The Platte River Basin is expansive and diverse. One of my favorite parts of this geography is Phantom Canyon, a small preserve nestled into the land where the mountains meet the plains, in the Laramie Foothills of northern Colorado.
Driving in, we nearly always spot pronghorn moving across the land, their soft brown eyes and white underbellies blending in with the yellow grass. The grassland ecosystem is home to many more creatures too—particularly those that can’t be seen from the road.
Before long the rolling hills melt away and suddenly a canyon edge opens up to a wide river bottom below. The view from the top never fails to impress me, providing a gorgeous, sweeping canvas for colors cast by the ever-changing sky above.
We have two permanent time-lapse camera systems here, which sit at different points on the canyon wall, looking down and out on the river below. It isn’t the Platte River but rather the North Fork of the Poudre, a tributary to the larger river that runs through Fort Collins. The Poudre supplies water to communities on Colorado’s Front Range and is an important part of the larger Platte Basin watershed. It empties into the South Platte River west of Greeley, Colo.
A system of cameras along the river bank can capture photos and videos of animals from multiple angles. We’ve already shared some of the most compelling shots on our Instagram feed, and we’ll be sharing more in our forthcoming web stories and documentary.
Like other camera locations in the basin, servicing these cameras is not an easy task—driving for hours, descending from the steep canyon rim on foot (and the bigger challenge of hiking back up), and crossing the river multiple times, often when it’s running strong. But it offers so many rewards.
The canyon bottom is a rich riparian habitat, above which tall canyon walls loom. Both bald and golden eagles nest in this canyon, along with redtailed hawks and prairie falcons. This land has been owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) since 1987. The group manages the property to maintain the health of native plant and animal communities and offers guided opportunities for visitors during the summer.
According to TNC, the canyon plays host to more than 200 bird species, and more than three times as many plant species. Because of its wealth of diverse and quality habitat, the canyon provides many opportunities for research and study.
Each time I return I learn more about this particular part of our geography, and its complex and vital role in the larger Platte River Basin.
On my last trip there, we were lucky enough to witness a full moon, rising above the canyon’s edge. I know we will pull many stories from Phantom Canyon’s depths, and look forward to sharing them.