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|August 27- September 2, 2009
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Up the creek
A journey through the unique ecosystem of Bluebell Canyon
Story and photos by Tom Winter
The canyon is still dark when we first step off the pavement of Mariposa Avenue. Up high, the sun kisses the Flatirons as chickadees flit through the gloom. The stream is quiet now, but water still lingers in nooks, feeding lush growth that seems at odds with the surrounding terrain. We shake the sleep out of our brains and start to hike, heading up, towards the sun.
Bluebell Creek is one of many intermittent watercourses that plunge from the rocky foothills above Boulder into town. It’s also one of the most accessible: trails follow its course as it collects runoff from the Flatirons and meanders east before petering out in a jumble of houses just southwest of where Baseline intersects Broadway. In fact, the only section of the creek that you can’t hike along is where the watercourse hits the concrete and bricks of the city.
Bluebell and its neighbors, nearby Gregory Creek, which exits Boulder parks land at the base of Flagstaff Mountain, and Skunk Creek, to the south, offer up rare glimpses of unique ecosystems. The streambeds, drainages and canyons are home to rare species, including wood lilies, peregrine falcons and Front Range beardtongue. And in the middle of summer, when the rest of the Front Range is parched, the abundance of moisture in these hidden canyons gives them an otherworldly feeling.
They are, quite literally, oases.
“These areas are microclimates,” says Steve Mertz, Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks education and outreach coordinator. “The Flatirons area in particular is special and has some unique attributes.”
“The forest we used to have around Boulder during the last ice age was a lot like the northeast, places like Vermont and New Hampshire,” adds Dave Sutherland, interpretative naturalist for the City of Boulder Parks Department. “When the last ice age came to an end and everything dried out, fragments of those old forests were still able to exist in these intermittent stream canyons.”
Thus, according to Sutherland, visiting these canyons is like “taking a trip back in time.”
“There are incredibly rare plants, from a vanished world there,” says Sutherland. “Including paper birches, white addersmouth orchids and wild sarsaparilla.”
The impetus to protect areas like Bluebell Canyon and the surrounding open space grew from the city’s purchase of Chautauqua Park in 1898. The process gathered steam after 1967, when the town became the first municipality in the country to pass a sales tax for the acquisition of open space. Today, more than 45,000 acres are protected, spanning ecosystems as diverse as prairie grasslands to ponderosa forests. And while Chautauqua remains the primary draw — the park and the trails surrounding it are packed on weekends — many of the hikes offer a fast exit to solitude on weekdays or early in the day on weekends.
We don’t see many crowds on this Tuesday morning. The first section of the hike, awash in shade as we climb north facing slopes above the creek, is empty save for fellow early risers. We quickly gain elevation, and after a short detour past the Bluebell Shelter, we access the Royal Arch trailhead and leave the last of our fellow citizens behind. As we climb higher, closing in on the massive rock spires of the Flatirons, a sense of solitude quickly sets in, and it’s hard to believe that 4.7 million people each year inundate the Boulder Parks system. It’s a huge number, made even more impressive by the fact that nearby Rocky Mountain Park sees approximately 3 million visitors each year.
Still, despite the influx of humanity, the parks have survived, even thrived. In addition to rare plants, canyons like Bluebell Creek provide excellent habitat for birds and larger animals, like bears.
“As these streams cut through the canyons, they’ve created topography with two distinct sides,” says Sutherland. “On the north side, you have a lot of moisture and one distinct plant community, while the south side gets blasted by sun. That’s two ecosystems side by side, with a third ecosystem along the streambed. And whenever you have boundary or interface between ecosystems — an ecotone — it’s a great place to find plants and animals.”
As we’re finding out on our hike, many of these animals are birds.
Yellow-breasted chat, a tropical migrant, summers along Bluebell Creek, as do spotted towhee and, occasionally, catbirds. As we climb higher, to the base of the rocky crags of the Third Flatiron, we hit a raptor closure area. The crenellated ridge provides an annual nesting area for peregrine falcons and golden eagles. Both species are drawn here in part due to the diversity of the ecosystems below the cliffs. The peregrine falcons feed on the bird life attracted to the water and associated food sources along the creek, while the eagles head farther east, to feast on prairie dogs.
“It’s like a fast food restaurant for golden eagles,” says Sutherland of Boulder’s prairie dog habitat, noting that there is an incredibly high concentration of nesting eagles due to the abundance of food.
We don’t see any eagles, but as we traverse the raptor closure along the base of the Third Flatiron, we can hear the falcons. The young birds screech into the wind, their calls echoing off the rocks as they start on the road to adulthood.
Finally the trail veers to the south, towards Royal Arch, and we’re high above Bluebell Creek canyon, looking back down on the city, the birds, the rare plants hidden in the streambed and the McClintock trailhead. In the breeze, the faint clanging of a waking city is barely audible. High up on the mountainside, it’s easy to forget about work, bills that need to be paid and the car we left in the driveway with a slow leak in the tire. And, despite our status as the most ignorant of amateur biologists, its easy to feel how special the hidden canyon is below us, a hidden cornucopia of rare plants and animals, sheltered from civilization by the foresight of Boulder’s citizens and preserved for the enjoyment of all.
If You Go
Bluebell Creek is the most accessible of Boulder’s intermittent streams. Ideal for bird watching and home to many rare plant species, it also has the added benefit of trail access along almost the entire canyon, from the edge of the city to the heights of the Third Flatiron.
Start your hike at the west end of Mariposa Avenue (as an alternative, start at the picnic pavilion, just south of Chautauqua Auditorium, which has ample parking, and follow the road south to McClintock Trail), where the trail meanders through a riparian ecosystem of Rocky Mountain Maple and other native plants. You’ll cross a dirt road and start climbing the north-facing slopes above the canyon. This section of the McClintock Trail is closed to dogs, so leave Fido at home. After nearly a mile of hiking, you’ll intersect the Mesa Trail. Turn right and follow the Mesa Trail to the Bluebell Shelter. From the shelter, take the Royal Arch Trail. This trail exits the watershed for Bluebell Creek high on the slopes of Green Mountain. You can stop here or continue to Royal Arch for superlative views of the Front Range. Total round trip mileage is approximately 4 miles.
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