Where do you find a glimpse of heaven on our rocky mountain earth? In soaring granite spires glowing with sunset? Shimmering cutthroat rising from the depths? Maybe a bull elk stepping through silver mist into a meadow aglow with morning.
Yet is there any place as heavenly as a fall grove of towering aspens? Gold above, fluttering in the brilliant blue, and gold below, paths extravagantly strewn with coin… Smooth white bark almost soft to touch, a fragrance both fresh and musky and, hovering through it all the quietest of voices, a billion leaves gently applauding the season.
For us in Cheyenne the big forests of tall, straight trees are a drive, three hours to “Aspen Alley” on the west slope of the Sierra Madres beyond Encampment, or two hours up the winding Poudre River canyon above Fort Collins to Cameron Pass.
The small quakies around Vedauwoo are interesting in their twisty way, dancers touched in a game of freeze tag. Since aspen groves are genetically identical, propagating via suckers sent out from the roots, it’s to be expected that groves all have a similar appearance. In truth the title for world’s largest living organism has been awarded to a grove in Utah nicknamed “Pando.” Strangely they are all males.
A few years ago I began a search for the most splendid aspen grove within an hour of Cheyenne—if there was one to be found–just for those seasons when I didn’t have time for a long drive. My first glimpse was at 80 mph on I-80. In the south face of Pole Mountain, where water had carved canyons in the grey granite, shone nuggets of aspen gold.
Exploring down from the top and up from the bottom I found them: tall, straight trees, magnificent and numerous enough to bring those whispers of heavenly grace. No, they don’t cover whole mountainsides. But they are within 45 minutes of Cheyenne.
Trails do lead through them, although unmarked and unmapped. Here’s three hikes that will show you the way. I wonder which of these groves will prove your favorite.
Middle Crow Creek Loop
This hike begins along a creek then goes up one canyon, over the top of another, then leads you back down a third, forming a near circle. The trees are tall and straight, 12 to 18 inches in diameter, holding court around meadows in the narrow valley floors.
Drive west on I-80, exit at “The Summit” and follow the brown sign toward “Picnic Areas.” You are on Blair-Wallace Road, FS 705, which quickly turns to gravel. Just 0.1 of a mile past the fenced Summit Trailhead turn left on 705F. Take it to its end, parking in the trees by the fire ring above a lovely beaver pond.
Follow a shady footpath down to the first narrow draw, crossing over it to the path on the other side. Turn right, following the course of Middle Crow Creek. Soon you’ll walk up and cross over a second draw. Pass more beaver ponds, always following “the road most travelled” when another path leads off. The trail turns left to go up the third draw. Surrounding and separating meadows of tawny grasses are fine groves of aspens, tall and stately, whispering their music, one group after another.
Near the top of this draw the trail forks, almost back on itself. Take the sharp left. (If you continue straight on you’ll come to Headquarters Trail with its signature 4 X 4 posts.)
Having taken the left you cross over the top of the second draw. As the trail turns into the first draw you are greeted with more clusters of fall gold. Follow the trail down back to your vehicle. One prominent trail forks to the right. Keep left. Watch for the point where you crossed over from your car at the fire ring.
This walk takes an hour and half to two if you’re going slow enough to enjoy it. Pick a few red-orange rose hips, savoring a subtle flavor of fall. They are full of vitamin C.
This one is an “out and back.” In addition to destination aspens the path takes you past a popular sport climbing rock, the Beehive. You may also spot moose in the willows.
The trailhead is also off a Blair-Wallis Road, FS 705. From “The Summit” continue downhill, pass Hidden Valley, to FS 705J, the next road on the left. You’ll recognize it because it starts out very steep and rutted. Four-wheel drive is useful here. Muscle your way up to a left turn on 705JA. Take that to the end, a circle in the trees.
Your goal is the route between the two big rock hills. Follow the well-worn trail toward the gap, turning into the canyon with the rock wall of the Beehive on your left. (If you continue far enough and look back the big rock wall looks like an old time beehive, straight from Utah road signs.) Watch out for belayers, ropes and dogs.
The aspens get good beyond the rock at a vibrant meadow. Leaves here are often touched with orange and even red. Notice the big wickiup to the right, probably an old hunters’ blind.
Near the end of the meadow a faint trail crosses from left to right. I call this the Point Crawford Trail because if you follow it to the right you will go near that point at the southern end of Pole Mountain. The meadow is often wet and blocked by willows. Moose sign has been abundant in the past.
If you bushwhack straight on through the willows you will come out into the open of Browns Landing. Some nice aspen groves punctuate the big park. Just look behind you from time to time so you can find your way back into the canyon and down the way you came. Depending on how far you go this one is easily done in an hour and may be the most interesting for kids.
The Haunted Forest
I found this north side grove deep in snow, as many have, while cross country skiing. But I’d never known the short way to walk in. There is one that is sort of short, and the paths are even signed–in most places.
Take I-80, exiting at “The Summit” and follow Happy Jack Road east turning in to the Happy Jack Recreation Area. Follow the signs to Pole Creek Campground. Park at the campground gate. It is usually locked.
Walk on the road toward the campground. Turn left on the signed Aspen Trail. At the first fork turn left, keeping on Aspen. At the second fork, marked by a bare fiberglass sign, turn left again. Now you are on Haunted Forest Trail. At the third fork keep right.
The aspens here in this lower stretch are mixed with pines. National guardsmen of the 1930’s called this area “The Jungles” probably because the growth is so dense. As you continue to climb up this rather steep grade it becomes more open with stately, even huge, trees.
Is it haunted? It can be eerily quiet. Where the south side of the mountain has the continual hum of interstate traffic this north side is hushed.
Yet haunted? Perhaps only in winter with bare trees reaching their black limbs to the sky. In fall it is golden, even majestic, and full of life.
Eventually the trail leaves the aspens behind for lodgepole, clambering up a steep rocky slope ending at a green gate. Time for most to head back the way you came.
Interestingly, if you want a long hike, you can continue straight through the gate on Crow Creek Trail, turning right on Headquarters, and then, when you see the fiberglass sign for Crow Creek, turn left. Shortly you will come to the sharp fork of the Middle Crow Loop. You could take the loop either way, coming back to this point and then back over the top to the gate and down through the Haunted Forest.
Pole Mountain is full of surprises. So which of these groves would you honor as “most splendid aspens” within an hour of Cheyenne?