Red stone sculptures and rock climbers. In this blog entry of MichiganTrailmaps.com Trail Talk Jim DuFresne writes about the magnificent Garden of the Gods, a city park in Colorado Springs.
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By Jim DuFresne
Until last month I always thought the most unusual city park in the country was Central Park, a 843-acre oasis in the middle of bustling New York City with six lakes and 36 bridges, hardwood forests and the Great Lawn, horses, carriages and bicycles surrounded by a skyline of skyscrapers. But I was wrong.
Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods is a 1,367-acre preserve that stretches the traditional definition of a city park. It’s a collection of unusual, almost whimsical, red rock formations in a unique biological melting pot where the grasslands of the Great Plains meet the pinon-juniper woodlands characteristic of the American Southwest and merge with the mountain forests of Pikes Peak that at 14,115 feet looms over everything.
And because it’s a city park admission is free.
Right from the beginning the Garden has been a place to pause and ponder. Evidence of Native American camps date back to 250 BC with the Utes, believing the rock formations had a spiritual connection, etching petroglyphs in them. Following in their footsteps were 16th century Spanish explorers, trappers and Zebulon Pike, who ended up with a mountain named after him even after he failed to climb it.
In 1859, two surveyors departed Denver to set up a town site that eventually became Colorado City. While exploring locations, they wandered into this beautiful area of red sandstone formations, prompting one surveyor, no doubt suffering from a parched throat, to suggest that it would be “a capital place for a beer garden.”
But his companion, a “young and poetic man” named Rufus Cable, was awestruck by the scenery. “Beer Garden!” Cable said. “Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.”
The name stuck.
Noted American poet Helen Hunt Jackson visited the Gardens in the early 1870s and was equally impressed, writing “You wind among rocks of every conceivable and inconceivable shape and size… all bright red, all motionless and silent, with a strange look of having been just stopped and held back in the very climax of some supernatural catastrophe.” Shortly after that there was movement to make this place of the Gods the country’s second national park.
It never happened. Instead Charles Elliott Perkins, the head of the Burlington Railroad, purchased 240 acres surrounding the Garden of the Gods in 1879 with the intent of building a summer home there. But he was so overwhelmed by the scenery that he enlarged his holdings to 480 acres, built his home somewhere else and opened his natural wonderland to the public.
Perkins died in 1907 and two years later his children, knowing their father’s feeling for the place, donated the acreage to Colorado Springs as a city park under these conditions:
- It must be forever known as the Garden of the Gods.
- It had to remain free and open to the public.
- No building or structure could be constructed except those necessary to protect and maintain the area as a park.
- And no “intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured, sold, or dispensed” in the Garden of the Gods.
Colorado Springs has more than kept up its end of the bargain. Colorado, especially Denver, is a haven for microbreweries and brewpubs but you won’t find one in this magnificent place.
What the city of Colorado Springs did was triple the size of the park, then laid out a 15-mile trail system in it and finally in 1995 built the impressive Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center that overlooks the red rock formations and Pikes Peak but lies outside of the park.
For most visitors the Garden is an easy dayhike. The famed rocks can be seen from whatever trail you follow but the showcase path is Perkins Central Garden Trail, a 1.5-mile paved loop that winds through the heart of the park passing at the base of the highest and most unusual formations.
The Garden of the Gods’ rocky creations lie along a natural fault line and were formed during a geological upheaval millions of years ago. Ancient sedimentary beds of deep red, pink and white sandstones, conglomerates and limestone were deposited horizontally then tilted vertically by the immense mountain building forces that uplifted the Pikes Peak massif. Eventually erosion and glaciation resulted in rocks in all shapes and sizes that have been toppled, overturned, stood-up, pushed around and slanted.
It’s like an outdoor art gallery filled with sculptures.
There’s Siamese Twins, Cathedral Spires, the Scotsman, Toad and Toadstools, Steamboat Rock and Sleeping Giant. When you see these towering carvings there is no question where their names came from. At Balanced Rock people position themselves so it looks like their holding up this massive stone as if they’re Atlas with the world on their shoulders.
And Kissing Camels really does look like a pair of humpbacked camels smooching.
The other intriguing aspect of the Garden is its appeal to rock climbers even if you’ve never belayed or even know what the term means. Even so often while hiking you can stop watch climbers, laden with ropes, carabiners and rappel anchors, slowing make their way vertically. Or gleefully rappelling back to the bottom.
It gives the Garden of the Gods an unusual combination of unique geological history, stunning natural scenery and a sense of high wire adventure … all of which you will never find in Central Park.
Colorado Springs is lucky to have such a city park. We all are.
For more information on Garden of the Gods go to gardenofthegods.com.