Location: Horsetooth Mountain Park; A few miles west of Ft Collins, Colorado
Maps: USGS 7.5' Quad: Horsetooth Reservoir
Access: Drive west on Harmony Rd in Ft Collins past Taft Hill Rd. The road will continue up to Horsetooth Reservoir. Follow the road around the south side of the reservoir and up through a small brown-wood community. Trailhead is about a mile from the boat ramp on the right.
Trailhead: NAD83 zone 13 484673e 4485928n Elev: 5798'
Trail: It is a short, 2.5 mile hike up a fairly steep and well-marked grade to Horsetooth Rock. Elevation gain is 1500 ft. Allow 2.5 - 3 hours for a round trip to the tip-top at a moderate pace. Can be a very hot trail in summer so start early.
Fees: $6/vehicle
Dog Regulations: Leash control, pretty strict
Webcam: CSU Foothills campus
Weather: Current and recent conditions from MesoWest      National Weather Service Forecast

Everybody who's lived in or visited Ft. Collins has seen Horsetooth Rock (except my Uncle Dale who, even with glasses on, can't see further than the chrome Dodge hood ornament on his '86 Aries).  I was first introduced to this massive pegmatite monolith by Dr. Schaff, then director of bands at CSU, on my first day in Colorado back in June 1995.  It is a very prominent landmark visible from anywhere in the Ft. Collins area, including the second floor of the Music building on campus (at least it was before they renovated the north end of the student center).  Although its resemblance to a horse's tooth is dubious, everyone knows it by that name, and there are at least a dozen businesses who make it an integral part of their name too.  My friend Chuck and I often enjoyed re-creating what we imagined the original naming conversation must have been like, spoken in drawling western accent by ranchhands around an evening fire, trying to come to a consensus on what animal's teeth this rock formation most resembled.

Horsetooth Rock, or for the slightly more daring, Horsetooth Mountain,  towers 7,300 ft only a couple of miles from the edge of Fort Collins (elv 4900'), just beyond the reservoir which bears the same name.  Up until 1982, it was private property owned by the Soderburg family, but became one of  the the first "open space" tax acquisitions of Larimer county. 

The trail winds through an area, owing to the dryness of the slopes, that is thinly-forested in most places (with occasional thick stands of Ponderosa pine), and its close proximity to town often leads to a large herd of overly-vocal  folks. However, it is still a place of high beauty, and if you hit it at the right time, a place of magnificent quiet solitude, and a haven from the traffic rolling along double-lane pavement only 3 miles to the east. As far as city parks go, I doubt it has many parallels in the country. After all, how many city parks have a natural forest in them?  Its rocky, rugged slopes provide a nursery for cactus, rabbitbrush and shortgrass, with stands of Ponderosa pines on the northern slopes.

I hiked to the near-top of the rock for the first time in October 1999 with Andra.  I am certain that my awesome display of rugged hiking prowess is the reason we ultimately got married exactly 5 years later. And if you're wondering, yes, you can hike all the way to the top, although a bit of scrambling (and rugged hiking prowess) is required. Despite the waning seasonal warmth, the day we chose to hike was very warm, and the open south-facing slopes that dominate the first half of the hike afforded no respite from the sun's unfettered glare.  I was melting in the heat, and the heavy clothes I had worn in anticipation of cool weather were burdensome at best.  Towards the top, the trail entered the trees so we were no longer ascending in full sun and a nice, dense canopy arose over the trail to cast a mollifying shade.  We stopped twice to rest and drink. We drained our canteens fast, but managed to make it up the 2.5 mile trail in a little over an hour.

Near the solid bald summit, the trail sort of dissappears. The correct method is to continue north across the face of the rock, then cut west after you've passed the "teeth" of the thing, at which point you can make it up to the tip top provided you've brought sensible shoes. But back in 1999 I didn't know better (because there were no really cool websites like this around to tell me differently), and I imagined that getting to the top of the rock required death-defying feats of rock climbing of which I was unprepared to perform. Thus, Andra and I hiked up to the cleft between the two "teeth" and  I climbed as high as I felt I could without seriously chancing injury (as is my usual policy in this life without health insurance) and enjoyed the views.  Indeed I managed to climb right up into the split of the famous incisors. 

After retreating to more solid footing, Andra and I napped in the sun, lying on a bed of windblown grass near the top. Since we were no longer moving, it was pretty cozy temperature-wise.  Blue jays and chickadees hopped and flitted all about the crowns of the pines in search of food.  Occasionally a squirrel would scramble through the underbrush.  The principal attraction, however, was the view of Fort Collins to the east.  The panorama afforded by this perch 2,000 ft above the city streets is very impressive, and the photographs which came back with me hardly do it justice.  We spent half an hour pointing out landmarks to eachother - CSU, King Soopers, the tree in the field behind my house, etc. To me the most prominent landmarks in town are the twin CSU dorm towers of Westfall of Durward.

The longer we dallied up top, the more our space was encroached upon by members of our own species. Being generally misanthropic, I led the way as we hightailed it down in a very short time, having the benefit of some pretty steep downhill terrain to keep us moving briskly.  Back at the car, the thermometer within had maxed out at 120 F.  Just not your typical October day.

Years later, in January of 2003, I decided that a sunrise photograph of Horsetooth Rock was just what I needed. Who doesn't? Accordingly, my alarm went off at the unnatural Saturday time of 5AM. The night before I had been very excited about getting up before dawn to hike, anxious even, but in the darkness of my bedroom with my body cozily nestled under a thick down comforter and flannel sheets and my mind full of knowledge about the temperature outside (cold, damn cold), my enthusiasm waned. With supreme will power, I clambered out of bed like a newborn gosling to peek out the window to check for cloud cover. No luck. It was clear as a bell to the east and the west. Stars twinkling brightly, almost like they were laughing at me. I had no excuse for not going, and knew I'd hit myself later when the mind-altering drug of sleepiness had worn off if I went back to bed and wasted the morning. All these sunny days in Colorado may sound great, but when does a guy get a solid reason to just lay in bed til 11AM watching TV, I ask you? 

I turned on the lamp and got dressed. Frank (the pointer) was still slumbering in the bed, covered completely by the down comforter. He's great to sleep with because he's a biological heating blanket, and boy does he throw out the BTU's. I put on lots of warm clothes and threw my camera, film and tripod in my pack and went downstairs. I raided the cupboard and scored a few granola bars and a banana and filled my water bottle before zipping up my pack and donning my outer jacket. Just as I was flipping off the lights and going out the garage, I heard Frank's paws hit the floor of the bedroom above as he suddenly realized that today I might be going somewhere other than work, and he decided he should go too. Perhaps the sound of the pack zipper clued him in, or perhaps he knew all along and was just waiting until I got through all the formalities of breakfast before making his grand entrance. Either way, I didn't want to have to see those pathetic eyes as I left him at home, which I surely must do on such a fold morning, so I quickly closed the garage door behind me and got in the car and drove off. Frank is a very short-haired pointer. In fact, there's damn near no hair at all on his belly and crotch. For this reason, Frank finds even mildly chilly weather unbearable, and spends his waking hours in the sunshine or under a blanket, and his sleeping hours under the down comforter of my bed. I believe a pre-dawn January hike in Colorado would make him want to leave home permanently, perhaps for Mexico. 

Therefore, I was alone as I drove west on Harmony Rd. Not a car in sight. The drive to the trailhead took about 30 minutes, if I recall correctly, and I was dutifully paying my $6 hiking fee (has gone up considerably since my first visit) by about half past 6. The air was not nearly so cold as I had thought, despite the time of year, although my breath still sent out puffs of vapor. I shouldered my pack and took off at a good clip up the trail, not wanting to go through all this effort and miss the first kiss of dawn on the rock. In April 2002, I had the dissapointing experience of taking a dawn hike to the Cirque Meadow at Pingree Park to catch sunrise on the Mummy Range, only to arrive about 30 minutes too late. Not wanting to experience that again, I hiked very quickly. 

A woman and her dog passed me going down the hill and in the dark the German Shepherd startled me, although before I had time to react to his throat-ripping lunge, he paid me no attention and cruised right past.  I vaguely recalled the route from my first hike, and I knew it was fairly steep for a the first stretch. I tried to ignore the ache in my legs and kept up a good speed. Before long, the cold Colorado January air began to feel more like warm Algerian August morning air and I pulled off my knit cap and unbuttoned my jacket. 

The stars were still visible to the west, although a slight glow began to appear in the east. At one point, I topped a tree-free ridge and saw the entire city laid out in front of me, all 10 million lights flickering like candles.  I've always kind of thought it was wasteful that all the car dealerships keep their lots lit like day all night long, and from a perch like this, one cannot mistake where the dealerships are. I suppose it's a tribute to our great country that any American can go browse the latest foreign and domestic auto models any time of night. 

The trail wound up and up, and the sky grew brighter. I grew warmer, warmer, and began to feel the sweat on my chest and back. I pulled off my outer jacket and carried it along, but did not want to take the time to take off my sweatshirt too, so I left that on, despite it being a few degrees warmer than comfortable. I continued on at a fast pace, but fretted that the brightening sky heralded a sunrise that would catch me too far down the trail to photograph it. Setting all concern for comfort aside, I hiked even faster up the quaried-rock steps and zig-zagged through the trees, feeling sure that each bend would put me close enough to set up a camera and shoot. 

Finally, just as I felt my last minutes of opportunity had arrived, I reached a crest and saw the giant incisor-shaped rock to my left. I scooted up the nearest bare rock in site, which was unfortunately farther south than I wanted it to be, but to get a full frontal shot of the rock would've required about 15 more minutes to hike north. I decided to go ahead and set up my camera to be ready for the light hitting the rock. I made it just in time, with less than 5 minutes to spare before the pinkish granite began to glow with a redish hue. I began snapping photos and enjoying the sudden brilliant glare to the east with the quiet city streets below. I moved my tripod around a few times for different angles, and took a few shots of Long's Peak to the south. I was, and still am, really amazed by some phenomenon that made Long's Peak look a lot smaller from Horsetooth Rock than it typically does from town. It's as if the view from Ft Collins magnifies the mountain. Anybody know why this is? 

After the sun had risen fully, and the light had morphed from red to orange to yellow to almost white, I packed up my gear, and began to head down. The hike back was taken at a much more leisurley pace, as you can imagine, and I found that I even became chilled through the shaded areas from my lack of exertion. I met two men walking up as I neared the parking lot, but that was it. I reached my car by about 9 o'clock, and drove back to town, stopping to drop my film off for development on the way. This hike had all the solitude and beauty that a nature hike should have, and skipped the mass crowds that develop at Horsetooth Rock every weekend.

Visiting this place at dawn is really the only way worth seeing it, in my opinion, although from the air is also pretty cool, as I found out in 2005 when Joe took me for a fun ride in his small airplane right over the top of Horsetooth. 

Ironically, it took me over 10 years to finally make it to the very top of Horsetooth. Andra, Christine and I hiked up on a wet June afternoon and managed to scramble all the way up. I thought for sure I had taken photos of that trip, but if I did, no photographs survive today. Perhaps the government just doesn't want you to know what it looks like from up top.


Horsetooth Rock
Horsetooth Rock from the air

Horsetooth Rock from the air
Horsetooth Rock
Horsetooth Rock
Horsetooth Rock
Horsetooth Rock
Horsetooth Rock
The Big A near Horsetooth Reservoir
Horsetooth Reservoir
View to south from the base of Horsetooth Rock
Horsetooth Rock at dawn
Horsetooth Rock and Longs Peak
Horsetooth Rock

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Page Created December 16, 1999
Updated November 4, 2007