Almost everyone has heard of Garden of the Gods, a city park in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Just a few blocks to the south is its poor, neglected stepsister, Red Rock Canyon Open Space. I had the pleasure of hiking in this 787-acre park last Monday, March 5.
I did not even need a car to get there. Mountain Metropolitan Transit has regular bus service (Route 3) that gets you within easy walking distance. Ok, so you do have to cross a busy highway….but it is worth the exercise, fuel savings, and hassle of driving yourself. There is ample parking for those who do take personal vehicles, though.
I was a bit unnerved when I immediately encountered this
right outside the Port-o-Let. Coyotes, bears, bobcats, and the odd mountain lion are not unheard of in these parts, but no large carnivores, sasquatch, or mountain men were found inside said bathroom facility, so I breathed a little easier after that.
This is a popular park for walking your dog (it has an off-leash area), jogging, mountain biking (it features fenced-off “freeride/skills park” with challenging jumps, ladder-drops, and a teeter-totter), rock climbing, and hiking. You are going to run into many other recreational users any day you visit Red Rock Canyon, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself. Keep in mind the sandstone ridges also amplify, echo, and broadcast your voice. Even a fairly quiet conversation can be heard halfway across the park.
I did manage to avoid many other hikers by heading down the most northerly trail that eventually takes you into a narrow arroyo. At one point sheer slabs of red sandstone erupt from the streambed.
The canyon is deep enough that some if it remains in constant shadow at this time of year. Snow was only beginning to melt in some stretches. The trickle of water was enough to attract butterflies on this warm (68°Fahrenheit) day. Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) and Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis, below) overwinter as adult insects, and they frolic on days like this.
There is plenty of bird life to be seen here as well. I observed the usual Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-billed Magpie, Western Scrub-jay, American Crow, and Dark-eyed Junco, but also a Townsend’s Solitaire and Spotted Towhee. The real treat was seeing a Great Horned Owl in flight, being pursued by every jay in approximately a two hundred mile radius.
The history of the park dates to between 70 million and 300 million years if you consider the geologic and fossil timetables. Depending on which of the formations you explore, you could conceivably find anything from fossil leaf prints to dinosaur tracks to prehistoric shark teeth (Milito, 2009).
Human occupation is evident from about 7,000 BC. The proximity of the area to Fountain Creek meant there was good hunting. Utes were the Native Americans who found the rock formations (called “hogbacks”) made a natural fortress. Fast forward to the late 1800s, and the area was exploited for raw material used in the construction of Old Colorado City. The Kenmuir Quarry was perhaps the largest operator, cutting huge blocks of Lyons sandstone for a nearly nationwide demand (Ellis, Don). The scars still remain, of course, and Manitou Springs and Denver are among the nearby recipients of the quarried stone.
There were also gypsum mines here; and two mills that processed gold ore mined in Cripple Creek from 1886 into the early 1900s. John George Bock began purchasing the property in pieces during the 1920s and 1930s, willing it to his sons upon his death. The family had intended to develop a convention center, golf course, and high-rise buildings, but ultimately managed a couple dozen trailer parks, two gravel quarries, and a 53-acre landfill.
Only very recently did this heavily industrialized site become a recreational resource for the Springs, having been purchased by the city in 2003. The landfill remains off limits to the public. Not so the steep cliffs, where one is allowed to climb with permits. At least two parties were actively ascending bolted sort climbs during my visit.
There is good signage throughout the park, but one still has to be careful of veering off on “social trails.” These impromptu trails are unofficial and can get one lost if they are not paying attention. Interpretive signs at the parking lots and major features give one a glimpse of the human and natural history of the area. Overall, the park is well-maintained and remarkably free of litter. Even most of the scat I encountered was from native mammals, not domestic canines.
Oh, you’d still rather see Garden of the Gods? No problem. There are spectacular views of those hogbacks from Red Rock Canyon.
I look forward to returning to this park repeatedly. There is permanent water in the old gravel pits, which is a scarce commodity for wildlife. I saw a couple Mallards dabbling in one of the ponds on Monday, and suspect there will be frogs, dragonflies, and other aquatic life come spring.
Meanwhile, there are enough trails to give one weeks of enjoyment, depending on how far you wish to wander, with scenic views galore and a variety of habitats to explore. Do come visit, just don’t forget your sunscreen like I did.
Sources: Milito, Sharon. 2009. “A Survey of Fossils and Geology of Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Colorado Springs, Colorado,” The Mountain Geologist vol. 47 no. 1: 1-14.
”Red Rock Canyon Open Space,” City of Colorado Springs, 2009.
Ellis, Don. ”The Red Rock Quarries,” Friends of Red Rock Canyon, p. 25