A Walk in the Park

Cheyenne Mountain State Park - Colorado Springs, CO

text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather

Do you have favorites? I know I do. I have lots of favorites: movie, color, spot on the couch—you get the idea. But, I tend to have multiple favorites, groups of favorites. For example, I love movies. I have many, many movies that are my “favorite”. But it goes farther than that. I have favorite directors and cinematographers and film composers. I have favorites within favorites. I can tell you are intrigued. More examples you say, ok…how about ice cream. Well, that’s a trick question, because vanilla is the best. And, just like my other examples, I have a “favorite” place to hike. It isn’t because it is the most epic, or least visited. A favorite just has to connect with you, and Cheyenne Mountain State Park is definitely a favorite.

Just The Facts

  • Location: Cheyenne Mountain State Park, CO
  • Trail: Sundance, Talon, Talon (North), Talon (South)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 800 ft.
  • Distance: 9 mi. (if you hike every trail on the list)
  • Trail Use: Hiking, Running, Mountain Biking, Equestrian
  • Trail Condition: Well maintained, and clearly marked
  • Bring Your Dog: No
  • Access: Open Year Round
  • Trail Map:CMSP Trails
  • Entrance fee

Crack of Dawn

Getting up at 4 am to hike definitely has its advantages…but it is also 4 am. I got up so early the birds were yelling at me to be quiet. With sunrise happening soon, I am going to have to dash up the trail to get to a good spot. I’m getting up this early to try and catch an epic sunrise. A stunning display of pink and orange lighting up the clouds as they slowly spread over the mountains…that would be perfect. But why so early in the morning? This is why a winter sunrise is so nice. You can sleep-in, have breakfast, play with the dog, go get a cup of coffee…ok, I’m exaggerating a little bit. Anyway, I made the effort to get to the trail this early in the morning, so I might as well enjoy the solitude. As you can imagine, there are not many hikers at this time of day.

I’ve hiked the park enough times to know which route I want to take. And, this is one of the perks to repeat trips; you get familiar the trails. Even though it is still pretty dark out, each trail is clearly marked and every junction has an information board. There are so many trails to try and most of them connect with other trails too. My ultimate goal is to get to Talon (North) and Talon (South), which are located in the southwest corner of the park. These two trails get you deep into the park and provide some of the best views. But first, we need hike along Sundance trail.

Sundance is (currently) the second longest trail in the park, but I only needed to hiked about the first mile and a half. Since Sundance junctions with Talon, it’s a great route to take.

Here is an impromptu survey:

  • How many people like cobwebs?
  • How many people like cobwebs in their face?

That isn’t really a survey, but it is a common annoyance of hiking a trail—especially when you are the first person that day. I fought my way through so many, I weaved my own little web. And no matter how much you flail about, it always ends up right in your face. Thanks spiders.

Sundance is an easy hike, but it isn’t boring. The pre-dawn light was slowly pushing night away, revealing all the earthy textures. The trail turns and twists around Gambel oak and Pinyon pine and opens up to sweeping views over grassy fields delicately swaying in the cool breeze. The tall grass will usually have a deer or two feeding—but not today. No, today I was lucky enough to see a skunk. Not as majestic, but still fun to see. I kept my distance.

Flight of the Dragonflies

Talon is just as rewarding as Sundance. The trail leads you out of the fields and into the pine and fir forest. The trail does start to climb a little, but the elevation gain is gradual. One of the best parts the pine tree tunnels. The tall trees—reaching far above your head—block the hills and mountains around you. After 50 yards or so, they part (almost like you are playing hide-and-seek) and you are greeted with grand views of Cheyenne Mountain standing against the still dark morning sky.

While on Talon, I experienced something that I have never seen before. The Gambel oak thrive along the trail and extend right to the edge, spilling over at time. As I approached a bend, chock-full with the squat trees, the air suddenly filled with hundreds of dragonflies. Like a squadron of planes leaving in wave after wave. And they were huge! I stood there in the early morning sun, watching them dart about before settling again on the branches and leaves. I hadn’t walked more than a hundred yards when another group of dragonflies burst from the dark green leaves. Maybe they really like Gambel oak, or just felt like catching a few rays. Either way it was a sublime experience.

Talon (North) starts with a quick climb and gets you closer and closer to Cheyenne Mountain. Even though a majority of the elevation gain happens on this trail, it is spread out and isn’t extreme. There are several short switchbacks and brief runs which guide you out of the forest and to the more exposed tops of hills. The trail surface gradually changes from hard-packed dirt to loose (almost chalk-white) stones and pebbles. As the tree cover started to thin, I knew I was close to my sunrise destination…but I was about 30 min. too late. No worries, I was enjoying my hike and that is all that matters. After reaching the top, I took a break, sat in the warm light and watched the sun break from behind the distant clouds.

The trail is all down hill from here as it drops back into shady forest. I stopped several times to look at the small groups of wildflowers. The wildflowers are not quite ready to take over the forest floor, but it is getting close.

Watch Your Step

At the end of Talon (North) you can jump right onto Talon (South), which is exactly what I did. Talon (South) is shorter and has very little elevation gain. However, it had something that Talon (North) didn’t have…evidence of bear. Bear scat was everywhere along this trail. Well, not everywhere, it’s not like I had to carefully place my steps. I’m not sure why the bears do this. Maybe they think it’s funny? I can imagine some mischievous teen-age bears (hiding in the bushes, trying not to laugh) leaving a “surprise” on the trail, just waiting for me to arrive. Ha ha…very funny, I’m not going to step in it.

Talon (South) is more gentle and feels tucked away. Maybe I was just lost in thought, but I didn’t hear as much traffic from the highway while I was on this part of my hike. That, unfortunately, is the only bad part the park. You a very close to Highway 115 and when traffic is heavy the noise rolls right up the hillside. But, getting this far back does help eliminate it. I guess I would rather have a park with a little noise than no park at all.

Talon (South) eventually re-connects with Talon, which takes you all the way back to the parking lot. I thought about getting back on Sundance, but I enjoy the wide fields that Talon passes through. I often see prairie dogs and deer through here. The high-pitched song of the Meadowlark fills the prairie, while butterflies dance around the tall thistle and indian paintbrush. The long, sweeping path widens as you leave the hillsides, giving you a completely different environment to enjoy.

I covered many miles today and got to watch the park stir awake in the morning light. I wish I could start every day like this.