Backcountry Wilderness Area is a Gem for Highlands Ranch Residents, Conservationists and Wildlife

It all started with a pony ride, a trip around a round pen on an early June afternoon at the Backcountry Wilderness Area Base Camp. Three-year-old Ashley Wellen watched from outside the horse panels as her twin sister, Whitney, confidently sat atop the saddle and Cabo the pony walked. When Ashley’s turn came, the kid who feared everything from ladybugs to Pomeranian pups saw grave danger in this seemingly “fun” activity.

The one-minute trip around the pen required a constant bear hug from her dad, Jeff. The encounter with Cabo led to regular pony classes and Eco Explorers preschool nature programs for both girls. And by the end of the summer, the once timid Ashley rode—reins in hand—around the pen all by herself—no bear hug necessary.

“My daughter, who wouldn’t ride a pony a year ago, now has a photo of herself touching a snake from this summer,” Marjorie Wellen, the twins’ mother, says. “Instead of being afraid of animals, there’s now an appreciation.” 

That’s part of the HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area’s nonprofit mission: To improve wildlife habitat, inspire the next generation of nature stewards and ignite a lifelong love of the outdoors for all. And if the Backcountry’s programs connect youth and adults to the property, these budding naturalists should see its value to the community and grow into the conservationists of the future. They will be the ones who make the decisions to continue habitat protections that were first placed on the Backcountry Wilderness Area more than 30 years ago. 

The Highlands Ranch Community Association acquired the Backcountry Wilderness Area in 2009, and the now 13 square miles of protected wildlife habitat are an island of conservation in the middle of on-going development.

Jeff Wellen, who grew up in Littleton before moving to Highlands Ranch in 2010, says when the first homes started popping up in Highlands Ranch nearly 40 years ago, he was angry that a neighborhood was taking up wild space and pushing wildlife away.

“Growing up, if I’d known that this special property was set aside and protected, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated,” Jeff says.

Most people don’t comprehend the expanse of the Backcountry Wilderness Area—which is larger than Chatfield and Cherry Creek state parks combined.

“People pushed for protections of this property in the past, and now it’s a model of conservation on the Front Range,” says Mark Giebel, the director of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. “As the battle over wild places happens, and the balance between recreation and conservation is learned, it’s the responsibility of each of us to focus on improving this wildlife habitat property and love that it exists so close to our everyday lives.”

The Backcountry Wilderness Area spans from the southern edge of Highlands Ranch almost to Sedalia in the south, Monarch Boulevard to the east and Santa Fe to the west. And it’s filled with life—not only the giggles of nearly 1,000 children building forts and finding bugs at Camp Backcountry, but the sound of horses’ hooves on the trail and the whiz of arrows as sportsmen and women test their skills on the state-of-the-art archery and 3D archery ranges; it’s filled with a healthy ecosystem.

Highlands Ranch residents are encouraged to use the Highlands Point and Wildcat Mountain trail systems, along with the connective Douglas County East-West Trail, leaving the elk, deer, golden eagles, black bears, bluebirds, bobcats and even mountain lions to roam on the property they have always called home free from human disturbance.

And when people want to explore, there are year-round programs to access the Backcountry Wilderness Area in ways non-disruptive to wildlife like guided hikes and programs centered around the easily-accessible Base Camp area which also has resident goats, chickens and a donkey.

As people experience the Backcountry Wilderness Area, they also realize the immense work and cost it takes to care for it.

Giebel, who has managed the property since 2006 when the first part of the property, Wildcat Mountain, opened, says, “A property surrounded by development and people require intense habitat management to ensure a thriving ecosystem.” And, it’s a worthy cause for all involved.

Back the Backcountry Day is Nov. 14. Support the Backcountry Conservation and Education Fund, 501(c)(3), by becoming a Friend of the Backcountry annual member or making a one-time donation. Join us for our Back the Backcountry party 6-9 p.m. at Living the Dream Brewing Co. with live music, big giveaways and more! HRCAOnline.org/BackcountryFriends