As the crow flies, Phantom Canyon sits northwest of Fort Collins, a canyon in Colorado without a road. This single distinction makes arriving at the canyon unlike any other. People arrive on foot as they have for hundreds of years. Parking is near the highway and visitors hike a short distance from Highway 287 crossing privately owned ranch land. There’s only silence followed by the sounds of caws from birds. Suddenly the earth opens to reveal a huge cleft with the silvery glint of a river below. It’s not until hiking the trail into the canyon that the swooshing of water swirling around boulders can be heard.
But first you cross a sliver of short-grass prairie. Pronghorn have their young in tow. They loll in the higher needle-and-thread grasses, which are green and shiny from a deluge of spring rain. One male with magnificent horns sits not far from the highway, gazing upon the herd, his back to the cars whizzing by. The pronghorn colors of brown and beige blend into the grasses, perhaps invisible to the drivers speeding by.
Phantom Canyon once was a draw to Fort Collins fishermen. Now The Nature Conservancy owns it, so the conservation non-profit allows a number of fishermen to return via a lottery. Volunteers work at the canyon, watching over it carefully, pulling invasive weeds and documenting wildlife. They arrange wildflower walks or star gazing, allowing the public to enjoy the canyon but not stay too long, or in too great a number. Part of their stewardship is to keep good relations with the ranchers surrounding the canyon, who have been granted easements. Ranchers get tax reductions on their land, which encourages them to stay in the business of ranching. In return, the canyon is preserved by a buffer of land, which helps wildlife like the pronghorn to mix and mingle with cattle or sheep. It’s a balancing act that also includes funding from state and local tax agencies. Each partner is essential to the preservation of the whole.
Like so many conservation efforts, this relationship came together only when the preservation of the canyon appeared to be in danger. Phantom Canyon was the original name of a housing development slated to pop up around the canyon. A volunteer at the canyon, says the threat of houses set off a debate in the surrounding towns.
“The people in the community knew that if this went through they would no longer have access to the canyon. They tried to make it a state park and they brought in The Nature Conservancy as a consultant early on. That’s how The Nature Conservancy became aware of the area. At that time, in the early to mid-80s, The Nature Conservancy was coming to realize they couldn’t achieve their goals using some of the schemes they had been using. They had preserved small pieces of property, 50 or 100 acres. But the purpose is to preserve species by preserving the area where they live. They realized these small patches of land were not going to do it. Many wildlife and plants require a larger area. They revised what they were doing and they began looking for large areas that could save species. This is one of them. It’s an eco-zone, a special area that lies at the juncture of two or more kinds of biological zones. In this case, we have the plains to the east and mountains to the west. In these eco-zones, it turns out you find some of the greatest diversity. We have the pronghorns and lark buntings, which you typically see out in the plains around Pawnee Buttes. Then you have the animals and plants from the mountains–bears, elk, cougars and bighorn sheep. Many migrate through. Historically, they used to migrate through the plains,” he says.
By itself, the canyon is not exceptional, although no one could argue with such spectacular natural beauty. But only one plant is remarkable to the area–Aletes humilius, a member of the parsley family. And there’s a golden eagle’s nest dating back several thousand years, serving eagle families for all those years, although the eagles have not been spotted recently. Still, standing at the precipice of the canyon is astonishing. This is a canyon where time stands still. A canyon without a road is extraordinary without fumes or engine noise to distract from the quieter sounds of nature.
“This area is pretty typical for this part of Colorado. The fact that it is not fragmented and doesn’t have roads makes it unique,” says our guide, an ecologist based in Fort Collins. On a summer’s day we’re looking at wildflowers. She notes that many of the invasive grasses, originally used as horse and cattle feed, have been pulled. What’s left is a patchwork of typical native plants from orange globemallow in the hollyhock family, to yarrow, one-sided penstemon, miner’s candle, potentilla, larkspur and scorpion flower. These common Colorado foothills flowers represent some major botanical families like the rose and delphinium. Here they are stunted by harsh Laramie foothill winds.
The border between Colorado and Wyoming is majestic, often with daunting desiccating winds and extreme temperature changes. Rocky outcrops reveal the ancient Rockies just across the highway and the more recent Rockies under our feet. We wind down the canyon wall for a gentle hike, noting lichens, mushrooms, flowers and shrubs. At the bottom, the plants shift from the drought-tolerant cacti and grasses to water-loving willows, which provide a dense shrubbery offering shelter to small birds. Cottonwood trees line one side of the stream.
Natural caves carved from the rocky cliffs shelter raptors. The canyon is small, as Colorado canyons go, but this one is glorious. Saving it is a reminder of how canyons once looked. It means that the land is “contiguous,” our guide says, without the obstacles of roads, ranchettes or fences. “If we could go back in time, this was short-grass prairie,” she says, “That’s gone. But pronghorn stay here and they do have the means to go up high in the mountains and return to prairie.”
Pronghorn nibble on the grasses. These graceful creatures appear healthy and robust, sturdy torsos attached to thin but powerful legs. Few animals are as exquisite. Most bound away like birds in flight when they believe they are threatened. But here, there’s not a skittish one around. They glance at us from afar and appear to understand that we will not approach them. Pronghorn need large tracts of land and that’s why we don’t see the numbers that once flourished along the Front Range. The foothills of the Rockies once provided a migratory path. Cities and towns have interrupted those ancient migratory paths, which makes the canyon and surrounding ranch land all the more precious.
For those who visit during a summer’s day, the hike comes close to experiencing a prehistoric landmark. Set apart, untrammeled with only the sounds of water and wind, Phantom Canyon disappears from the horizon in a matter of yards, as quickly as it originally unfolded at our feet and remains a secret canyon.
Phantom Canyon, Nature Conservancy Preserve
Directions: Phantom Canyon is surrounded by private property. Visitors must sign up for a Nature Conservancy workshop, field trip or volunteer workday to have access to the preserve. See the web site below.
The preserve is located 30 miles north of Fort Collins. From Fort Collins, take US-287 north to the town of Livermore, about 20 miles. Livermore is at the junction of Red Feather Lakes Road and US-287. From Livermore, continue north on US-287 for 7.7 miles to a gate on the west side of the road. This gate, located at 40.8878N, 105.2854W, leads across 3.5 miles of private land to the preserve. The preserve itself is located at 40.8666N, 105.3241W.
Features: The preserve comprises 1700 acres of canyon lands created by the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River and is one of the last canyons without a road along Colorado’s Front Range. On the way in, you’ll likely experience pronghorn, deer and coyote. Once in the preserve you may also see elk, mountain lion, beaver and bear. The canyons provide habitat for bald eagles, golden eagles, prairie falcons and red-tailed hawks. Pets are not permitted.
More Info: Laramie Foothills, P.O. Box 270, Livermore, Colorado 80536, (970) 631-7645. Or, see The Nature Conservancy, 2424 Spruce Street, Boulder, CO 80302, 303-444-2950