Science Ranch 2012 was held September 16-20 at the C Lazy U Ranch in Granby, Colorado. The C Lazy U sits in a gorgeous valley just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, at an elevation of 8,300 feet.
We brought along a team of scientists to help guests engage their brains and discover the beauty of the natural world around the ranch. Phil Plait, PhD, is our resident astronomer, and he gave talks about space exploration and the wonders of the night sky… which included using his 8-inch Celestron telescope at night to show guests the celestial objects to be seen in the incredibly dark sky above the ranch. Holly Brunkal, PhD, is a rock doc who taught us about the geology of the Rocky Mountains and helped us identify features of the landscape. Dave Armstrong, PhD, is a biologist who helped us understand the complicated and beautiful Colorado ecosystems around the ranch.
The first full day of our stay began with an amazing breakfast buffet followed by a talk and guided discovery hike by our ecologist, Dave Armstrong. Dave taught us about the evergreen forests around us and why some aspen trees were turning yellow and some were turning orange (hint: cloning is involved). He also taught us which critters had dug which holes along our trail and described the amazing ingenuity of the pocket gopher – an adorable denizen of the region that makes pockets out of extra skin behind its cheeks for storing groceries.
After our morning walk with Dave, we all had lunch together and then went off for afternoon activities. Horseback riding was clearly the call for the day – many guests rode a horse for the first time that afternoon, and some enjoyed it so much they rode every day after that! Other guests mountain biked, tried trap shooting, played horseshoes or went off to explore other parts of the ranch. Before dinner we enjoyed an entertaining astronomy talk by Phil entitled “Death from the Skies”, about asteroid impacts and how we might just be able to save the Earth from them. Dinner was an outdoor affair by the pool, followed by stargazing with Phil and his telescope. The sky overhead was so dark that the Milky Way was easily visible. Several guests chose to wrap up their evening with a soak in the huge hot tub out under the stars.
The second day we were treated to a geology talk by Holly Brunkal. Holly gave us a brief history of the Rocky Mountains from the Precambrian Era to now. She told us that the first Rocky Mountains were over 30,000 feet high but ultimately eroded completely away. The central U.S. was then covered by a great inland ocean and finally plate tectonics pushed up the second Rocky Mountains that we see today. Holly then took us out into the field to show us the different layers of rock from different geologic eras exposed in the hills around us. She let us use her hammers and magnifying glasses to smash rocks and find the secrets hidden inside.
That afternoon we each chose our ranch activity. It seemed that horseback riding had become very popular overnight, but some guests chose to challenge themselves on the ropes course or tried archery.
After a delicious homestyle dinner in the lodge, Phil told us all about the Mars Curiosity rover and showed us some of the magnificent images it has returned to Earth. Then there was more stargazing followed by everyone’s favorite, the hot tub.
Our last full day at C Lazy U started off with short talks by Holly and Dave, followed by a joint science hike along a creek. Dave pointed out beaver dams and Holly helped us identify rocks in a dry portion of the creek bed. At the end of the trail guests found plant fossils and petrified wood – talk about a discovery walk!
Of course, there was more horseback riding that day too. A lot of wildlife was seen on the trail, including bear, moose, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, fox, coyotes, and lots of cute little critters like chipmunks.
That evening after an incredible steak cookout, Phil gave us a slide show of pretty pictures of the astronomical objects guests had observed at the ranch. Afterward, we all sat around the bonfire telling tall tales and enjoying each other’s company.
Since leaving the C Lazy U Ranch we’ve been staying in touch with each other through Facebook, swapping pictures and stories. We’re warmed by the camaraderie that spontaneously arose over our few days in the mountains. We arrived at the ranch a group of strangers with common interests… but we left as a group of friends looking forward to the next time we could vacation together.
[For more pictures and stories about Science Ranch 2012, see Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog post wrapping up the vacation.]