Carpets and Cathedrals of Gold
Autumn horseback riding is simply the best. After a summer of hard work, both horses and riders are in top condition. The weather suits athletic activity perfectly with warm, but not hot, days coupled with cool nights. Not yet cold enough to bring on horses’ winter coats, riders need only a sweatshirt or sweater to say warm. Everyone is ready to roll; the horses seem to enjoy autumn rides every bit as much as their riders.
Trail conditions are also at their best. A summer of foot and horse traffic have cleared all the downfall, while Forest Service trail crews completed their annual maintenance activities by rebuilding bridges, adding gravel, and shoring up mountain passes. Early snowfalls top the mountains, which combine with the many hues of yellow, orange, and red that creep across the landscape to form picture-perfect scenes.
While other parts of North America boast of their spectacularly autumn-colored deciduous hardwood forests, in this part of Montana, the western and alpine larch are the autumn celebrities. Newcomers to the region often think our forests are dying as the mountain larch begins to turn gold. They are unaccustomed to these unique deciduous (annually shedding leaves) conifers (cone-bearing trees). Lovely Larchiness by the Montana Natural History Center describes them best. Montana can lay claim to housing the world’s largest western larch—a tree named Gus, near Seeley Lake.
For Dunrovin, in autumn, no place calls to us more than Carlton Ridge on the skirts of Lolo Peak. Lolo Peak is iconic to Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. It fills Dunrovin’s view to the west. Our DaysAtDunrovin web-camera viewers watch the seasons pass over the mountain. The eastern portion of our Lolo Peak view is a place called Carlton Ridge. The Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area boasts the most extensive forest of alpine larch in the United States. In autumn, Carlton Ridge is other-worldly, a spiritual place, a cathedral of gold. It is where we trek to breathe in the magic and replenish our souls.We keep a careful eye on the mountain, waiting for the first signs of color to tinge the top of the ridge. We wait and we wait. We are greedy. We want the alpine larch at the height of their golden glory. Yet if we wait too long, they become inaccessible. A little new snow adds much to our excitement, while too much snow makes the trail impassable. Timing is everything, and in some years our timing is off and we miss out completely.
Last year, our timing was perfect. Through trails of gold, our horses’ feet led us up and up to that golden cathedral under a crisp blue autumn sky. It cast its spell, held us close to Mother Earth, and filled our hearts and lungs with mountain air. The splendor of the moment is made all the more acute by its ephemeral quality. This cannot last; it passes quickly. It is to be savored. It can only live in our memories.
Our Carlton Ridge memories are vivid as they linger. They call us again each year. As the summer breaks and autumn is on the horizon, our eyes lift up to the ridge to wait and wait again for just the right moment. Our rewards are worth the wait.
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