About The Other Colorado

About The Other Colorado

If you haven’t been to the eastern part of the state, when you think of Colorado what likely comes to mind are the mountainous heights, snow-capped and reaching for the sky above lushly forested flanks and foothills, teeming with wildlife and Nature. Headwaters of rivers begin their mighty flows as trickles from snowmelt and high mountain glaciers, cascading to majestic streams such as the Platte and the Colorado.

That image is true of the Rocky Mountain ranges, which run north and south through the central portion of the state, extending into Wyoming, New Mexico, and points beyond. To the west, the mountains taper off into lower elevations of red rocks and arid mesas, spilling over into Utah. To the east, the land falls abruptly from the Front Range mountains to short-grass prairie. Colorado’s major metropolitan areas nestle along the base of the Front Range where breaks in the wall of mountains provide passes into the mountainous west. Elevation at the base of these mountains ranges from roughly 4,000 to 7,000 feet. (Denver, the Mile High City, hovers around 5,280 feet.) The elevation gradually decreases from the base of the Front Range across the high prairie out to the east.

This eastern portion of the state gets drier from north to south. The cities are fairly well treed, but eastward from about Colorado Springs and points south, it’s semi-arid with little to no surface water. Most of the small “streams” shown on the maps are sandy dry washes, most of which no longer even puddle during a rain. It’s not entirely flat – there are worn mesas and rolling grassland. Cottonwoods grow wild along the few year-round streams. Homesteaders (of which there are few) have planted windbreaks of hardy, drought-tolerant deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs: Siberian Elm, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Eastern Red Cedar, lofty Ponderosa Pine, lilac, American plum, skunk bush, New Mexico privet, golden currant.

Lest you conjure up images of lush, waving shoulder high grasses of the Great Plains, let me explain that short-grass prairie lacks sufficient moisture and soil nutrients to nurture tall grasses. Vegetation here is short and sparse. Among the various forbs (“weeds” such as fringed sage, curly-cup gumweed, and lupine) grow a few native grasses, the two most prolific being blue grama and buffalo grass. Buffalo grass may reach ankle height at its loftiest. Blue grama grass (whose seed heads tower above its leaves) may reach knee height in a wet year, or hunker down amongst the buffalo grass when it’s dry. It takes thirty-five acres of these native grasses to feed a horse or cow for a year.

The “other” Colorado is a world apart from the westward tree-covered mountain ranges we admire from out here at sunset. Winter blizzards, drought, and desiccating winds make for a tough environment and a tough life for tough people.