The Ancient and Honorable Order of Squirrels
text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
To The Trees!
The floodgates have opened. Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, and the mad dash to escape to the mountains is in full force.
The Highways and Byways once again carry eager nature seekers into the Rocky Mountains. The search for empty camping spots, less traveled hiking trails, and endless RV escapades signal another season of outdoor bliss. The mountain pass traffic and maxed-out roadside campgrounds drive me to seek more secluded surroundings.
So, I chose one of the more popular local spots as my next hike.
Yes, I’m surprised too. I'll spend hours scouring maps and Google Earth hoping to find an undiscovered location. Looking for a new, undiscovered trail. Sometimes, though, a particular destination is so unique, so special, I’ve got to see it.
Just The Facts
- Trail: Devil’s Head Trailhead #611
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 940 ft
- Distance: 2.8 (loop, plus 143 steps to the tower)
- Trail Use: Hiking
- Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
- Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
- Access: Mid-May through mid-September (best during Summer months)
- Trail Map: www.fs.usda.gov
- Entrance fee: FREE
Back By Popular Demand
20,000 visitors per year—on average. Devil’s Head Lookout Tower is a popular spot. It may not get record numbers like Rocky Mountain National Park (over 4.5 million in 2016) or even those of Garden of the Gods (estimated 2 million visitors per year). But, when you understand the effort it takes to reach Devil’s Head Lookout Tower...it’s an impressive number.
I arrived at the trailhead much later than normal. I knew access to the tower wouldn’t be available until 9:30 AM, so I gave myself a pass to start late. The weather forecast called for afternoon storms, but the morning hours looked to be picture perfect. Weather prediction is getting better (and more reliable) but hiking in the rain isn't usually the goal. Plus, I recommend steering clear of rain and lightning while on a mountain top.
I can always tell when a hike is popular. If there is overflow parking...it’s a busy place. Even though my start time was mid-morning, I was able to get a good spot at the main trailhead parking lot. If you don’t want to hike an extra half mile from the overflow lot, consider getting there early. Peak summer months will find the parking lot full by 8:00 AM.
I should let you know now, this isn’t an easy hike. The uphill climb doesn’t let up until you reach the very top. But, it’s worth it...I promise. I'm always expecting the first mile to be uphill, so anything other than an uphill start would be shocking. I rounded the first bend and found myself in the middle of a massive pile of flattened trees. “Wow! I wonder what happened here?” Well, there is a sign with details. How convenient!
On July 21, 2015 and EF1 tornado touched down, and cut a path 500 yards long and 100 yards wide. Now, if you’re familiar with tornados, you might know it’s uncommon for them to touchdown in the mountains. It’s practically unheard of. It doesn’t happen much, but this instance was more than unusual. Touchdown in a valley, at 8500 feet above sea level...not a classic formula for a twister. But, this is Colorado, our weather is weird.
It didn’t take long to get through the damaged trees. The downed trees fade into healthy, dense evergreens. A small stream flows near the trail, it’s murmur joined by the whisper of wind through the treetops. The spring flow isn’t strong, but it’s clean and cold.
I crossed a small bridge and immediately noticed some impressive boulders a few yards up the trail. Get used to it. This hike has heaps of granite boulders, rocks, and countless other hike-stopping formations. I love trails that weave around, beside, or through huge rocks, and this hike doesn’t let down.
Lewis and Clark would've hated having me along on their expedition.
"Who invited this guy? He's always stopping to draw a picture (a mobile camera wasn't invented yet), or gawk at the mountains!...winter is, like, only two month away, guys. Seriously, who needs that many drawings of rocks?" I'm sure Lewis sounded just like that.
I do have a problem with constantly stopping. I’m always finding something photograph-worthy along the trail. A huddle of rocks, an interesting curve in the path, a ray of light breaking through the branches. It’s a good problem to have, but I’m probably the worst person to hike with...if you’re in a hurry. Sorry.
Almost There, Or Not
I’d hoped for good weather, and I wasn’t disappointed. The wall of trees provide ample coverage, protecting me from the heat of the mid-morning sun. When there is a break in the trees I’d see breathtaking views stretching for miles. I even caught a glimpse of the Denver skyline which is 35 miles away.
I’m feeling pretty good when I reach the halfway point. There is a conspicuously placed sign alerting me to my progress.
Now, some may see this and think “Seriously, I’m only halfway there?!”. I understand, this isn’t a simple stroll in the park. The benches and tables are there for a reason. It’s important to keep a good pace, but more important to not wear out too fast. Hiking a trail like this will take some endurance, but you also want to enjoy it.
Not Open For Interpretation
There are two important signs posted related switchbacks. The first reads “PLEASE DO NOT CUT SWITCHBACKS”. I know it might seem like a medieval torture device, but switchbacks have an important role. I don’t always feel this is true, but they make the hike easier. If I had to climb straight up a mountain, I’d be wasted in no time.
Cutting a switchback causes damage, and uncontrolled erosion, to the hillside. If I scramble up the hillside, diverting from the designated path, I'm cutting a switchback. Switchbacks keep the trail at a consistent grade, and provide a safe route.
There is a lot of thought put into how a trail threads its way up a mountain. Nobody wants to hike a washed out gully. So, even if I’m exhausted, I always keep to the trail.
The second sign lets me know there are only three more switchbacks to go! Yay! I’m very close to the top now. I did hear more grumbles than shouts of joy?
A View From The Top
Do you know Fort Carson connection to the history of Devil’s Head? I sure didn't. Built in 1951, the ranger cabin and fire tower were constructed with help of the 973rd Construction Battalion from Fort Carson.
The cabin is home for the ranger during fire season, and the tower is still in use today. Devil's Head is the last of the original manned Colorado Front Range lookout towers.
The stairs to the tower, all 143 steps, add to the unique appeal of this hike. It’s not as bad as it looks, but I made sure I was ready before heading up. There is a small clearing near the ranger cabin which is tailor made for a picnic or quick snack. More and more hikers are starting to arrive, so I finished my Clif Bar, and walked to the tower.
There isn’t much room in the tower, so be prepared to share the space. No more than four people are allowed inside at the same time, so I had to wait a little before I could look around.
When I walked in, I was greeted by Billy Ellis. Billy has been manning this lookout for close to 40 years. He gives every visitor a souvenir—a card encouraging fire prevention, and membership into the Ancient and Honorable Order of Squirrels.
I didn’t get to speak with him too much, but he is quick to answer any question with a smile. He has an old Kelty backpack he bought back in the 1970s, and it’s probably old than me. A little faded and worn around the edges, rugged, reliable...exactly like Billy. He still packs it up every morning.
Billy gave a quick demonstration on how to use the Osborne FireFinder. He’s tacked trivia and unique facts all over the interior of the tower. I could have spent hours absorbing all the history in this tiny little building. I found a great interview of Billy by 5280 magazine here.
I walked out to the observation deck and soaked up the 360° views. Pikes Peak commands the horizon to the south, the Collegiate Peaks dominate to the west. On a clear day, you can see for at least a hundred miles without any obstructions. An ideal perch for finding a forest fire.
Before The Storm
While I stood on the observation deck, I could hear thunder in the distance. The gathering clouds getting darker and more threatening with each passing minute. I wasn’t in the mood to get rained on, so I made my way back down.
Afternoon storms (at least in the high country) develop like clockwork during the summer months. It’s a good idea to get off the mountain before rain, or lightning, moves in. Lightning strikes start a lot of forest fires every year. It’s good to know Devil’s Head Lookout still provides a valuable service and will be here for years to come.
Packed parking lots, large crowds streaming up the mountainside, Devil’s Head Lookout is a busy place. Solitude has its advantages, but sometimes—every now and then—following the crowd leads to something unexpected and memorable.