By Suzanne Webel
“Meet the past, enjoy the present, preserve the future… Naturally yours.” The life of a trail advocate outside the People’s Republic must be a very pleasant one indeed.
More than 50 miles of trails allow people to explore Soapstone Prairie, a vast spread of 18,764 acres – more than 29 square miles – just south of the Wyoming border. This property one of several huge acquisitions in the Laramie Foothills: Mountains to Plains project involving conservation of approximately 140,000 acres altogether, and involving cooperation among Larimer County, Ft Collins, the City of Cheyenne, the State Land Board, the Nature Conservancy, the Legacy Land Trust, and private landowners.
It’s worth the drive, folks — about an hour and a half north of Longmont. From Boulder County, take 287 north through Fort Collins. Turn north on Hwy 1/Terry Lake Road north, then turn left onto County Rd 15 (look sharp here; actually, you go straight north where 15 bends east). Proceed north to Rawhide Flats Road, and follow it to the Soapstone entrance station.
The ranch contains the Lindenmeier Site, a National Historic Landmark and archaeological treasure that has yielded artifacts from one of the earliest sites of human occupancy in North America, 10,000 to 12,000 ago.
The only disappointment about both Soapstone and the adjacent Red Mountain Open Space is that for reasons that are unclear, not all the trails are open to horses — but most are open to mountain bikes. For equestrians this means that we have access to only one long trail connecting the two properties, and we’re missing out on a large network of trails in the fascinating dissected plateau north of the Lindenmeier site. The Plover Trail is a huge loop that takes up most of the eastern third of the property, but it is almost too long (15+ miles) to ride in a normal day (also be aware that it is closed April 1-July 15 for ground-nesting birds). I hope that more close-in trails will be opened to horses in both these parks in the near future.
Horse trailer parking is allowed at the very large south lot only (P-1). We took the 9.5 mile, aptly-named Pronghorn Loop counterclockwise. Antelope were everywhere, flowing past us in herds of about 50 or so. Our trusty mule-deer-and-elk-accustomed trail horses took these new little prairie denizens in stride, watching them carefully but not with alarm.
This is not the place to be on windy days, or in midsummer’s heat, or in a thunderstorm – but it can’t be beat in spring or fall, on a bright day with patchy snow on the ground and gauzy mares’ tails clouds overhead. The silence is total, the immense scale breathtaking. Dry washes offer evidence of great flash floods that carry a great diversity of boulders down from the hills far away. On the entire spread we saw only one historic ranch complex, near a spring at the base of the badland cliffs; and one poignant line camp cabin that was established literally in the middle of nowhere. I have yet to find an explanation for the name “Soapstone,” which is a kind of metamorphic rock used to make cookstoves and countertops. I didn’t see any soapstone except for perhaps a few cobbles in Sand Creek. Ah, well, there’s always more to learn.
Total distance: Approximately 9.5 miles
Total time: Approximately 4 hours
Jurisdiction: City of Ft Collins Natural Area. Note: Park is open March 1-Nov. 30.
USGS Topo: (use these maps or theirs)