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Mud Season is Upon Us in North Park

Mud Season Is Upon Us

Since the days have started getting longer the occasional snowstorms in North Park have started to lose their bite. In spite of our high altitude and mountain climate, a lot of the water North Park receives arrives in late winter and early spring. With higher temperatures, snow isn’t accumulating as much as it was in the dead of winter. All of that water needs to go somewhere. The weeks between the end of winter weather in North Park and the beginning of spring is affectionately known as Mud Season.

What is Mud Season?

The newly acquainted visitor to North Park might think of this region of the Rocky Mountains as having only a few limited seasons. What stands for the seasons on a calendar doesn’t necessarily apply to the high country of Colorado. Not only does North Park get all four seasons, we have a few others thrown in that might leave visitors scratching their heads.

Winter in the high country has a tight hold on our high desert valley. Surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges, the beginning of Spring in North Park can be…tempermental to say the least. It isn’t uncommon for a heavy snowfall as late as June (and even July!) up in the mountains. 

Those first rains and thunderstorms can happen as early as March or as late as early June. Trees and willow stands might begin to leaf out, attracting migrating moose to Walden—usually at the end of April and throughout May. It isn’t unusual for locals to report moose being born right in their front yards. Though not as aggressive as during the rutting season, mother moose are extremely defensive, especially of newborn calves.

Mud Season is a mid season, between the tail end of a wet winter and spring runoff. Areas may become flooded with water that has nowhere to go. Ice dams prevent the flow of water downstream and so the melted snow sits on partially frozen ground that allows it to seep only so far into the earth. More rains and wet snows mean more mud as the ground continues to warm up!

Why Mud?

North Park is the remnant of an ancient glacial basin, left over from before the last Ice Age, when glaciers carved the canyons and valleys of the surrounding mountains. Long before that—millions and millions of years before—North Park was part of an inland seabed which ran up through the interior of what would become the North American continent. This shallow inland sea was home to a variety of sea life. Mollusks, invertebrates, sharks, and even prehistoric crocodiles lived in the region.

Much of the fossil record of North Park is recorded in a thin layer of Cambrian and Pre-cambrian sandstone. Sand from that time is part of the reason for all of this mud. In some places in North Park, you can still find shark teeth, fossils of ammonites, and other sea creatures in the rocks. Deeper down, fossils of much earlier periods have been found, painting an entirely different picture of the area. The evidence of deciduous forests have been found fossilized in carboniferous coal pits, revealing leaves that aren’t much different from the aspens you might see today.

A Watershed Moment

North Park makes up an intermountain basin that collects water from several mountain ranges. The Neversummer Range, the Medicine Bow, the Park Range, and connecting ranges in between. On the east side of Cameron Pass, the Cache la Poudre River begins somewhere at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The runoff water coming down on the Jackson County side joins the Michigan River and eventually finds its way north. Several river systems wind their way through Jackson County. The Illinois River, Canadian River, Grizzly Creek, and many others feed into the arterial watershed of the North Platte River, which eventually joins the Missouri River and empties into the Mississippi and then the Gulf of Mexico.

Soil Composition of North Park Mud

Throughout geological time, layers of sand and clay and the particulates of glacial tailings make a place that is ideal for mud. This mud can turn even the most harmless looking dirt road into a nearly frictionless surface that is hard to navigate even with four wheel drive. This is why Mud Season often means logging companies take a few weeks off before venturing back into the woods. And why much of our public lands still remain off limits.

As a relatively “young” topsoil, our glacial mud lacks a lot of the organic materials common in soil found at lower altitudes. Much of it is sand or clay. Over time, and with some help from the wetlands, that will continue to change.

The Ecology of Wetlands in North Park

Mud season is actually a good thing for the North Park ecosystem. It allows water to stay a little bit longer and reach the underground depths of aquifers in our water table. A problem most deserts encounter is their inability to hold onto water due to soil composition. Without mud, a lot of that water would just rush off to the sea via the river systems. In North Park, it gets to stay a while and provide a habitat for wetlands.

Wetlands are a crucial part of the ecosystem. Not only do they help purify water and break down organic materials, but they also play a critical role in providing habitats for a large diversity of birds, amphibians, fish, and even large game animals—like the moose! And our less popular residents, the mosquito. Our waterways provide forage for our ranching industry. Not only food and a water supply for cattle, but also a yearly hay crop that is known throughout the world for its quality.

How Wetlands Help the Environment

Wetlands are a great way to trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help produce oxygen. They are a veritable supermarket when it comes to providing food for animals and work to clean and filter ground water. Wetlands also help bond organic material to soil and create environments for nitrogen fixing bacteria, which provide the building blocks for good topsoil.

Unfortunately, land is often developed at the cost of wetlands. Much of the wetlands in the Front Range between Fort Collins and Denver has been razed for subdivisions or drained for large scale commercial farming. These practices have pushed wildlife out of areas that aren’t protected. Luckily for North Park, our human population remains low enough to sustain these fragile ecosystems without the threat of urban sprawl.

The Arapahoe National Wildlife Refuge

A large portion of land along the Illinois River has been set aside for the Arapahoe National Wildlife Refuge. Several varieties of ducks call these wetlands home and North Park has long been a stopover for migrating waterfowl such as Canada Geese and even Sandhill Cranes. Visitors are encouraged to visit the wetlands on nature trails, walking, and driving tours. 

Each year, bird watchers come to see the mating dance of the Greater Sage Grouse, whose leks (mating grounds) can be found in the wetlands of North Park. North Park is one of the best places in the United States to see the dance of the sage grouse.

Much of the year, the basins and waterways of the Arapahoe National Wildlife refuge offer spectacular views and habitat for a wide range of fish, amphibians, insects, and larger wildlife such as raptors, waterfowl, and big game animals. From mallard ducks to impressive elk herds and more, these wetlands are a vital part of not only North Park’s ecosystem, but also the economy. This area could easily be considered a crown jewel of Colorado’s wetlands.

Good, Clean, Mud

Anybody who has been through a North Park mud season might dread what several weeks of partially frozen, slippery mud will bring. As with the many other mico-seasons inhabitants of North Park understand, the mud season will pass, and with Spring runoff, Summer isn’t far away. Mud season might be a total mess for residents and visitors, but it is an important part of maintaining the balance of micro-climates, wildlife diversity, and water purification in North Park. 

Follow www.visitnorthparkco.com and our social media channels for more information about North Park, Colorado. From mountains and valleys to sleepy towns and people with a lot of character, this is the real Colorado experience. Your new favorite place is about to be discovered!



 

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