Heaven on the Devil’s Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone may look – and sound – intimidating, but this unusual stretch of craggy rock offers Coloradans a heavenly time on the outskirts of Loveland.

(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

A place named Devil’s Backbone may conjure images of a hellish landscape to be avoided at all costs. This unusual geological formation between Loveland and the Rocky Mountains instead attracts solace-seekers to find their own version of heaven on Earth.

The Backbone is a beloved, two-mile strip of Dakota sandstone that rises from the rock and soil in a buffer zone between mountains and plains west of Loveland.

Like its sister hogbacks common along Colorado’s Front Range, including Roxborough State Park and Garden of the Gods, this Larimer County landmark has its own ghoulishly beautiful character.

Pinnacles rising more than 200 feet above surrounding valleys are eroded into angular arches; the most famous portal is the Keyhole. The Backbone’s crags are safe haven for nesting raptors like red-tailed hawks and great horned and barn owls. Mammals like mule deer, elk, bear and mountain lion lurk under its slopes. Keen eyes might even spot lizards sunning themselves on rock outcroppings. Early summer visitors are privileged to find a yellow flower of the rare Bell’s twinpod, which grows here and in a few isolated spots in Boulder and Jefferson County – and nowhere else in the world.

Prehistoric fossils are discovered here, too, including an ancient elephant with 5-foot-long tusks now on display at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Today, nearly 2,200 acres on the east side of the formation are preserved under Larimer County law as the Devil’s Backbone Open Space. This human habitat offers recreation options for hikers, bikers, horseback riders and trail runners.

“Outdoor recreation is a symbol of the quality of life of people in Colorado,” said Kerri Rollins, program manager for Larimer County Open Lands. It makes perfect sense, she said, that a place like Devil’s Backbone should be open to the people who can appreciate its complex beauty.

Though it rises along Highway 34 in stark contrast to the land around it, the Backbone is no island. Its trails are connected to others in a series of adjacent open spaces, creating a natural break between the urban zones of Loveland and Fort Collins. Hikers can start at the Devil’s Backbone Trailhead and travel 15 miles to Lory State Park west of Fort Collins without leaving Larimer County land.

This connection was made possible by an extraordinary amount of community support, more than a decade of careful land purchases and a little bit of luck. In a time of population growth on Colorado’s Front Range, open land is becoming rare.

Devil’s Backbone was the first Larimer open space and it was made possible by a 1995 voter-initiated sales tax that passed by a 65 percent margin. After the vote, the county took up the task of finding landowners who were willing to sell their swaths on the east end of the formation. Some acquisitions came quickly, while others required patience. The county purchased an area of the Indian Creek property on the north end of the space from a Florida real estate company that lowered its sale price only after a bankruptcy and nearly 10 years of negotiations.

The Devil’s Backbone became a template for other open spaces that followed. Since 1996, Larimer County has protected more than 44,000 acres. The statewide fund Great Outdoors Colorado was so impressed with how well Larimer communities cooperated to share tax dollars that it also contributed grant money for additional trail construction. Visitors now take advantage of an opportunity to conveniently enjoy nature near one of the county’s largest cities.

“You almost can’t measure the value of this environment so close to Loveland,” said Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly. “Even on a day when it’s busy, you’re still able to get some quiet. It’s a contemplative spot.”

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