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A cottontail thinks we don’t see it hiding under a buckboard wagon. Courtesy photo, Glenn Cushman
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It was the morning of New Year’s Eve. The wind was blowing. The trail was icy. But — suddenly — there were bluebirds! No matter how cold the weather, Chatfield State Park is a hotspot for birds, and birders have tallied over 340 species here.

For the best birding, park rangers suggested heading south on the paved path along the South Platte River. Cousins Robin and Glenn Edward joined us, and we wandered down to the Slocum Cabin behind the office. Built around 1852, this sturdy cabin with pricklypear cactus and grasses growing from the sod roof is thought to be one of the oldest structures in Colorado.

Ice fishermen hope to catch a trout or crappie or maybe just a catfish. Courtesy photo, Glenn Cushman

As we headed south from the cabin, flocks of Canada geese honked overhead, juncos darted from juniper to juniper, and mountain bluebirds — unexpected at this times of year — flashed turquoise against the newly fallen snow. A pacific loon has been hanging around for over a month near the marina where a white-winged scoter and a red-necked grebe have also been reported recently. Trumpeter swans showed up in December and might make another winter appearance.

Prairie dogs scampered and squeaked in a colony near the outskirts of the park; a cottontail crouched underneath a buckboard wagon near the cabin; and tracks in the snow testified to mice or voles. Beavers, muskrats, deer, coyotes, weasels and foxes also inhabit the park.

As we continued our walk, we passed clumps of little bluestem grass, blue grama, and sideoats grama. Ponderosa pines and junipers offered shelter to small birds, and the dried remains of rabbitbrush rattled in the wind.

In about half a mile a side trail to the right drops to the shore of Chatfield Reservoir. We detoured to an overlook and were glad to be up there and not below with the ice fishermen dangling a jig into a dark hole hoping for trout, bass, perch, crappie, or even a channel catfish.

We continued only as far the Heronry overlook where you often see great blue herons. From the group picnic area, a higher trail returns to the parking lot, making for about a mile-long loop. We decided to trade lunch al fresco for the warmth of Ali Baba’s restaurant in Golden where we basked in a room festooned like an Arabian tent. We didn’t covet the blue tents set up on the ice at Chatfield Reservoir!

The Slocum family of six once lived in this tiny cabin. Courtesy photo, Glenn Cushman

If you come in April or May, you can watch bird banding at the Audubon Center and see early wildflowers at the Chatfield botanic gardens.

Next time we’d like to circle around Kingfisher Bridge to Fox Run. Or, maybe go all the way past the gravel ponds to the far south end of the park. There are endless permutations to be made so, pick up a brochure and map at the park office and explore.

Isaac Chatfield, a Union Lieutenant in the Civil War, bought 720 acres at the confluence of the South Platte River and Plum Creek in 1870. The land, farmed for many years, endured several floods, including one in 1965 that resulted in 13 deaths and over $300 million in damages.

To help with flood control, a dam was completed in 1976 creating a 1,423-acre reservoir. Expansion currently underway will raise the water level about 12 feet and increase the storage capacity by about 20,600 acre-feet.

To reach Chatfield State Park take highway 93 to Golden, then C470 to Highway 121 or Wadsworth Boulevard and follow the signs. If you don’t have an annual state parks pass, purchase a daily pass at the gate.

Ruth Carol and Glenn Cushman are the authors of Boulder Hiking Trails, published by West Margin Press

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