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The Geological History of Boulder County’s Haystack Mountain

Sometimes when a question is posed, there’s a simple answer. Other times, questions spark inquiries that lead you down a rabbit hole lined with mystery and legend. A recent fact check about the elevation of Haystack Mountain triggered such an inquiry. This investigative path uncovered footprints of dinosaurs that frolicked on the beaches of the Front Range, and the tomb of Chief Niwot, which according to legend sits atop Haystack Mountain, its 500-foot peak representing the elevation of Left Hand Creek 100,000 years ago.


Henry Wood Elliot’s drawing of Boulder Valley with Table Mountain and Haystack Mountain.
Mr. Elliot served with the Hayden Expedition Survey Team
This drawing is from 1860. Photo credit: Donlyn Arbuthnot

The inquiry started with a phone call from a reporter working on a story about our cheeses, who wanted to confirm the elevation of Boulder County’s Haystack Mountain. Our marketing director John fielded the call and he chuckled to himself, because as anyone in Boulder County can tell you, it’s a matter of a few hundred feet high. After some quick Googling around, he learned that there’s not much concrete info on our company’s namesake, Haystack Mountain. There is, however, a slew of other locales with the same namesake: an elite Vermont ski resort, a mountain in Idaho’s Portneuf Range, an East Coast crafts school, and an 11,000-foot Colorado peak near Kremmling.

Amid the digital clutter, there was an article written by local geologist Suzanne Webel, a 20-year veteran of the petroleum industry who lives on an 80-acre farm in the triangle between Boulder, Lyons, and Longmont. John contacted Webel and had some follow-up questions. “Well, a lot like geology, it’s literally a long story,” Webel chuckled. Webel says that Haystack’s bulbous shape gave Boulder County’s first settlers pause. “The first farmers who arrived in the area were worried that Haystack Mountain was a volcano. It’s actually a flood-washed structure that used to be part of Table Mountain,” she said.

Haystack Mountain Ranch Home of William and Mary [Bader] Arbuthnot and their six children. Photo was taken circa 1900-1907. Today the old barn still stands at the Haystack Mountain Golf Course.

Haystack Mountain Ranch
Home of William and Mary [Bader] Arbuthnot and their six children.
Photo was taken circa 1900-1907. Today the old barn still stands out at the Haystack Mountain Golf Course.

Webel’s original article details the geological structure of the Table Mountain area, but we were focused on Haystack “peak” itself. John commissioned Webel (with cheese, naturally) to dive deeper into the geology of Haystack Mountain. Webel accepted the challenge with curiosity and moxie, and produced an amazing story of rising and disappearing mountain ranges; vast seas containing dinosaurs, tree ferns, and clams; glaciers and deltas; stream capture and inverted topography.

To research her Haystack report, Webel went to the CU geology library and consulted with current professors on the matter. ”I had some nagging questions,” Webel said, “and this paper caused me to do more research on something I wanted to know more about.”

From a historical and cultural standpoint, the land surrounding Haystack Mountain is entrenched in Native American and U.S. history. In the early 1800s, Chief Niwot (meaning “Left Hand”) and his Arapahoe tribe chose this area as their winter home. Haystack Mountain served as a high lookout for small herds of buffalo, its sunny slope provided protection from harsh winds, and Left Hand Creek ran with fish and clear mountain water. In 1858, history reports that Chief Niwot met the first settlers coming into the region, and many more followed.

Eventually, with the continuing unrest between the settlers and the Indians, Chief Niwot moved his tribe to eastern Colorado near Sand Creek. There at the Battle of Sand Creek, Chief Niwot was killed. According to legend, members of his tribe who escaped death in the massacre brought his body back and buried him on his beloved Haystack Mountain.

 Haystack Rainbow

Geologically speaking, “cute little” Haystack Mountain is an erosional outlier whose days are numbered, at least in the way geologists look at time. We invite you to read Webel’s full report on the geological structure of Haystack Mountain; it’s a fun and fascinating read that speaks to both the layperson and the well-versed geology buff.



by Suzanne Webel

Have you ever wondered about the geology of Haystack Mountain?  It’s an amazing story of mountain ranges that rose up, disappeared, and then rose up again; vast seas containing dinosaurs, tree ferns, and clams; glaciers and deltas; stream capture and inverted topography.  Hang on and enjoy the ride!

Geo Survey

The Analogy of a House

While Table Mountain and Haystack Mountain dominate much of the viewscape along the east side of the Front Range of Boulder County today, let’s look at how they fit into the geological “big picture.”  Sometimes it’s useful to think of the whole assemblage of rocks as a house.

The Basement

The basement of the house in our part of Colorado is composed of ancient Precambrian granites approximately 1.5 billion years old.  The basement has undergone many episodes of uplift and subsidence, with a big one occurring about 370 million years ago forming a mountain range in approximately the same location as today’s Rockies, called the “Ancestral Rocky Mountains.”

The First Floor

The first floor of our geological house consists of relatively hard rocks that range in age from Permian to Jurassic.  The Ancestral Rocky Mountains eroded quickly (in the otherwise relatively slow geological scheme of things), shedding large amounts of coarse debris eastward, which was deposited in deltas and alluvial fans.  These sediments later hardened into the red conglomerate we call the Fountain Formation, which is well-displayed as Boulder’s Flatirons and at the Hall Ranch Open Space.  Subsequent, finer-grained sediments were deposited mostly as sandy beaches with intervening mudflats.  The reddish Lyons sandstone is used to face the buildings at the University of Colorado.   These formations, like most sedimentary rocks, were originally deposited in a horizontal position.

The Second Floor

The Cretaceous period deserves the entire second floor of our geological house (these rocks are very thick here so the house has peculiar proportions). A vast seaway extended all along the Rocky Mountain front from Canada to Mexico.  Dinosaurs frolicked on the beaches and left their footprints in the Dakota sandstone outcrops. Clams grubbed around in the mud and sometimes even got stepped on by the dinosaurs.  Occasional offshore reefs resulted in limestones like the Niobrara, which is now being mined for cement at Dowe Flats east of Lyons.  The Cretaceous deposits are best known around Haystack Mountain as the black shales of the Pierre Formation, which can reach 6,000 feet in thickness.  The Pierre shale is also known for its swelling clays, which can cause engineering headaches in foundations, roads, and bridges.  Occasionally the marine muds gave way to narrow sandy beaches, resulting in thin layers such as the Hygiene Sandstone member that intertongue with the thick black shales of the Pierre Formation.

Renewed uplift of the Rocky Mountains about 70 million years ago resulted in folding and faulting of the entire house of cards.  If you were allowed to go up on Table Mountain  (but you can’t, since it’s closed to the public) you might be able to see a small anticline (where the rocks tilt away from each other) and syncline (where the rocks tilt toward each other), with a small fault in places between them.  These forces may still continue today, as friction along faults creates warm springs such as those at Rabbit Mountain, whose waters were piped all the way to Hygiene to supply the sanitarium there.  A flurry of oil drilling just after the turn of the century between the Lake Valley Golf Course and Haystack Mountain discovered geothermal hot water (300 degrees Fahrenheit at 1500 feet), which still flows to the surface under artesian pressure and creates small wetlands that never freeze, making the area a prime winter haven for wildlife.   The closest oil production to Haystack Mountain is about three miles south, in the very small, now-abandoned Boulder Oil Field.

The Roof

Most of us live on the roof.  The Quaternary period was marked by another major outpouring of coarse sediments that were shed eastward from the mountain front.  Dinosaurs had given way to woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.  Glaciers covered much of North America in the Pleistocene epoch.  Sediments were deposited by huge ancestral rivers that make today’s creeks (Boulder, Left Hand, and St Vrain) appear puny in comparison.  Deposited about 100,000 years ago, the giant outwash plains from these rivers contain a hodge-podge of rocks of all types, from whatever source happened to be uphill:  granite, gneiss, quartzite, limestone, and sandstone. The oldest, barely-consolidated gravels and conglomerates of this period in our area (collectively called the Rocky Flats alluvium) rest directly on the Pierre Shale.

Generally younger still is the Verdos Alluvium, which is marked by brown sand and gravel, with pebbles, cobbles, and boulders that are weathered and decomposed.  Caliche, a hard, calcareous cement, fills old cavities and coats many of the stones, making this formation resistant to erosion (and to agriculture!).  The Verdos comprises some of the topographic benches on the west side of Table Mountain, as well as “holding up” the mesa itself.  Just east of Table Mountain the soils contain a lot of boulders that are erosional remnants of the Verdos Formation, which may once have extended as far east as Longmont.  

Other places to see these young pediment formations are the top of the NCAR Mesa, the mesas of Boulder Valley Ranch Open Space, Gunbarrel Hill, and Rocky Flats along Highway 93 toward Golden.  We’ll lump them all together and call them Quaternary gravels (Qg).  They, in turn, are overlain by unconsolidated miscellaneous silt, sand, and more gravels, mostly alluvial in nature, that were deposited “yesterday.” We’ll call these very recent sediments Quaternary alluvium, or Qal.

Pirates on the Roof!

Did you know that there have been pirates throughout geologic history?  In this area, the big rivers coming out of the mountains deposited gravels during glacial periods, and they cut down into the shales when the water ran clear during interglacial periods.  The glacial rivers had to snake around to avoid the piles of debris they had just deposited, and sometimes they would jump their banks so violently they would end up in a completely different location… and then, thousands of years later, they might jump back to their original position. There is a subtle example of this process just north of Table Mountain, where about 90,000 years ago Left Hand Creek exited the mountains and ran along what are now Toll Gate Ditch and Lykins Gulch.  Then it abandoned that channel and “beheaded” its own pediment mesa to find a better channel — just south of Haystack Mountain — where it has been ever since.  In this way, various flood deposits would frequently intertongue with each other, making determining their relative ages a difficult process. Some geologists at CU have recently developed a new process of determining the absolute age of these recent sediments using Beryllium decay, and they are now going around the area painstakingly trying to unravel the chronological history in the rocks.

Sometimes small rivers eat away slowly and sneakily at the slopes nearest them, and eventually they might succeed in grabbing their entire watershed from a completely different river.  This process is called “stream piracy.”  There is an example of stream piracy taking place today, along the southeast corner of Table Mountain, where a tiny unnamed creek is eating away at the face of Table Mountain.  Farther east, out toward Longmont, it’s called Dry Creek…..

The Chimney: Haystack Mountain

So maybe you’ve guessed it by now….  Yep, believe it or not, the very top of Haystack Mountain is all that is left of a vast sheet of Rocky Flats / Verdos Alluvium that once used to connect it directly to Table Mountain. Two tiny streams – Dry Creek and a mostly dry-gulch tributary of Left Hand Creek — have eroded away the resistant caprock of alluvium and are now quickly cutting down the shale layers between them, leaving just a gentle topographic saddle along Oxford Road and Ouray Drive.   Some day soon (geologically speaking), the saddle will get lower and lower until it disappears entirely.  Which stream will be the pirate and which the victim – Left Hand Creek or Dry Creek?  Only geologic time will tell.

At the same time, although there is still a tiny bit of caprock protecting it, erosion is eating away at Haystack Mountain from all sides…. So it too, will eventually just disappear.

But here the “house” analogy ends.  Unlike a chimney that has heat going up inside it, this cute little pinnacle called Haystack Mountain is an erosional outlier, not a volcano!

One Last Amazing Thing

So, have you noticed that you’re (presumably) standing on the youngest rocks around, at the bottom of a big wide valley in Boulder, Niwot, or Longmont, yet you’re looking up at Table Mountain and Haystack Mountain, which are somewhat older?  “Inverted topography” occurs when low areas of a landscape have been filled with sediment that hardens into material that is more resistant to erosion than the surrounding material.  Differential erosion then removes the less resistant surrounding material, leaving behind the younger, more resistant material which then forms a ridge or a mesa where previously there had been a valley.  The erosion-resistant rocks on the top of Table Mountain and Haystack Mountain represent the elevation of Left Hand Creek 100,000 years ago when they were deposited at the bottom of a big valley, but today they are the highest features for miles around and the creek is 500 feet below its original level.  Now that’s geology in action!

Looking at a Big Slice of the Rock Record

Imagine that you have just dug a trench about 3,000’ deep along an imaginary line from Heil Valley Ranch on the northwest, across Table Mountain and Haystack Mountain, to the Diagonal Highway at IBM on the southeast.  Climb down into the trench and clean off all the rock dust and mud so you have a clean, shiny wall to look at.  Face roughly north.  By projecting where you are standing into this imaginary trench, you can pretty well predict what kind of geology lies under your feet.

Sense and Sustainability at Boulder Ice Cream

Today was a special day for Boulder Ice Cream: it was the first day of production at their sweet new creamery in Boulder. We stopped in for a visit with president and founder, Scott Roy. Scott and his team have been making ice cream in Boulder since 1992 and they have continued to innovate and organically grow over the years. I wanted to take some photos of the facility and asked Scott what he was most proud of. I was assuming that he would point me toward the gleaming stainless steel tanks, or the gorgeous new pasteurizer, or perhaps the intricate network of copper piping whose beauty rivals some art installations I’ve seen. I was pretty surprised when Scott told me that what he was most proud of was in the mechanical room.

Scott and his design team built the production facility with sustainability in mind. The most energy intensive aspects of ice cream production are keeping finished product frozen, like really frozen at -20, and heating water to wash down the make room after production. If only there was a way to somehow harness the heat generated by the refrigeration systems to heat the water needed to clean… Well, that’s exactly what they did.

There's cold and then there's cold. The blast freezer is set to a frosty -32. This refrigeration equipment throws off quite a bit of heat.

There’s cold and then there’s cold. The blast freezer is set to a frosty -32. This refrigeration equipment throws off quite a bit of heat. The heat is captured and used to reduce the heating loads of the domestic hot water system.

These are the hot water heaters which consume a lot less energy due to the heat generated by the refrigeration equipment. In the winter when production slows the heat from the refrigeration units is diverted into the building and then circulated to reduce heating costs.

These are the hot water heaters which consume a lot less energy due to the heat generated by the refrigeration equipment. In the winter when production slows the heat from the refrigeration units is diverted into the building and then circulated to reduce heating costs.


Big Ass Fan

When Scott told me he installed a “big ass” fan he wasn’t joking around. Big Ass Fans is a division of Big Ass Solutions based in Lexington, Kentucky. Their fans offer a way to move a massive volume of air very quietly and without consuming much energy.


Testing out the sweet new batch dating machine. We all had a good laugh when we realized that it actually worked as designed! Anyone who has ever commissioned a production facility knows that sophisticated systems often require as much care and feeding as a baby goat to get on their feet.

Testing out the sweet new batch dating machine. We all had a good laugh when we realized that it actually worked as designed! Anyone who has ever commissioned a production facility knows that sophisticated systems often require as much care and feeding as a baby goat to get on their feet.

Cheers to Scott and his team for building out this smart, sustainable creamery – we have a huge culinary crush on you guys! Wishing you years of sustainable production in your beautiful new home!




Haystack Mountain Cheese Vaults: onions and cheese, ne’er the twain shall meet.

Cheeses can easily pick up odors from other foods in your fridge. In an attempt to minimize this phenomenon, we’ve created these beautiful, handmade wooden cheese vaults. They’ll help to prevent cheeses from absorbing off-flavors from other like onions, fish, and two-week-old sushi leftovers.

Our cheese vaults also make great gifts for the cheese lovers in your life, as well as an elegant way to present them with a custom cheese sampler (we’ll help you put it together).  The vaults alone are $20, or free with a purchase of $50 or more. Give us a call at (720)494-8714, or stop by the creamery to get yours today.

Haystack Mountain Cheese Valut: A great way to present and store cheeses.

Haystack Mountain Cheese Valut: A great way to present and store cheeses.



Haystack Mountain Makes 5280′s “Food Lover’s” issue

We’re honored to have made the September, “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver” issue of 5280. Check out page 64, where food editor Amanda Faison starts the Cheese section off by calling Haystack ‘s offerings “refrigerator staples.” That’s what we like to hear!

The section is a round-up of the best Colorado specialty cheeses, including our pasteurized, mixed milk baby, Buttercup. Made with our goat milk and cow’s milk from Windsor Dairy  and Aurora Organic Dairy, we like to think of Buttercup as being, “the way Velveeta should taste.”

Buttercup’s name and signature pale yellow color is the result of the high beta-carotene content in the grass foraged by the cows.  Each four-pound wheel is dipped in wax, and aged for 30 to 60 days. The result is a mild, easygoing, semi-soft cheese that’s  incredibly versatile.  Use it as a melter, slicer, grater, or snacker. Kids go crazy for it, but obviously, more than a few grown-ups do, as well.

Murray’s Cheese: Cave-Aged Haystack Peak and Tremblay Honey

Click here for more information about Murry’s Cave-Aged Haystack Peak and Tremblay Honey. It’s not your average goat cheese!

American Beauties

How to pair wines with artisan cheeses, by Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers. Click here to read the full article.

A Sampling of Flavorful Colorado-made Goat Cheeses

By Lesli J. Neilson, The Salt Lake Tribune. Click here to read the full article.

A Cheese Movement

Read the full write-up in the New York Times.

Whole Foods preview: Expansion brings lots of tasty choices

Read in the Boulder Daily Camera.

500 Cheeses by Roberta Muir

For Immediate Release 21 August 2010

The fact that there can even be a book called 500 Cheeses is testament to the incredible diversity of these beloved fermented milk products, produced virtually worldwide from the milk of almost every domesticated herbivore, including horses, camels, and reindeer.

500 Cheeses describes the world’s most commonly known cheeses, including those recognized under appellation systems, as well as some of the more unusual ones, such as Nepalese yak’s milk cheese and Filipino kesong puti. From simple cottage cheeses once produced in every home, through artisanal cheeses undergoing a renaissance in the USA, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to some of the world’s most loved mass-produced products, 500 Cheeses has it covered. [Read more...]

Goat cheese: From the pen to the plate

Read in The Denver Post