LARIMER COUNTY — The gate is just another beside U.S. 287, one of the many guarding ranches throughout this rather bleak landscape. It is the unremarkable entrance to a place that is anything but.
"If you kept driving, you'd never know this was here," says Jennifer Herrington, unlocking the gate to the dirt road that weaves through the prairie, past the pronghorn that curiously eye the SUV en route to the hidden destination.
The road ends where the trail begins. And on the trail the prairie clears at a ridgeline, overlooking a shimmering river running through a green floor, where orange, lichen-covered rock walls rise to meet the white caps of the mountain range far beyond.
Behold one of the Front Range's last roadless canyons. Here where time stands still, there is only exploration by foot.
Welcome to Phantom Canyon Preserve, which enters a 30th year of protection under the Nature Conservancy. From now until summer's end, the nonprofit is hosting hikers and volunteers at these 1,120 acres that gloriously sprawl 30 miles northwest of Fort Collins.
"We'll always have to manage," says Herrington, the Nature Conservancy supervisor, explaining the aim to limit man's mark on the land and its unique habitats. "But we do want as many people as possible to learn about this place and experience it.
"You know, in Colorado, there's a lot of development, but we have to remember the importance of preserving. It's places like this that make this state such a great place live in."
On this day Herrington meets Sally Ross, the conservationist in cowboy boots overseeing the preserve. The Larimer aletes, the parsley family member found in few places around the world, are blooming, Ross says. "Oh!" remarks Herrington. "I want to see!"
The plants, among the 360-plus species recorded at the preserve, are grown under wire cages - protection from the nibbling rabbits, on the long list of mammals that call this canyon home, from lowland creatures like red foxes and coyotes to mountainous dwellers like elk and bighorn sheep. The preserve invites that kind of variety with its spot on this intersection of plains and peaks.
Ross came here a year ago, following firefighting work for the U.S. Forest Service that led her to many of the West's scenic sites. She laid eyes on this canyon and could only ask herself: "How does this even exist?"
She reflects from the ridgeline, eye-level with the nest in the distant canyon walls where golden eagles are believed to have roosted for hundreds upon hundreds of years. "Just the openness of it," she says. "It kind of forces you to look at the minutia."
The minutia, like the white desert flower budding on the trail tumbling 650 feet down from the rugged rim to the riverbed, bending past other flowers like the pink wild rose and cacti and shrubs like mountain mahogany. Beside the river, amid the needle-and-thread grass, a lone juniper tree provides visitors shade for a picnic. There they gaze in awe at the walls surrounding them, at the sunlight dancing on the rushing water.
For all of the canyon's geological wonder, it is the story of its preservation that inspires Ross most. Phantom Canyon, sharing the name of the housing development once planned to consume the area, includes 29 easements with ranchers. They are granted tax breaks on their land and allow their cattle to graze the canyon - imitating, Ross explains, the long-ago buffalo that trampled invasive weeds and reduced the risk of fire here.
It is that collaboration that also strikes Mila Bock. "The benefits of working with your neighbors," says the studying biologist who lives in a bunkhouse at the preserve during the open season, organizing guest visits. "There's a huge dichotomy between environmental interests and those trying to make a living off the land, and this just demonstrates a partnership that shows there can be staying power in both."
The canyon has given her inspiration in other forms. Once, she was fly-fishing in the catch-and-release trout stream when an American mink swam by to sit atop a rock near her. Another time she witnessed rattlesnakes mating. And another time she looked down from the rim to see a moose crossing the river, below a rainbow arching over the rock walls.
"For the most part it's just a calming sensation, and I think that's becoming more important to tap into," she says of the Phantom Canyon experience. "You walk away feeling like you disappeared from the world for a little bit."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332