If you go
Highlights: Wildlife; views of the plains and the Indian Peaks; rambunctious river; ponds; wetlands; historic ranch; fossils
Distance: 1.8 miles one way
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Access: From Longmont, go east on Ken Pratt Boulevard (Highway 119). About one mile east of County Line Road (Weld CR 1), turn right (south) into Sandstone Ranch and continue past the ball fields to the parking lot at the top of the hill.
Six tom turkeys lined up on a ridge and fanned their iridescent tails while hens nonchalantly foraged for food below. A beaver whacked its tail in a tranquil backwater. A bald eagle guarded its huge nest in a cottonwood. White-tailed deer sproinged across the wetlands. It all happened early one morning along the St. Vrain River in Longmont's Peschel Open Space.
For a mostly downhill hike, start at the Sandstone Ranch trailhead where the road dead-ends at the top of a hill. Take a detour to the Overlook where wetlands spread below, the Indian Peaks loom to the west and raptors soar overhead. Interpretive signs tell the story of Morse Coffin, who homesteaded here in the 19th century and quarried for sandstone.
From here, head down the gravel road (closed to vehicles) to the east. As you descend, look for clam fossils in the boulders beside the trail. As the road veers north, watch for prairie dog antics in the field to the left. Circle below the old quarry and the Fox Hills sandstone cliff where barn owls and great-horned owls occasionally nest in niches in the wall.
The house beneath the bluffs was built in 1860 by Morse Coffin, who used the creamy buff stone to build his home. Daffodils, tulips and crocuses bloom around the house, and vegetables grow in the garden near the pond. Outbuildings include a barn, a toolshed and an icehouse. Historical and environmental exhibits are featured along the trail and at the Visitor Center located in the house. The house (on the national historical registry) is open seasonally for a few hours per week; check online for their schedule.
At the house, a path parallels the paved road to return to the parking lot for a short loop. To continue on the St. Vrain Greenway Trail, take the paved path west and cross two bridges. The path follows the St. Vrain River around several horseshoe bends and past several ponds and cattail marshes. Look for geese and ducks in the river; ring-necked pheasants in the grasslands; and eagles, white pelicans and great blue herons in the sky. This section of the St. Vrain River was badly damaged by the 2013 flood and only opened to the public last year.
When you reach the parking lot on East County Line Road (Weld County Road 1), you can continue west on the St. Vrain Greenway Trail all the way to Golden Ponds or to various landmarks in between. Or you can retrace your steps to the Sandstone Ranch parking lot. Or you can do a one-way hike by spotting a car at either end.
Ruth Carol and Glenn Cushman are the authors of "Boulder Hiking Trails."