Turning to make our way back down to the ranch, I already knew that my next trip to South Park would include a hike across this beautiful valley and the opportunity to stand on top of that hill.

Follow this link to read the report of our 2017 adventure, complete with photos and video.

After our visit to the top of the ridge, I learned that Bald Hill and the surrounding landscape fall within the James Mark Jones SWA. I spoke with a friendly agent at Colorado Parks and Wildlife Headquarters who confirmed that hiking from Reinecker to Bald Hill is allowed, once the public access season begins each year on the first of May.

I had hoped to summit Bald Hill during last autumn’s road trip, but the season was unusually cold and wet, and snow kept the Pontiac out of the mountains in 2018.

So, during the first week of May, I arrived in South Park on the day before my hike to set up camp and explore the ranch. This was my first springtime visit to the BPR. The cactus blossoms were out, and mountain bluebirds were plentiful…always within sight as I roamed the grounds. They certainly seemed to enjoy chasing each other around the ranch. But it was too early in the season for the other high-country flowers to bloom, or for the majority of the grasses to appear green.

The following day, I was up before dawn, and the clear morning promised excellent hiking weather. Below, the sun prepares to clear the crest of Reinecker Ridge…

This was also my first overnight stay at the Buffalo Peaks Ranch, and it was an unforgettable experience. There was no one else at the ranch…just me in my tent and the serenading coyotes roaming the valley. The stars that night were as brilliant as I had hoped they would be. Not surprisingly for early May in South Park, it was a cool night—about 30 °F (-1 °C) when I awoke.

Mount Silverheels catches the first rays of the rising sun…

While the ranch began its morning thaw, I shouldered my pack and started off across the valley (to paraphrase Everett Ruess)…

The easiest part of the journey: Following our 2017 route out from the ranch and over Trout Creek, I was soon across the long fence that runs along the base of Reinecker Ridge…

One more glance toward Mount Silverheels, and then I began the switchback march up the steep slope of the ridge…

My return to the top of Reinecker Ridge, and a beautiful view of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch…

The day’s first look at Bald Hill, sitting right where Jay and I left it two years ago…

So, for the second time in my life—but the first time toward the east—I descended Reinecker Ridge. I was excited to be entering unexplored territory…

Down on the valley floor, I came to the fence separating the BLM land from the State Wildlife Area. After passing through and closing the gate, I followed the fence line eastward. Note the cluster of animals in the distance on the left side of the frame…

(Click on any of the photos to view the full-size version in a new tab.)

When I first spotted them, at a pretty fair distance, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I knew they weren’t cows. By their movements, I considered that they might be horses. Finally, I was close enough to know that I was looking at an elk herd—my first such sighting. This made sense, as there were ample piles of “evidence” scattered across the ranch indicating that the elk had been around in force during the winter and spring…

Of course, they had their eyes on me as soon as I had cleared the ridge, and they were making plans to leave the area. As I moved their way up the fence line, they finally had had enough and made their escape down the valley. I captured a brief video of the elk running along the base of the hill, which you can view through these links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Full-screen mode will give you a better look at the herd, and a better appreciation for the shape and scale of Bald Hill than any of the still photos I captured during this hike. Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 22 seconds.) Making a rough count while watching the video, I’d say this herd (or “gang,” if you prefer) numbered well over 100 head.

With the elk dashing safely to the south, I made for the saddle near the north end of the hill, as the north slope looked to be the best approach to the summit…

At the top: I walked a bit past the summit and then turned around for the shot below, to use the snow-capped peaks to the north as a backdrop. Topo maps show Bald Hill’s maximum elevation as 9,556′ (2,913 m). There, I recorded a video that gives you a 360° tour of the surrounding scenery. Here are the links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 50 seconds.)

The view to the east. Plenty of room to explore further on future visits…

Looking southward. Note the patches of pine forest on the nearby hills; my next destination after descending Bald Hill. Probably where the elk went, as well…

View to the west, showing the ground I had covered to get here. Reinecker Ridge, in front of the distant Buffalo Peaks…

Making a direct line for the forest, I descended Bald Hill via the steeper south slope, seen head-on in the photo below. My knees were not happy.

Those who roam the West know how scale gets distorted out here; distances are greater than they appear, and objects are larger than they appear. This hike was no exception; whether moving toward or away from the hill, it always took longer than expected to reach the next landmark. I felt very tiny during my time on the valley floor…

One final look back at Bald Hill before entering the forest. Would have snacked on a mouthful of snow, but the ever-present wind had deposited quite a lot of sand and debris on top of this patch…

Now, I was roaming over gentle hills covered with pines. Plants grow much slower in the thin air of Park County. These old trees were tall enough to provide shade, but they’ll never be as tall as their cousins who live at lower elevations. (Sorry, I didn’t take any photos while wandering through the forest.)

This part of the day’s adventure was an unexpected pleasure. Reminded me of my hikes long ago in parts of California…not just the view, but the smell of the sun-baked pines, the smell of the dry grass, the smell of the dead wood. It also brought to mind old western movies and television shows I watched long ago. Cue Lucas McCain…

In addition to the beautiful scenery, this hike was punctuated by blissful silence and solitude. I never encountered another human during my six-hour circuit. However, once I reached the location of the photo above, I was able to peer over the western slope of the ridge. Far below, I could see a few scattered anglers, silently fly fishing on the South Platte River.

Finally, walking northward along the crest of the ridge, I left the trees behind and found myself back home above the BPR…

I’m looking forward to the day when the Land Library will be fully stocked with books. And I’m hoping that they’ll let me take one up to read while sitting on top of Reinecker Ridge.

Visit landlibrary.org.