A Snowy Morning at the Flatirons

Nov 21, 2018

I was never much of a morning person. Sure, there was that brief period of time when I couldn’t wait to get up on Saturdays and watch cartoons. After that, mornings were a period of waiting to get to that next scheduled thing, or fight my way through a morning commute. Then I moved to Denver. Mornings became something I would anticipate. In fact, I couldn’t even wait for mornings as I would want to chase the sunrise lighting up the hills, and watching the valley be bathed in a golden glow. I also learned of a secondary plus – fewer people.

Shadow of the hill covers the trail as the flatirons loom

If there is one thing I can say with certainty about the people in Denver is that they love to get out and hit the trails. Even at sunrise, parking lots will be full during the spring and summer months, or any day where the sun is bright and the temperatures are above 40. I love the feeling of living in a community where open spaces are sought after and cherished, but that also means crowds. With crowds, I feel a bit of the magic of being outdoors is lost. I do not blame the crowds whatsoever, and as a regional interloper I do not have any right to groan. I am just stating a feeling. As a person who has escaped an area to be rid of crowds, I find myself still trying to find a balance of urban, convenient, community living and having a space free of distraction and noise and congestion. Denver is much better in this regard than my previous homes, it’s just that sometimes you want to get lost in it all. Morning hikes is where it’s at. Any later and you pay the price of watching the backs of others for your entire trip.

Denver shrouded in haze

The skies were gray when I woke up this morning, and the temperature hovered around 25 degrees. As hyped as I was in the days leading up, my morning motivation wavered a bit. Blankets are warm, sun is good, wait for sun… No. With a bit of coaxing, I forced myself up and remembered the tenet of beating the morning crowd. My partner and I were heading to Chautauqua Park in Boulder. I hadn’t been there in over a year and recalled having a hard time finding parking then in the spring months. We were sure to be there early this time! Plus, the whole people thing. Gotta be in front of the people (we like to refer to them as zombies, and pick up the pace if we’ve been lingering around taking too many photos as we hear the murmurs growing louder as they get closer).

This time was much easier. The rest of the area must have also felt the same as I had during these dark, fall-back-morning-hours in mid-November. Being after Labor Day, parking was free! And the lot was still only half-full. This was all to my surprise as we took our sweet time even after getting up and missed the sunrise target by an hour. Perfect. While the temperature was in the 30s, the bluebird sky and high altitude sun warmed up the land enough to not need a winter coat – just a fleece would suffice for today. Even my hat made me too hot after a mile.

Flatiron 2 profile

The Flatiron Trail at Chautauqua Park is an easy one. You will be climbing for the first leg of it, but then it levels out. If you’re a newcomer to the altitude and/or new to hiking, easy can be relative. Just take your time in the early leg and you’ll be fine. Hiking the trail into the main fork provides you with a beautiful panoramic view of the Flatirons. Today was the first time I had seen them covered in snow, as it had snowed in the area the night before. As stunning as the dark-red hued rocks look in the typical morning sun, there was something special about them being dusted. The cracks provided a bit of texture and contrast, showing exactly where the crags traversed the sheer faces of the flatirons. They also reminded me of European cookies that have a dusting of powdered sugar on them. I could have used some of those with my coffee this morning. It was as if I could reach my arm out and gently crack off the tip of one of the flatirons and have a bite. I digress.

Backlit pine covered in ice

Once at the fork, you have a few choices to make. You can take shorter walk down the frontside following the Bluebell trail, or go deeper into the out-and-backs to get up close and personal with the various flatirons themselves. There are also a few areas which are restricted for climbing if that’s your thing. We chose the main Flatiron Loop, which extended the Bluebell trail just a bit. While it did not take us directly into the flatiron base, it would get us close enough. My subliminal hunger for powdered sugar cookies might have also added to my desire for haste and getting to breakfast ASAP.

The sun began to rise higher, and we roamed deeper into the pines. We only passed one group of hikers, and they did not seem too eager to get up the hill so we had time to spare as we breathed deep the cold air and observed the changes the sun brought in the various angles of the rocks above. Our feet crunched the thin layer of ice beneath the snow that covered the trail. Crows and magpies cawed in the distance, with a few varied chirps echoing about as if they were set on repeat. As we slowed our walk to take the sights in, the ice covered pines could be heard melting. The subtle drip, drip, drip from their branches acted as a metronome to our crunching footsteps. It was the type of sound that could lull you to sleep, basking in the sun, maybe with a basket of powdered cookies to munch on before submitting to the nap.

Flatiron 2 profile angle 2

The stroll from the fork takes you up a short bit full of small boulders. On a typical day these would pose no issue, but with the snow covering them all there was a real chance of a foot accidentally going through a gap. Slow and steady, we climbed up the slippery stones. After that, a slight downhill takes you to near the base of one of the climbs to Flatiron 1. Shaded, but sloshy as the sun melted the ice on the rock face. We stopped for a few minutes here and wondered how it would feel to camp in that exact spot, jutting walls on either side, the slow sound of the melting waterfall, the slight groan of the trees as they swayed.

A young buck gazing southward

The rest of the hike is a gentle downward slope as it curves around a copse of the forest. Within minutes of starting on our homeward trek, we see the first signs of people walking to the area we just came from. I hear some hoots and hollers soon after. They must have made it to the ravine and wanted to test their echoes. Peace and tranquility is restored soon after. We are now out of the trees and heading down from the main shelter in the area. I begin scanning the sloping field to my left looking for the birds who accompanied us throughout our hike. As if on queue, a young buck bounds off from the area directly in my view. He was sitting in perfect camouflage, startling me at first as I saw a figure jump a few feet into the air and take off in the opposite direction. He stopped, his short, thin horns jutting forward as his ears flared out. He paused, listening for something. Zombies. He looked back at me, trying to decide which was the lesser evil at this juncture. He decided that we were, and bounded back toward us, hopping a good 20 yards more up the trail and crossed the track in a single bound before being lost again to the tall, bronze grasses. A few more steps down and a magpie floats through the air, heading towards the flatirons. Perhaps it too is hoping for a few powdered crumbs left behind.

Flatirons covered in snow