Filoha Meadows: ‘Little Yellowstone’ on the Crystal |

Filoha Meadows: ‘Little Yellowstone’ on the Crystal

Janet Urquhart
Special to The Aspen Times
The Roaring Fork Conservancy’s Liza Mitchell (front, left) leads a large group at one of last year’s Filoha Meadows tours. The Filoha events, underwritten by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, are among the conservancy’s most popular programs. Public access to Filoha is limited, making the tours the best way to see the property.
Photo courtesy of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails |

Filoha Meadows Nature Preserve, a spectacular but sensitive stretch of habitat along the Crystal River north of Redstone, is among Pitkin County’s most unusual open space holdings.

Thermally heated wetlands, locally rare orchids and a population of fireflies — an insect rarely seen in the mountains — are among the attractions for those who sign up for a guided tour.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy offers a series of programs at Filoha each summer, and they always fill up, according to Liza Mitchell, watershed education and outreach coordinator. She leads many of the outings.

“Filoha Meadows is a particularly popular one. People will be waiting for the registration to open up online,” she said. “There’s almost always a waiting list.”

Group size in the programs is capped and registration is required. The programs are free, underwritten by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

The conservancy tours allow visitors to experience areas of Filoha Meadows that are otherwise off-limits. Along with access limitations, Filoha has the most restrictive seasonal closure of any property under the purview of the county’s Open Space and Trails program. It is only open from July through September, from a half-hour after sunrise to a half-hour before sunset. Visitors must park in Redstone and walk or bike to the entrance gate at the south end of the property, off Dorais Way. Bikes must be left at the gate — it’s walking only on the open space, and visitors are limited to strolling on the dirt wagon road that traverses the property. Dogs and horses are not permitted.

The walk makes for a delightful outing, but Conservancy programs provide access to Filoha’s unusual bogs and a relaxation of the night-time restriction in order to watch the dancing fireflies and the Townsend’s big-eared bats that flutter haphazardly across the darkening sky.

Conservancy-led groups have direct access to the Meadows on the east side of the Crystal River via a private bridge and are allowed to explore areas away from the wagon road.

Visitors tend to be amazed, according to the Conservancy’s Mitchell.

“I often ask people what they’re most excited about. It’s usually a pretty good split between the orchids and the fireflies. Even people who aren’t expecting to see orchids get pretty excited about them,” she said. “When the fireflies start coming out at night, everybody — the kids and adults — get excited. They kind of bring out the childlike wonder in everyone.”

The thermal wetlands boast several rare plant species.

They also create unusual winter forage by melting the snow and providing habitat to bighorn sheep and elk. “Filoha” is an Ethiopian word for “hot water.” The property was so-named by a former owner who spent time in the African country. The area’s thermal features are also evident at Penny Hot Springs, an open space amenity at the north end of Filoha Meadows, on the west side of the river. It attracts bathers year-round.

It’s likely that Filoha’s sunny exposure, hot springs and gentle river access have always attracted the interest of humans in the Crystal River Valley. Eyewitnesses in 1950 could recall Ute Indian seasonal encampments near the hot springs during the Utes’ annual migration to hunting lands southwest of Redstone, according to “Some Facts and Conjectures About the Crystal River Valley in Colorado” by Alvin Foote.

The road through the property was in place by 1885.

It was called Rock Creek Road and connected Carbondale to what is now Redstone. Less than a decade later, the Crystal River Railroad would follow the same general route, and steam engines chugged through the meadows, stopping to serve passengers who were heading to and from a thermal soak at Hot Springs, as it was known in those days.

At one time, there were bathhouses and guest accommodations on the property.

Later, the meadows would see cattle and potato production.

Dale Will, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and an occasional participant in the Conservancy tours, has been known to launch into a colorful recap on the history of a property he likes to call “little Yellowstone.”

“It’s got the most extraordinary biodiversity of anything in our system, with the multitude of rare species, the bighorn sheep,” he said. “And the human history there is just extraordinary. It’s one of the only places where we have documented, eyewitness sightings of a Ute campsite. On top of that, the scenery is so beautiful that Disney chose it for a movie setting.”

The Disney film, “Tall Tales,” was truly forgettable, but relics of the movie set remain in the form of a faux homestead and water wheel that still stand on private property adjacent to Filoha Meadows. Tour participants get a close-up look at the immense wheel.

More intrusive development at Filoha was avoided when, in 2001, Open Space and Trails acquired about 145 acres east of the river that had already been subdivided for residential development.

Another 50 acres was purchased in 2003. Penny Hot Springs, consisting of an acre and a half, was folded into the Open Space umbrella in 1999.

The end result is close to 200 acres of key habitat and a seriously stunning view for those who take the time to visit on foot or simply drive by on Highway 133.

Janet Urquhart is Stewardship and Outreach Coordinator with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

Filoha Meadows Nature Preserve

Roaring Fork Conservancy events at Filoha Meadows Nature Preserve are free, sponsored by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, but registration is required. Go to http://www.roaring to sign up.

July 6 – Firefly and Rare Orchid Walk

July 7 – Family Nights at Filoha: Fireflies, Bats and Bugs

July 11 – Firefly and Rare Orchid Walk

July 18 – Family Nights at Filoha: Fireflies, Bats and Bugs

July 19 – Firefly and Rare Orchid Walk

July 21 – Family Nights at Filoha: Fireflies, Bats and Bugs

Aug. 11 – Program TBD

Aug. 13 – Family Exploration at Filoha

Aug. 18 – Family Exploration at Filoha

Sept. 10 – Family Exploration at Filoha