Summer Hike #1 – Grayrock Trail

When I was about 5 years old, I had to explain to my 80-year-old great-grandmother how a tape recorder worked. She asked me lots of questions, and I patiently explained all the buttons. I’m sure she was humoring me, but I felt so surprised that someone so old wouldn’t know how something works. “She grew up in the horse and buggy days,” my mom told me when I asked her about it, “Imagine how much change she’s seen in her lifetime!”

I remember thinking that it must have been really hard for her to keep up – given how fast things were moving. I felt lucky to have been born after such big technological revolutions as tape recorders and televisions. I wouldn’t have such a hard time keeping up. (Ha.)


Pasque flowers on the trail to Gray Rock.

It took another 20 years or so before it dawned on me just how much change she must have seen – not only in science and technology, but in the landscape. The whole look and feel of the Earth around her, of the communities that she lived in, had evolved from pastoral farm towns to wide boulevards and strip malls. A lot can happen in 80 years.

But it doesn’t take 80 years anymore. The pace of change has accelerated, and it’s clear that the magnitude of environmental changes I’ve seen in my own lifetime may rival or exceed the magnitude of change my great-grandmother saw in twice as many years.


Dandelions taking advantage of these sunny hill slopes. Some opportunistic species do really well after a great change (just consider what happened to mammals after the biggest of dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago).

Lately, I’ve been wishing I had kept a better record of the changes I’ve been witness to. Maybe it was this article about the Great Barrier reef which has been devastated by climate change. I found myself wishing I had a better camera when I visited back in 1995. Point-and-shoot underwater disposable film cameras just didn’t do it justice.

I have now lived in Colorado long enough to see big changes in the landscape here. Since I moved here in 2004, the pine bark beetle has ravaged much of the forest in the mountains. Large swaths of land in the hills not far from my home have been transformed by fire. The Front Range corridor along I-25 has evolved from corn fields to housing developments, strip malls, and oil pads. I wish I had taken more photos when I first moved here, but I wouldn’t have imagined how fast things would change. As someone who’s spent the past 20 years of so trying to understand the long term evolution of Earth’s climate, I can say that, barring a few meteorite impacts, the Earth’s land surface has never changed so rapidly.


You get your first real view Gray Rock after climbing for an hour or so along a narrow creek. From here on, the trail becomes a bit of a scramble.

Five years ago, the High Park fire burned more than 87 thousand acres in the hills to the north and west of Fort Collins. One of my favorite trails in the area leads up to ‘Gray Rock’. I think I did this hike at least once a year in my first few years in Colorado. But the forest was wiped out by the fire in 2012, and I hadn’t been back – until this weekend.


Grey Rock back in  January 2006 – the trees were doing a little better back then.

As I was hiking, I wished I had taken more photos of the landscape surrounding Gray Rock before it went up in flames. So I decided to use this blog as a way of keeping a record for myself (and for you all). As the impacts of climate and land surface change become more palpable, here and around the world, I want to be able to remember what places once looked like.  In another 40 years, if I’m lucky enough to be here, I want to be able to recall the world during this rapid period of evolution.


Remnants of the forest burned by the High Park fire in 2012.

The Grayrock Trail starts along Highway 14, at the Poudre River, and climbs almost 1900 feet over 3 miles to the top of a granite dome. The first couple of miles climb along a narrow canyon that used to be thickly forested. Hiking along this trail today is a little spooky. There’s very little shade, but lots of small, shrubby vegetation returning.


A ghost of the forest that was here before the High Park fire in 2012.


The thick forest around Gray Rock in 2006.

Nearer the rock itself, the trail involves lots of scrambling over boulders. Some of the pines along the side of Gray Rock were spared from the fire.


A Ponderosa Pine, staking out its’ claim to bits of the hillside.

On the way up to the top of the rock, you pass what can either be a snowy field, grassy meadow, a swamp, or a small pond, depending on the time of the year. Right now, in late spring, the aspens are standing in several inches of recent rain water and melted snow.


The pond near the top of Gray Rock.

From the top of Gray Rock, you can usually see all the way to the snowy high peaks of the Rockies in one direction, and, theoretically, all the way to Kansas in the other direction (although, the air quality is not always that great along the Front Range).


A view of the high peaks of the Rockies from the top of Grey Rock.


The top of Gray Rock back in January 2006. Same rock, different forest (and younger-me).

This is one of those places I look forward to returning to over the next 10 years. I look forward to seeing what the forest will look like when it re-emerges, and how it will evolve under warmer, possibly drier conditions that that of it’s precedent.


Looking back towards the Plains in 2017 (just a bit of smog on the horizon).

One thought on “Summer Hike #1 – Grayrock Trail

  1. You’re a great story teller. Beautiful pictures but that fire sure took out the forest. But, as always, it will be back. Thanks for sharing.


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