Shiras Moose Sighting in Golden Gate Canyon State Park

On the way into Blackhawk, Colorado, where I was staying at a beautiful little cabin in the woods as a home base for my exploration of Rocky Mountain National Park, I passed numerous signs for Golden Gate Canyon State Park. I made a mental note to return during my stay.

My friend and colleague, Belinda, made time to join me at the quiet state park early on a Wednesday morning. She had moved to Denver from Kansas City early in the year, so it was a sweet reunion to see her and her chocolate lab, Cody.

Chocolate Lab Cody at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado

We agreed to meet early, not long after dawn, at the Snowshoe Hare Trail. It was a relatively easy 3-mile loop with the trailhead at Aspen Meadow Campground, with lots more trail options nearby. There had also been a number of moose sightings on this loop according to recent trail reports – a big selling point for me.

Snowshoe Hare Trail

The sun was just beginning to rise and there was hardly a soul in the park. The weather was gloriously cool, and it might have been the clearest day I have ever seen in Colorado. As with all my autumn outdoor explorations in the region, there was no shortage of the yellow aspens and green pine as my backdrop.

Yellow Aspen Leaves Against a Clear Blue Colorado Sky

I don’t think we had gone more than a half-mile at best before Cody stopped in his tracks on the edge of the trail facing into the woods. Within seconds we saw what had his attention – a humongous bull moose and his female companion approaching the trail.

Male Bull Moose Emerging from Aspens at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado

This time of year is the heart of the moose breeding season, called the “rut.” Our first priority was to get Cody and ourselves out of the immediate line of sight – fast – in case the moose became aggressive.

Female & Male Shiras Moose During Rut Season in Colorado

As much as I love up-close and personal views of wildlife, I also have a healthy respect for the animals. Weighing in between 800 and 1,200 pounds and reaching as much as 6 feet in height at the shoulder, Colorado’s Shiras moose is the largest big game mammal in the region.

Shiras Male Bull Moose at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado

Fortunately, Cody obeyed commands and joined us behind the aspen trunks to watch more safely from a distance. I frantically changed lenses and adjusted camera settings to prepare for the shots I wanted, and we waited patiently. The male made flirtatious noises in the female’s general direction, while she feigned disinterest and continued to nosh on twigs and leaves.

Then, the big male strode across the path and I managed to capture my final photograph of the bull moose silhouetted against a blanket of yellow aspen leaves and grasses.

Silhouetted Shiras Bull Moose in Golden Gate Canyon State Park Colorado

We lingered a bit longer to observe their morning ritual, then reversed course on our hike. We plodded uphill and out of the loop, meandered a bit more on the trails, then parted ways. While Belinda had to return to work for the day, I decided to stick around a little longer and hike the Buffalo Trail.

Buffalo Trail

Buffalo Trail at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado

The Buffalo Trail was a very mild 1.2-mile out and back trail that began at the Rifleman Phillips campground and ended at a place called the Forgotten Valley. At mid-morning I saw not a soul on this trail – no humans, no wildlife.

Forgotten Valley on Buffalo Trail at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

But at the end of the trail, I did come across the Tallman Ranch, a 19th-century Swedish homestead built by immigrant Anders Tallman and his family. The ranch house was originally a one-room schoolhouse he purchased and moved to the site to build upon.

Tallman Ranch House 19th Century Historic Site in Golden Gate Canyon State Park

The family stored milk, eggs, and butter in one of the shelters, but also meat that at times attracted bears.

Swedish-American Tallman Milk House at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado

Later, additional shelters were added, including a log barn, a horse stable, and a workshop. Four generations of Swedish-Americans lived on this historic site.

Swedish-American Tallman Horse Stable at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado

True, this road trip is focused on national parks, which always capture the most tourist attention. But I urge you not to overlook state parks. State parks are nearly always underrated and less trafficked, with awesome access to hiking, scenery, and wildlife. Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado lived up to and exceeded my expectations.

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