Rather than "ringing in the New Year" with late-night revelry I opted for a more reflective experience, rising early to spend the first day of 2014 "running in the the New Year" out on the trails. Today's destination, Staunton State Park, has 18 miles of trails that criss-cross the foothills landscape of the Front Range. I had visited the park this past summer, not long after it opened to the public, for a hike with my brother. We had enjoyed the climb to the top of Staunton Rocks, an area that attracts rock climbers and afforded grand views to Pike's Peak and the rolling pine covered foothills surrounding the park. At the time, I had seen a small landmark far out in a corner of the park map called Elk Falls Overlook and I determined to return to make the trek out to see the site. This was today's goal. At the entrance, a helpful ranger warned me that I might encounter knee-deep snow, a daunting report based on my plan to run in standard street running shoes and no gaiters. The trailhead though only had a light covering of now so I decided to stick with the plan.
The open gravel and clean packed snow on the Staunton Ranch trail didn't chill or dampen my feet as I ran the over rocky swales and dry watercourses in the easy terrain of the former ranchland. After two miles I passed trails leading to the climbing access and joined one of the old ranch roads. Climbing steadily up through open park and fire-scarred pines, the pace felt slow today. As I gained elevation, the snow deepened and at the trail junction with the Bugling Elk Trail the trees closed in around me as the old gravel road led over a low saddle through deeper forest. On the far side, it felt as if I'd entered a more remote part of the park dropping into an open basin with the remnants of an old field plow rusting in the winter air. The trail turned left and after a short distance and past a sign warning of marmots crossing the road led to the edge of the Elk Falls pond, a tightly-constrcted wooden cabin along it's shore. From here the trail climbed steeply up a drainage as I followed the Lion's Back Trail around to an overlook of Elk Falls. The falls were frozen solid this time of year, a thick pillar of translucent gray and white emerging from a shadowy cleft in the rocks a half mile away and a thousand feet below my vantage. A couple of other hikers had seen this spot as a fitting place to welcome the New Year and we exchanged well wishes to each other before departing the viewpoint.
Running back down the trail was gratefully easier than the way up and I quickly returned to the pond where the Marmot Passage Trail cuts up a rocky knoll that I had circumvented on the road that brought me to the pond on the way out. Not far up the trail a windblown tree shaded the trail and upon my approach then newly fallen layer of snow concealed the glare ice on the trail just below. When my foot touched down on the ice I had no hope of saving myself and I hit the ground instantly, with a heavy thud and without grace. With a bruised thigh and tweaked wrist, I resumed an easy uphill pace. The trail had been built recently with a high value placed on views and as the trail wove around the contours of the rocky hill frequent glimpses of the area's cliffs and meadows offered the inspiration to make it to the next bed. When the trail bent back around to the other side of this knoll, the full grandeur of the Staunton Rocks, it's iron-rich rusted rock splashed green with lichen stood boldly above the valley. At the next junction I took a right to follow the Scout Line Trail along the ridgeline. The trail eventually descended into foot deep snow and I could feel my socks beginning to get wet. i was pleased that my gear for the day had hit the mark right to get me through the day intact. I began passing other park visitors in clusters of snowshoers and hikers, some with a few dogs bounding up the route. The trail dropped back to the Staunton Ranch Trail and reconnected with the first segment of the adventure. Though my legs felt tired after the ups and downs, I coasted back to the car satisfied with the first adventure of the new year complete. "Running in the New Year" may have to become a tradition.
Stop for a post-run lunch at Golden Stix, a chinese restaurant in Conifer. Their sesame chicken is a guilty pleasure that feels slightly less guilty on a day when you've huffed and puffed out on the trails.