Legends of the fall

Hiking expert and author suggests treks that illuminate the colors of autumn

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'Hiking the 'Boat II' author Diane White-Crane and her llama, Jeremiah, hike above the South Fork Elk River with the craggy expanse of the Mount Zirkel Wildreness Area in the distance.

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White-Crane says the sound of aspen leaves blowing in the fall wind "do wonderful things for my spirit."

— With the clock ticking on chances to get outside and soak in the fall colors, I decided to go to Routt County's aspen leaf connoisseur to get advice on where to find the 'Boat's best autumn views. As author of 'Hiking the 'Boat II,' Diane White-Crane has settled into a comfortable semi-retirement at her home on "Llama Drive," just outside of Clark.

Since the second printing of her classic guide to 108 hikes in the area, White-Crane has stayed busy starting interactive children's programs using her seven llamas.

White-Crane, 61, has carved a self-proclaimed "mini-celebrity" niche as the Llama Lady. She has made numerous television appearances and authored and released children's books and CDs.

But White-Crane originally embraced the quirky animals to help her access the longer, overnight hikes detailed in her guide.

Before moving onto the llama farm property two years ago, White-Crane spent her summers in Steamboat. She devoted herself full-time to covering hikes in the area when she decided to expand the original 30-hike guide, published in 1992. She did four hikes a week, often with the aid of llamas.

White-Crane feels like the book is now a definitive and complete source for everything "worth hiking in the area." She also feels that she intimately knows each hike, even though she jokes she can't remember where she parks at the grocery store.

She has a passion for the changing hues of aspen leaves, writing poems about their soul-nurturing qualities. She has kept track of their optimal color window since planning for her 1976 wedding - a ceremony in an aspen grove outside of Aspen.

While she now bases her foliage hikes around the color peak that coincides with her Sept. 25 anniversary, White-Crane noted the later, and much shorter, peak to this year's transition.

On Thursday morning we set out for a hike along the South Fork of the Elk River to find what is quickly becoming sparse pockets of golden foliage. White-Crane was delighted to walk on the blankets of leaves and be showered in falling ones as the wind picked up.

"Even with the leaves off, and walking on a foot of leaves, you get the rich tannin smell," White-Crane said. "With the trembling and quaking of the trees and the sounds of the leaves, aspens do wonderful things for my spirit. The fall blows you away."

Of the "color hikes" White-Crane suggests, the following few, listed in her book in much more detail, jumped to the top of the list for catching the color.

- Heart Lake Trail. This long, moderately steep jaunt just outside the Flat Tops Wilderness Area is one of White-Crane's sure guarantees for impressive photos, as it works it way "through glorious stands of aspens, open lush meadows and parks, and cooling thick, forests of spruce and fir." The sweeping views are recommended even if you're not feeling up to the 6.5-mile hike to the lake.

Directions: Take a right off Main Street in Yampa at the Antler's Inn onto C.R. 7/ F.S. 900. Drive southwest for 10 miles, before the Yamcolo Reservoir to the trailhead sign. Take a right just after the sign and follow the gravel road to the parking area.

Hikers should note that with the exception of a couple bird hunting seasons, they will have the trails to themselves until Saturday, the start of first rifle season. Because of the prospect of high hunter ATV traffic on the weekends along trails like those of Heart Lake trail 1110, hikers can find non-motorized solitude in some of the trails in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, accessible by heading east out of Clark on Seedhouse Road (C.R. 64), which becomes F.S. 400.

- Gold Creek Lake. One of the prime destination hikes in the Zirkels, trail 1150 climbs up a narrow forested valley parallel to Gold Creek for three miles to a log crossing that can be tricky at higher levels in the summer, but shouldn't be a problem during fall's lower flows. Cross the creek and it's another moderate half-mile climb to the lake. If satisfied by the pockets of color in the valley, those who don't want to complete the hike to the lake can opt for the cascading 35-foot waterfall, about one and three-quarters of mile in.

Directions: Head east 12.9 miles until F.S. 400 ends at the Slavonia trailhead parking lot. Follow the signs to trail 1150.

- Three Island Lake Trail. Another moderately steep 3.5-mile hike just beneath the Continental Divide was another top pick of White-Crane's for striking views of the snow-speckled Sawtooth Range mixed with the striking contrast of bright aspen leaves with stands of pines in the South Fork of the Elk River Valley.

Directions: Turn right off Seedhouse Road, .7 mile past the Seedhouse Campground, onto F.S. 443. Drive 3.2 miles to the second trailhead sign for Three Island Lake (1163).

- Wyoming Trail. White-Crane suggested this hike for those with children or those not interested in a serious all-day venture who still would like to find a photogenic vantage point with potential for wildlife viewing. Take the gentle stroll along the trail, paralleling the Continental Divide, two miles north to its intersection with the Newcomb Creek Trail (1132) for "expansive views both east and west."

Going south on 1101 on the three-mile hike from the upper Summit Lake parking lot to Grizzly Lake is a comparable family option with views of Rabbit Ears Peak.

Directions: Take Strawberry Park Road north out of town to a right onto C.R. 38 (Buffalo Pass Road). Go about 13 miles on this dirt, but car accessible, road to the 1101 trailhead sign on the left just before Summit Lake. The parking area is just past the sign on the right.

- Uranium Mine. For those pressed for time, White-Crane suggested this hike for a prime view of the season's changing colors on both Mount Werner and looking down onto Fish Creek Falls. This short, 1.5-miler quickly gains 800 feet of elevation in switchbacks on its way past the old mine to the North Fork of Fish Creek.

Directions: Take Fish Creek Falls Road three miles east of town to the lower parking area for Fish Creek Falls (day-use fees apply). Walk about 100 yards up the sidewalk and look for the trail that cuts up to the left.

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