Hike Soapstone Prairie Natural Area

July 8 2014, 8:30 AM

Archaeological artifacts found at Soapstone Prairie show that paleoindians lived and hunted here during the last Ice Age

Why we love it: Endless vistas and absolute silence offer a blissful break from the workweek.

When to go:  Spring through fall; the area is closed from December to February.


Located about 25 miles north of Fort Collins, Soapstone Prairie is part of the Laramie Foothills, a dramatic landscape where the plains meet the mountains. This parcel was a linchpin in an impressive conservation effort that has protected nearly 200,000 acres of foothills-to-plains terrain, preserving a critical wildlife corridor and an ecosystem that, due to its wide-ranging wildlife migrations, can only be successfully conserved on a large scale.

Soapstone encompasses over 18,000 acres, including isolated wetlands, extensive shortgrass prairie, and rolling hills studded with shrubs. This ecological patchwork offers high-quality habitat for wildlife, including elk, swift fox, black-tailed prairie dogs, and mule deer. The land also supports over 130 species of birds, including nesting golden eagles and burrowing owls, and offers critical wintering habitat for sleek pronghorn.

The area also preserves the Lindenmeier archaeological site, one of the most important in the Western hemisphere. Its record of human occupation dates back over 12,000 years—twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids—and indicates that these hills were once home to Paleoindians who lived amongst and hunted giant mammoths and bison during Earth’s last Ice Age. Excavations here in the 1930s unearthed bone and stone tools, scrapers, arrowheads, and spear points, as well as tiny decorative beads and etched disks from a Stone Age culture characterized by cooperative big-game hunting and sophisticated stone-chipping technology.

Fortunately, this land was re-opened to the public five years ago for the first time since the 1870’s. Because the terrain isn’t very steep and the parcel adjoins Larimer County’s Red Mountain Open Space parcel, Soapstone is a great place for trail runs as well as hiking, biking, and on a few trails, horseback riding.

From the northern parking lot it’s only 0.25 mile to an overlook of the archaeological site. The adjacent 3-mile Towhee Loop climbs up onto the top of the mesa to offer great views from the edge of the high plains to the east to Comanche Peak at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. From the south parking lot, the 7.5-mile-long Pronghorn Loop is a great place to start exploring the extensive trail network in this relatively unknown parcel whose artifacts have rewritten North American history books.

Getting there: From I-25 North, take exit 288 (Buckeye Road) west to County Road 15. Head north on CR-15, then turn north onto Rawhide Flats Road. Follow this to the entrance station and south parking lot.