The Comanche Peak Wilderness Area is one of four wilderness areas located in the Roosevelt National Forest north and west of Denver, Colorado. Vicki, a longtime friend, works as a Poudre Wilderness Volunteer during the summer riding the trails of those Roosevelt wilderness areas.
The United States Forest Service can no longer man all the hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, due to recent budget cuts, so the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers act as extra eyes and ears in the wilderness areas.
Vicki and Kathy, another volunteer, watch for trail conditions, offer riders help and education about the wilderness area, and gather any trash that may’ve been left behind. After their ride, they write a trail-status report for the Forest Service. They’re stewards of the scenic land President Roosevelt chose to set aside for solitude and recreational adventure in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
A Ladies’ Ride
Last summer, Vicki organized a three-day ladies’ ride for late August in the Comanche Peak Wilderness Area. I was fortunate enough to join Vicki and four other women: Vicki’s volunteer friend Kathy, from Kersey, Colorado; Rose, Kathy’s friend from Colorado Springs; Verneine, a college friend from Centennial, Wyoming; and Kathy J., who’d recently moved from Houston, Texas, to Wellington, Colorado.
None of us had ventured out on our own overnight with horses before without husbands. All in our fifties and sixties, we’d manage the hauling, feeding, cooking, tacking up, picking pens, reading maps, and fixing things with a Leatherman tool and baling twine, if need be, all for the first time.
Our six equine partners, all young, were in new territory, too. We understood this was a good area to bring young horses for trail riding, and we sure hoped it was true. There was my horse, Pixie, a 4-year-old dark bay; Vicki Do It, a 5-year-old reining horse who hadn’t made the cut; Sam, Kathy’s 5-year-old gray Thoroughbred; Cadillac, Kathy J.’s 6-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse who’d never been out of an arena; Clyde, a 7-year-old sorrel who Verneine borrowed from Vicki; and Jesse, a black 4-year-old Quarter Horse that Rose borrowed from Kathy.
Jack’s Gulch Campground was our starting point. To reach it, take Highway 287 to State Highway 14. Travel 26 miles on Highway 14 to Pingree Park Rd. Turn left, and drive 6.3 miles south of the Cache La Poudre River on County Route 63 East.
We set up camp midday in the Paintbrush Equestrian Campsites, complete with horse pens, water, and trash collection. Reservations aren’t taken for these campsites, and the campground was busy. With the help of the campground hosts, we managed to fit both live-in trailers into one campsite.
Vicki and Kathy had agreed to take turns leading our rides. Vicki chose Flowers Trail #939 for our first outing. As we began, she said, “I hadn’t thought of it, but we’re a perfect twelve heartbeats. You know, you can only have a total of twelve heartbeats on the trail at once in wilderness areas.”
This requirement naturally lowers the impact of riding groups on the trails and open areas. So we were six women and six horses, twelve heartbeats, ready to ride the Comanche Peak Wilderness that afternoon, as August drew to a close.
Time to Bond
We accessed Flowers Trail via Old Flowers Rd., reportedly built by one man years ago for $1,000. Old Flowers Rd. goes all the way to Walden, Colorado, 75 miles away! Once onto #939, we traveled along a rocky path through lodge pole pine and occasional aspen.
Even though the ride began leisurely along the road, Flowers Trail demanded a lot from our horses. They carefully picked their way through rocky ground while gaining elevation for several miles. We enjoyed spotting wildflowers, such as wild geraniums, yarrow, asters, rose hips, and coral root. We also had time to get to know one another as we traded spots along the trail.
As so often happens among people with common interests, we found we had more in common than our enjoyment of horses. I learned that Rose’s son rides on the same rodeo team as my daughter. Then I learned that Verneine and Vicki were physical education teachers, as was I. Kathy from Kersey was a teacher and now a school psychologist. I, too, had turned to a counseling profession. And to make the circle of connections complete, Kathy J. from Houston is married to my husband’s old fraternity roommate.
So, too, our horses sorted out one another as they negotiated the trail. They found out who easily took the lead, who didn’t like another horse breathing down his tail, which horse needed a friend to follow over a bridge for the first time, which horse balked at a downed tree, and which horse and rider stayed calm when the buggers came out of the shadows.
High in the Rockies, twelve heartbeats were not only listening closely to the rhythms of the wilderness, but to one another.
Once back at the campsite, with horses unsaddled and at rest in their pens, we settled comfortably at the picnic table for a glass of summer wine and Verneine’s delicious hors d’oeuvres: salmon rolls, crackers, Southwestern caviar, and chips.
Vicki had asked each rider to be in charge of various meals: Kathy from Kersey had breakfasts, Vicki had lunches, Verneine brought hors d’oeuvres, Kathy J. and I prepared dinners, and Rose brought fruit and snacks.
The first night, Kathy J. prepared a gourmet dinner with the help of her live-in kitchen and a small propane grill. It was fine dining: New York strip steaks, grill-roasted potatoes, onions, garlic, a fresh salad, and white-chocolate cheesecake bars for dessert.
Dinnertime conversation continued around the fire, some humorous, like junior high girls at camp; some serious, like the challenges we face as we age. We talked about the necessity to redefine who we are and how important it felt to make meaning out of our lives.
The warm glow of the fire, the last of the wine barely covering the bottom of our cups, and someone pointing out the Milky Way, so close and bright, created feelings of well-being. The kind you have when you watch the peace across a child’s face as he sleeps. At the end of the first day, we were safe and warm under the night sky.
The next morning, we prepared for our all-day ride. We packed our own lunches, plenty of water, and snacks. Vicki carried a small survival kit. We all packed rain gear, and covered our horses with fly spray and ourselves with sunscreen. We made sure we had everything we needed for smart, safe travel.
Kathy, our leader for the day, chose Little Beaver Creek Trail #855. We headed west again to Old Flowers Rd. From there, we rode to Old Bed Springs and on to the gate to the Comanche Wilderness and the beginning of Little Beaver Creek Trail. Just inside the Comanche Peak Wilderness boundary, we passed by the crash site memorial of a World War II B-17.
The trail followed closely along Little Beaver Creek, crisscrossing the drainage twice. We traveled through beautiful stands of aspen, the wind gentle, the leaves turning and twinkling in the sunlight. Verneine recalled, “My mother said the wind through the aspen trees is known among the Utes asvoca de femme, voices of the women.” Was our timing coincidental?
After a leisurey picnic lunch just above the creek, we made our way out of the creek bed and climbed to Flowers Trail #939 at the junction of Brown’s Park Trailhead. We watered our horses and decided to go another 45 minutes or so toward Brown’s Park.
We climbed steadily from the trailhead; within our appointed 45 minutes, it was apparent that horses and riders were ready for the return trip home. From this uppermost point, we retraced our steps to Flowers Trail and continued on down to Old Flowers Rd. to our “Home Sweet Home” campground. Had our young horses or we ever been so pleasantly tired? Perhaps not.
Another wonderful dinnertime awaited us. As we sat around the picnic table with wine and hors d’oeuvres, stories of the trail circled the table, and we reminded ourselves how fortunate we were to tell these stories. We’d been free to challenge ourselves in a pristine wilderness, at times feeling the comfort of “women voices” surrounding us, at times welcoming the solitude and the rhythm of hooves clacking along the trail.
The next day, we rode the trail one more time – a short ride, about three hours, again along Little Beaver Creek. The cool of the forest shadows and the falling water rippling with the gentleness of a quiet spring mirrored the twelve heartbeats on the trail.
We’d found company and comfort in our horses and one another. We’d come to the Rockies to try it on our own, and we’d succeeded. A peace fell over us, knowing we’d mastered not the wilderness, but a little part of ourselves.