Published: August 1, 2013
JEFFERSON COUNTY - Though it's not far from her Evergreen home, Karen Harrima never had visited this valley, with its dramatic waterfall, quiet ponds and misshapen granite cliffs.
Neither had anyone else, at least without trespassing.
"We've been waiting for it to open," she said, while hiking with friends.
This summer, at long last, the wait ended, adding another hiking paradise to the Front Range and fulfilling the dying dreams of Frances Staunton, who lived here, loved this land and gave it to the state three years before her death in 1989.
After 27 years, Staunton State Park, in the foothills northwest of Colorado Springs, opened to the public May 18. It's the first new Colorado state park since Cheyenne Mountain State Park opened in 2006.
Visitation has surpassed expectations, with 25,000 in 14 days in May and 46,000 in June. By comparison, Cheyenne Mountain attracted 52,000 visitors in its first year.
On a recent Wednesday, I made the 1-hour, 40-minute drive from Colorado Springs to find out what all the fuss is about.
* * *
Forget what you know about most state parks.
RV generators humming in crowded campgrounds. Amphitheaters packed with children. Convention centers. You'll find none of these things at Staunton State Park.
A physician whose family homesteaded here in 1905, Frances Staunton expanded the ranch from 160 to 1,720 acres. She kept it primitive, a privately owned wilderness less than 25 miles from the Denver suburbs. Her will donated it to the state on the condition it be kept "as a natural wilderness-type park."
But building it proved more difficult than she might have imagined.
Neighbors fretted about traffic. Planners decided more land would have to be acquired. Transportation officials said an expensive turn-off from U.S. Highway 285 would be needed. At one point, state auditors said officials needed to act or give the land away.
Thanks to $10 million in grants from Great Outdoors Colorado, which receives lottery funds, it happened.
Park manager Jennifer Anderson said planners were required by Staunton's will to keep the area 90 percent undisturbed. If they build any roads, an equal stretch of old road in the park has to be returned to nature. So you can only drive a short distance.
"A lot of people complain that you can't drive a whole lot in the park, but that is one of the reasons. We want to keep it as natural, as much a wilderness backcountry park as possible," Anderson said.
"To really see the park, you have to get out and hike or mountain bike or horseback ride," she said.
* * *
Those who hop on a bike or a horse or lace up boots for a hike won't be disappointed.
The Staunton Ranch Trail quickly leaves houses behind and winds through broad valleys, passing the Staunton Rocks climbing area. Volunteers established 60 climbing routes on the cliffs, the longest of which is 335 feet. The area has become popular among climbers who don't mind hauling their gear 2 miles.
Several side trails branch off, making numerous loop possibilities. Mountain bikers have taken a shine to the park in a big way, owing to the fact all but a few of the 20 miles of trails are open to biking.
I stayed on Staunton Ranch Trail, which turned into the Bugling Elk Trail and took me to a quiet pond, which is popular among anglers. Some hikers stop here, but I continued another steep mile up the Lion's Back Trail.
At the top was the true gem of the park, the Elk Falls Overlook. For now it's the only way to catch a glimpse of the namesake waterfall, which plunges 100 feet from a cliffside. The peaks of the Front Range and Lost Creek Wilderness dominate the breathtaking view.
At the first rumble of thunder, I headed down. Exposed rocky outcroppings are no place to be in a storm. I abandoned plans to make a loop and retraced my steps, the quickest way to the parking lot. That "quickest way" still makes for an 11-mile hike, but it didn't feel like it thanks to the mostly gentle terrain.
The park is 3,828 acres, a fraction of the terrain of the adjacent Pike National Forest, but it feels bigger, largely because of the lack of development. You walk a few minutes up any of the trails and it feels like wilderness. On the west side, mountain contours block any view of civilization.
I arrived at the parking lot after a four-hour excursion, drenched but exhilarated to have seen sights that, until recently, few could enjoy.
* * *
Frances Staunton left no heirs, and efforts to find other relatives to attend the grand opening were unsuccessful, Anderson said.
But parks officials are confident she'd be happy with the park that bears her name. An old friend who attended the dedication told them as much.
There's an entrance station, two parking lots, a covered pavilion and rest rooms, but that's it for development.
More work is planned. Officials hope to build a trail to the base of Elk Falls next summer. They will build a campground near the entrance, extend the road slightly and establish some backcountry campsites. In later years, they plan backcountry yurts and cabins that can be rented.
Back on the trail, Harrima and her friends didn't make it to the overlook because of the storm. But they were impressed on their first visit.
"They really spared no expense. It's beautifully done. The facilities and trailheads are lovely," she said. "We're thrilled to have a new park to explore with new trails.
"Locals who lived in this valley knew about it, but it was their private treasure. And now it belongs to all of us."