Spruce Mountain is another easy family favorite for those days when you want to go for a hike, but you don’t want to put any thought into it. Fitting in with the other hikes I’ve posted about this week, it’s another hike I feel comfortable doing with the kids by myself on a weekday. It’s a quick approximately 1 mile hike to the top of the Spruce Mountain mesa, followed by an approximately half mile to the loop portion of the trail. The loop adds another 2.3 miles to your hike, so if your kids are spent this is an easy spot to turn around. The additional 2 miles are flat, so this is a great hike for practicing adding mileage with your kids without adding any extra elevation.
Pros: I really like this hike for preschoolers. There’s lots of variety–bushes, trees, scrub brush, sun, shade, big rocks and sweeping 360 degree views, more closed in wooded sections…and did I mention the trains? Spruce Mountain runs parallel to the busy rail line that runs through Palmer Lake. A preschool boy can be very easily lifted in spirits by a big coal train sighting! And any hike near Palmer Lake is never complete without ice cream from the adorable Rock House ice cream parlor on your way home, so if the trains don’t work to propel little legs on those last miles, the promise of ice cream will!
Cons: This is a multi use trail so you’ll see plenty of bikers and horses (actually, move the horses to the pros column–another thing that helps distract toddlers on a 5 mile hike!). The southern section of the loop (“The Upper Loop”) is exposed and can be a very hot walk on a summer day–this is one you want to hit earlier versus later. For this reason I suggest going clockwise around the loop–get the longer, more exposed section over with first! The signs on the trail network can be confusing, so I recommend taking along this map.
Distance/Difficulty: About 5.5 miles if you include the loop around the top of the mesa, this is a great option for little hikers who have mastered Mt Cutler (my favorite recommendation for families beginning to hike), this stretches their distance abilities without adding any more difficulty in terms of elevation. Shortening the hike by dropping the loop makes it very comparable with Mt Cutler, though a little longer at about 3 miles.
Directions: If you are driving north on I-25 from Colorado Springs, take exit 163 for County Line Rd. After the railroad tracks turn right onto Spruce Mountain Rd. The well marked parking area is on the left in 3.5 miles. If you are coming from the north, take I-25S to the Larkspur exit. Travel south on Spruce Mountain Rd for 6 miles, the well marked parking lot will be on the right. The large parking lot has porta potties and a map. The trail is popular, but the only time we had trouble finding a parking spot was on a beautiful holiday afternoon.
- Trains and railroad history in Colorado and its influence on city size/importance.
- Coal – odds are good that if you see a train, it will be loaded with coal.
- Palmer Lake is an interesting little town whose lake is completely dried up but used to be mined for ice. From the Tri Lakes Historic Society: “General William J. Palmer, a Medal of Honor recipient, came west after the Civil War to found the City of Colorado Springs & start the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, a 3-ft. narrow gauge line, in 1871. He purchased the land known as the Monument Farms & Lake Property which was to become the Town of Palmer Lake. Palmer Lake was critical to the railroad because the steam trains chugged up to the Palmer-Divide summit and had to take on water to head down. The lake was the only natural water supply available on a year-round basis. Passenger trains would stop for 10 minutes to take on water, or you could get off for a day of picnicking, fishing, and boating or wildflower hikes for a fee of $1.50 roundtrip from Denver.”
- Mesas – Mesas get their name from Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s who thought the formations in the American southwest resembled tables (“mesa” in Spanish). “Butte” and “mesa” describe similar shapes, but mesas are larger than buttes. Mesas have a hard layer of rock at the top (“cap rock”)–often cooled lava–that resists the type erosion that is caused by the hard sudden rainstorms that occur in the American southwest. The top layer of igneous rock resists erosion, but the softer sedimentary rock around the igneous rock is eroded away. This creates the steep sides of the mesa–anything not directly under that tough igneous rock gets washed away in rainstorms. See if the kids can identify areas of igneous rock at the top of the mesa.
Looking for trains:
The loop (The sheltered “lower loop” on the left, and the more exposed “upper loop” on the right):
We use Windy Point as a snack break spot. It’s at the just over halfway mark if you’re going on the loop, has great views, and is usually empty. Most people turn back at the Greenland Overlook, so the loop is usually quiet compared to the popular out-and-back section of the trail. (“I swear I’m a good mom” disclaimer: Given my almost paralyzing fear of heights, I’m positive this shot must be a lot less ‘near the edge’ than it looks!)
Further Reading: Given its proximity to Denver, there are several great posts about this hike from Denver area hikers. Check out Fun Colorado Hikes for many trail pictures, the official Douglas County website page for Spruce Mountain trail, and this pdf map.
Ellie’s been asking to sew and knit for…well…as long as she could speak. She’s five now, and since child labor laws were put in place partly to prevent five year olds from professionally knitting for 12 hours a day, I figured it was time to pour myself a glass a wine, pretend I am patient, and get her started.
My needle stash is almost entirely circulars, which I figured would add unnecessary difficulty to the process, so I asked my mom if she could bring a pair of my great-grandmother’s straight needles when she came to visit. (My great-grandmother’s stash of garishly colored metal needles and polyester yarn was handled down after she died–a rich inheritance from the dark days of crafting.) My mom tossed in a pair of her own Clover bamboo needles*, which, at 9″ seemed like a much better fit for preschool hands than the longer metal ones. So she had to settle for knitting needles from her grandmother instead of her great-great-grandmother. That kid’s got it rough. Ellie picked out some super bulky yarn at Joanns: Grande in the Wintergreen colorway* (*affiliate links) and we read my teaching text of choice: Annie and the Swiss Cheese Scarf. I’d purchased it for Ellie last year, but we revisited it before we started our lesson.
I love that it emphasizes that knitting is (a) hard and (b) a learning process. Little Annie expects to be a great knitter right off the bat and actually gives up after her first try when she discovers that it’s much harder than she thought it would be. (I love that Ellie’s face matches Annie’s!)
The illustration of her finished scarf shows her progress–holey and uneven at the start and slowly getting better as it goes along. It emphasizes practice and going slowly, as well as the rhyme
In through the front door
Up around the back
Peek through the window
And off jumps Jack!
It includes an illustrated tutorial at the back, which I was shocked to find actually helped Ellie–she would look at it periodically, particularly while trying to master the ‘peek through the window’ stage.
It was predictably difficult for her to learn, but I think the book helped soften the blow. After her first two stitches she said “This is harder than I thought” and I reminded her that Annie felt the same way. Far from being discouraged, she stuck with it, and at the end of our two-ish hour time on the porch (which was broken up with tea party chatter, snacks, and toenail polish painting for good measure) she was able to complete the stitches on her own while repeating the rhyme to remind herself. She’s not by any means fluent (I could knit a row in the time it takes her to complete a single stitch) but she is doing it without my hands on help and best of all, she begged to do it again tomorrow! I call that a success!
Confession: I have several Oliver + S patterns that I’ve never used. I had the best intentions, but after making the Birthday Party dress I kept shying away from them because I realized just how much work these patterns would be! They are made for people without a serger, so you won’t find any time saving construction methods, and they always seem to have hand sewn hems. I recently sorted through my patterns and noticed that Ellie has sized out of many, but the Tea Party dress still had a 5T option, so this is the summer to use it!
I want to love this dress, I really do. I love the piping, I love the thoughtful matching bloomers, and I love this Milk, Sugar, Flower fabric. The construction was also easy enough that I’d be willing to make it again. But I’m not crazy about it. I don’t like that the straps come to a point (I think a rounded end would be nicer) and the silhouette is a little too dramatic. I think I’d like this a lot more on a 2 year old. (Curses on my pattern procrastination!)
Also, my biggest complaint is that the bloomer pattern is awful. Like “there’s no way they pattern tested this in the larger sizes” awful. It ends up with a ridiculous amount of fabric running vertically between her legs when the bulk should be width-wise. When I cut the pattern I had my doubts, but kept the faith. The faith was not well placed. If you’re making this pattern in a larger size (and possibly at any size), don’t use the bloomer pattern pieces! I’ve made Heather Ross’s bloomers from Weekend Sewing before, and will use that pattern in the future.
Pattern: Oliver + S Tea Party Dress
Fabric: Milk, Sugar, Flower (bird print), kona cotton solid brown, and a pink print I’ve had for a few years.
Sizing: The dress is a little on the big side. The bloomers are just a straight disaster.
The Indian Paint Mines in Calhan is another great walk for beginning hikers. It consists of a 4 mile network of trails that can be customized to your kiddo’s distance abilities. It’s another walk I feel comfortable doing on a weekday with just a toddler along. It’s different from most hikes (although this really shouldn’t be called a hike–it’s a walk) in that you arrive at the highest point–you’ll be walking down into the Indian Paint Mines canyons.
Pros: Easy walk with interesting natural formations. It’s amazingly uncrowded and little kids might delight at the alien landscape. (In fact, it’s so alienesque that I had a family request it as a location for their B Movie themed Christmas card shoot.)
Cons: It’s a long drive out to Calhan, and set your expectations low for the ‘colors’ you’ll see. If you’ve seen amazing pictures online, it’s probably because the color saturation has been really cranked up on the computer. (Confession: I may have been a touch disappointed the first time I went.) We saw the best colors near the 2 area of the park map, and the coolest formations near the 6. This part of Colorado is usually windy, so be prepared for a windy walk!
Distance/Difficulty: This is an easy one. You can make it any length, but plan on about 2 miles for the basic loop.
Directions: The park’s address is 29950 Paint Mines Road, Calhan CO. Going east on Highway 24 to Calhan, take a right to turn south on Yoder Road/Calhan Highway, the turn left to go east on Paint Mines Road. Park in the designated parking area. There were porta potties at the trailhead the last time I was there.
- The paint mines have shown evidence of human life as far back as 9000 years ago (7000BC)! You can contrast that to the first Europeans landing in North America (about 500 years) and then the first explorers to Colorado of European descent (the 1776 exploration of southern Colorado and the Pike Expedition in 1806-07) and its inclusion in US territory (1803 with the Louisiana Purchase). (Wikipedia page on Colorado territory history.)
- The park gained its name from the colorful clays that were used by Native Americans for pottery. You can talk about how pottery is made and its uses, as well as talking about how many of the storage methods we use today are such new inventions and all the ways that changes what we eat and how we live.
- As usual, plenty to talk about in terms of erosion and rock formations! Talk about all the different types of erosion–it’s a windy spot, so don’t forget wind!
The gentle hill you’ll walk down from the parking area. (Or run down if you happen to be racing a six year old.)
Further reading: Away from the Grid has beautiful photos in their review here. The official El Paso County website page for the park also includes a pdf map.
Yesterday afternoon was beautiful and it was my recovery day, so Ellie and I spent a goodly part of the early evening on the studio porch finishing my hat and watching the neighbors attempt to bring down a tree branch America’s Funniest Home Videos style.
The pattern is Helado by Tanis Gray, and the yarn was a new Plucky Knitter base for me–Snug (worsted) in the early light colorway. The alpaca makes it a snuggly hat indeed–my thought was that this would be a spring hat, but it definitely feels warm enough for winter even with the lace! Details on my ravelry page.
Hopefully we’re all done with our winter weather for the year and I won’t have to bust this one out any time soon! But since it looked like this five days ago it’s hard to say…
At under 1 mile up and 1 mile back, with just enough elevation gain to make you feel like you’re really hiking and to give you some spectacular views, I think Mt Cutler is the perfect beginning hike. We took both Will and Ellie on it for their first under-their-own-steam hikes at age 2. Little ones might need a little prodding along in places but it’s a great place to start, and if you end up having to carry them at least it’s not far!
Pros: Short, fun, lots of variety, it’s steep enough that it feels like a real hike but you’ll still make it down in time for lunch and naptime. I also like this one for weekday hikes without Nic and Will–there’s enough traffic on it that I feel comfortable taking just Ellie hiking. You can see Seven Falls from the south side of the mountain as you near the top of the trail as well as the Shrine of the Sun above the zoo. If you’re there at the top of the hour, you can hear the bells, too!
Cons: If you have a fear of heights, this one might get to you. The trail on the southwest side of the mountain has been widened in the last couple of years, and this makes it much less of a terrifying prospect for anyone with a fear of heights and a toddler, but it is still a good drop down. This is also a popular trail for people to take dogs on. Most are very good about taking their pet’s waste with them, but there are occasionally off leash dogs or overly friendly dogs on this trail. (Little hiker tip: When Ellie was little we’d prompt her along by telling her she might see a dog if she just kept going!)
Distance/difficulty: 2 miles, 400ft elevation gain. There are enough steep sections that if this trail were longer, it would be difficult, but at just 1 mile up it’s a great hike for beginning little hikers. Ellie and Will were both conquering this trail under their own steam at 2 years old.
Directions: From I-25 take exit 140 for Nevada Ave. Travel south on Nevada Ave for approximately 1/2 mile before turning right to go west on Cheyenne Blvd. Take a right at the Starsmore Discovery Center onto N. Cheyenne Canyon Rd. Drive approximately 1 mile to the marked trailhead parking area on the left.
- The trail has seen some hard days in recent years with the heavy rains of 2013 and 2014. It was completely destroyed in sections and required rebuilding last year (or maybe the summer before? I’m getting old–it’s hard for me to remember these things). The back section that used to so terrify me is a little wider now after rebuilding (hurray!) and the hard work of volunteers is an excellent opportunity to talk with kids about trail building, volunteering, and the way national, state, and city parks are funded and how they were started. This usually leads into a tax discussion with Will. Who needs school when we can just go on hikes?!
- Erosion–plenty of opportunities to observe that here, particularly if you become Mt Cutler regulars. We’ve seen the gap between these roots and the trail grow large enough for the kids to pass under!
- You might spot some pyrite if you keep a look out!
- You’ll often experience a good range of temps as you emerge from lower in the canyon onto the south side of Mt Cutler. A good time to talk about the different types of flora that may enjoy the different areas of shade and sun.
Further reading: This post from Colorado Photo Hikes includes lots of great photos of the trail.