In celebration of the first day of autumn, my husband and I make our customary pilgrimage into the mountains. Spoiled by a wide array of choices, we nonetheless seem to gravitate to Pancake Rocks year after year.
As we leave Colorado Springs and wind up Ute Pass, we detect first flecks of orange among the scrub oak, and patches of yellow in the cottonwoods and willows that line Fountain Creek. A waning half moon still lingers in the western sky. Near Woodland Park, we espy small clusters of changing aspen, which become more numerous once we veer from Highway 24 onto 67. When we get out of the car after a 40 mile drive, we enjoy the nibble of fall in the 65 degrees that greet us, especially after our recent heat wave.
Our trail starts directly after a collapsed railroad tunnel. We avoid this popular area on weekends, but at the height of the season, multitudes of leaf peepers may abound even during the week, and so it is today. We barely find a parking space, but it turns out that, for once, it is better not to be among the early birds. As we ascend, most other hikers descend, so that we encounter very few people, the closer we are to our goal.
For the first mile, the path to Pancake Rocks is identical to one leading to Horsethief Falls. When it forks, instead of going straight to the falls, half a mile away, we turn right, and commence a two mile trek through a coniferous forest. The higher we climb, the richer the hillsides are with our favorite aspen tree. A breeze emphasizes one of its most prominent features: the quaking, or trembling of its canopy, reflected in its name, Populus tremuloides.
Where leaves flutter through the air, we walk under showers of golden flakes, and tread on a golden carpet. Their rustling is music to our ears, punctuated by the tweets of small bands of chickadees and juncos, and the chattering of pine squirrels busy with eating and stashing provisions for future use.
When we reach our destination whose geologic features reminded someone of their favorite breakfast item, we, too, reward ourselves with food. During our picnic, we relish a window in the clouds and soak up the warmth of the sun from these rocky outcroppings, while we are swept away by the vista. Highway 67 winds through a wide mountain valley bordered by hills entirely covered in trees whose tones range from the dark green of spruce, firs, and pines, to the lighter green, yellow, orange and red aspen foliage can assume, creating a multi-hued tapestry, before the backdrop of the western mountains, and under a cerulean sky dotted with white and gray tufts of cotton.
Welcome, and adieu, beautiful time of year. Your transition leaves us mildly wistful, so we are grateful for your burst of color which will warm and accompany us through winter, until the arrival of another spring.