Horsetooth Rock, Fort Collins

View along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Mountain mahogany along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Closeup of mountain mahogany branch, Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

View toward Horsetooth Reservoir from Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

View toward Horsetooth Reservoir from Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Mica in soil along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

When we rolled into Larimer County, we arrived at the end of our planned route. Two long haul drives got us from Chicago to Omaha and then to Fort Collins where a friend had arranged for us to stay with her parents for a few days. That was as far as our itinerary went. We resisted planning every moment of our trip, every destination, every campground. We wanted to keep our options open, to be able to spend more time in a place, to change routes if something popped up, or if someone gave us a solid recommendation. Simply, we wanted to be able to set our own pace, which is really what we had been missing from our hectic daily lives back in Chicago.

We imagined the transition from daily-grind to choose-your-own-adventure would be a little bumpy, so the four days we spent in Fort Collins were a perfect launch pad. A vacation before the vacation. Briney olives and homemade daiquiris, dinners on the patio, boat rides on the lake, hot showers, soft carpets, and access to a superautomatic espresso machine. Our adopted parents couldn’t have been more gracious or welcoming. So when they recommended we spend our Saturday hiking Horsetooth Trail, that’s exactly what we did.

View toward mountains along Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

View back down toward the Horsetooth Rock trailhead, Colorado / Darker than Green

Rainbow grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor) along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Along the Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Along the Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Musk thistle along Along the Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Aspen patch along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Closeup of Aspen leaves along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

The drive to the trailhead filled us with anticipation, up into the mountains and past Horsetooth Reservoir, which was buzzing with mid-summer activity. This would be our first hike of the trip. No weekend emails or private lessons or client deadlines. Just our packs, our map, and the trail.

The path took us up the foothills and through aspen groves and evergreen stands, past soft-leaved alpine natives and high desert pricklers. The change in elevation challenged our lungs and our legs. The unfiltered Colorado sun breathed heavily on our shoulders, and our midwestern bodies struggled against the rugged elements. But we pushed on. And the higher we climbed, and the rockier the trail became, the more determined we were to push up that final, exposed scramble.

At the top, we were treated to a rare view of the valley behind Horsetooth, a view only those who climb these same steps have seen, a view we felt privileged to experience. We braced ourselves against the winds and peered out over the edge.

View from top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

View from top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

Angled rocks at top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

Black woman looking out onto valley from top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

While meeting the other hikers who had also made it to the top of the rock, the afternoon clouds began to roll in. A few flickers of lightning pushed us back on our descent to the trailhead, down and around the mountain. Through meadows of grass swaying against the rocking breeze, along sandy pathways dotted with shimmering flakes of mica and flanked by mottled pink sandstone. I had to stop every few steps, not to catch my breath as I had done on the way up the mountain, but to let my eyes wander over each and every bit of the trail, at every part of its beauty. I let the gratitude wash over me.

Part of Horsetooth Rock peeking from behind mountain mahogany, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Bare branches along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Hardened tree trunk along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Late summer plants along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock trail marker, Colorado / Darker than Green

Field marigold along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

That evening, when we got back to the house, we looked out over the lake and spotted the telltale ridges of that scraggly smile – Horsetooth Rock. We looked at each other, amazed by what we’d just accomplished. When the parents got home and they asked us how our hike was, with wide eyes, we pointed across the lake.

“We were up there. We climbed that. It was incredible.”

View toward Horsetooth Rock across a lake in early evening, Fort Collins, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock Trail is probably the most popular hike in the Fort Collins area. And for good reason – it’s visually stunning and physically demanding. The roundtrip hike took us close to five hours, though if you’re used to high altitude/elevation hiking, you can probably clock in a much shorter time. Bring lots of water (at the end of my two liter bladder, I still had about an hour left of hiking to go) and if you hike in summer, sunscreen and a hat are non-negotiable. The trail itself is very quiet, but try your best to get there early as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Parking costs $6 per vehicle.


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