Colorado Springs and The Garden of the Gods
***Here’s another post with a whole ton of photos. We recommend hitting refresh a bunch.***
In addition to being judged one of the finest places in the US to live, the city of Colorado Springs also attracts some five million tourist visitors a year. Some come for nearby Pike’s Peak, the easternmost of the Colorado Fourteeners and probably the most accessible. Some come for the charm and western history of Old Colorado City. Some come for the micro-breweries or the art galleries or (more recently) to experience pleasures of Colorado’s 64th amendment to its constitution, which made common marijuana use legal (See article XVIII section 16). But we came for the Garden.
Located just on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods is a public park that virtually every other city in America can only envy. No other city park in the United States, excepting New York’s Central Park, surpasses it in fame. And it could be argued that no civic park surpasses it in splendor.
This splendor has made the place widely known, and this 1300 acre park is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state of Colorado, hosting some two million visitors per year. For comparison, that is half the visitation of Rocky Mountain National Place…in an area less than 1% its size. It’s a busy place.
The splendor, by the way, derives from an unusual array of red sandstone formations. While we have seen a good many other rock formations, some even larger and more impressive, what makes these particular ones unique is the way they seem to erupt out of the ground like the scaly spine of some prehistoric beast. It truly looks like a titanic crop of rock flora sprouting from seeds sown from on high by godlike beings. We have never seen another place quite like it; the closet comparison is probably Sedona.
Sylvia and Brian had of course heard tell of this splendid place and were eager to visit. We were prepared for crowds, and as always, the M.E.P. had formed a plan to avoid crowds.
The Garden is located in an area surrounded by residential development, most of which appears to be new. There was heavy construction going on all around the park boundaries. Some of this may have been flood control projects, as advertised, but we suspect much of it was simply the need for bigger roads and infrastructure to handle the influx of people to this obviously desirable area.
Arriving we first stopped at the Garden’s busy visitor center to orient ourselves. Alas, due to the heavy press of humanity here, it was more of a disorientation session. We used the bathrooms, picked up a park map and fled.
From the visitor center, most head directly into the park via its paved road system. The visitor can then chose to stop at any one of several parking area to get out and tour the highlights of the park, or simply drive along the loop road never exiting ones vehicle. Most of the park’s best formations can be seen right from the car.
Alas, this is also an invitation to get stuck in a massive traffic jam. The park website asks visitors for patience during busy times when trying to access the 336 parking spaces located inside it. We would tend to guess most times are busy here, and the amount of patience required might be quite substantial. Do not be fooled by the park’s gateway access road, which often looks empty and promising; the traffic seems to back up further down on the park’s loop road. And it backs up plenty. During our hike, we easily outwalked cars on the adjacent road that were stuck in the same spot for minutes at a time. There were far more than 336 cars in this park when we visited, and even reaching those parking spaces will take time.
Our advice to hikers is do what we did — park in the enormous dirt overflow parking lot below the visitor center, beside the Rock Ledge Ranch. Don’t worry if the other lots are overflowing yet; if not they soon will be. From here, you can access the paved gateway trail that takes you right into the park. Here you can please yourself by strolling right by motorists stuck in traffic.
Sylvia used the opportunity to photograph the many late season wildflowers still in abundance.
(Note that there is a shuttle that will transport you down from the busy visitor center parking lot, but unless you are elderly or inform, this is a complete waste of time. The walk is a quarter mile at most.)
At the end of the Gateway Trail, you can chose to either cross the road and enter the park via the paved Central Garden Trail, which gives direct access to its most scenic (and busiest) areas, or you can break right and hike the dirt surfaced Bretag / Palmer Trail, which makes a wide loop around the park. We chose the latter.
At the Bretag trail, the hiking wheat separates from the walking chaff.
This was a good decision. Though the Bretag / Palmer Trail stays further away from the rock formations, it also gives you some very fine panoramic views of them, and of nearby Pike’s Peak, that you can’t get from the central Garden area.
This trail had other added benefits. It was lightly traveled; only a small percentage of the visitors leaves the blacktop and concrete. We passed a ridiculously small number of people compared to the huge throngs milling on the paved walkways or sitting inert in their cars.
Also, you might see wildlife along this trail. We saw a small herd of deer, including a couple of impressive bucks ready for the rut, their antlers still covered in velvet.
Perhaps the most important advantage is that this is an actual hiking trail with the feel of a real trail, and not a sidewalk.
About half this trail is in the open and views are frequent. It’s a bit rocky and eroded in places but nowhere is unusually steep or rough. Why anyone would not want to hike this fine and modest trail is anybody’s guess, but most don’t. Take full advantage of that!
Do remember that this ecosystem is fragile and in need of protection. Stay on the trail.
If you follow this trail to its end, not only does the Bretag / Palmer Trail pass by some smaller but totally cool rock formations, but it also eventually takes you to the rock formation known as the Siamese Twins. This is definitely a very cool place but somewhat overrun by people, being quite close to parking lots.
We paused (or as we should correctly state, stood in line) to get our pictures posing between the twins. This is a harder operation than it looks. Not only is EVERYONE trying to take a selfie here, and continually getting in each other’s way, but are doing so on both sides of the formation. As Brian was posing, another man’s face suddenly appeared in the window over his shoulder, hastily apologized and vanished again. (And then Sylvia wonders why he despises posed pictures.)
From the Siamese twins there is also a very nice view of Pike’s Peak, perhaps the most famous of Colorado Springs attractions. Though not the highest mountain in Colorado, it is probably the most accessible high mountain, with an auto road AND cog railway (one of only two functioning in the US) to the summit and gift shop in the clouds. Brian, needles to say, avoided it. There are 52 other Fourteeners we could tackle without the need for summit gift shops.
Pike’s Peak by the way is the reason for Garden of the Gods. The forces that uplifted that mighty mountain caused the turmoil in the land that rent and upended the red rock layers beneath the ground and caused them to come poking up out of the Earth.
Brian Steps up to get his picture taken…then exit, stage left…Stage right, even!
From the Siamese Twins we wound our way back down dirt trails to the center of the park, where paved walkways took over. These take you close up (often within touching distance) to the impressive red rock spires and fins. Climbing is allowed here by permit, when conditions allow.
Despite its uniqueness, Brian liked this area a lot less. One cannot be at peace in the Garden; perhaps there was such a time, but that would now seem to be rare. It’s a place for selfie-taking, not hiking or thoughtful reflection.
Also, standing right below the rock monuments and rubbernecking up at them is actually in some ways LESS impressive than seeing them at a distance. Just as the foot of a mountain is probably the WORST place to view it, so it is that you get little sense of the complete geometry of these rock monstrosities by seeing only a part of them, and this from directly below.
And then there’s the milling crowds of rubes who are all trying to take pictures of themselves, or texting someone, or just in general milling about or screaming at the top of their lungs or otherwise not in the moment…the crowds really degrade the experience.
There were no small number of leashed dogs here, by the way. It would be a fine place to take Fitz if we can ever get him used to crowds.
After our gawking and selfie taking exercise ended, we strolled back down the park’s Gateway Trail to our car. As we did, we noted the light had changed for earlier in the day as a series of thunderstorms were making their way across the high ground west of town. It made for a fine concluding photo.
By hiking around the park we were able to see every part of it except for the very southwestern end, near Balanced Rock, which is better accessed from the other end of Garden Drive. We saved these for next time.
If you are planning to visit the Garden of the Gods, our advice is: go early, go mid week if possible, leave your car at the parking lot, hike, stick to the dirt trails where you can, bring some water…and enjoy this magical place to its fullest extent. Remember GotG is open 365 days a year, from 5 am to 10 pm and visiting is free of charge. (Note the visitor center opens later and closes earlier…but you really don’t need to go there.)
Horseback riding and mountain biking are permitted here by the way, though both are limited to specific trails or sections of the park.
If you hike in summer, do be aware of the fact that there are some ‘seasonal bathrooms’ (IE, port-a-johns) along the way, but no fresh water.
We hope that the city of Colorado Springs continues to keep a tight reign on development around the park. We noted that a large number of new houses, a whole neighborhoods worth, appeared to be sprouting like a lesser sort of garden (or maybe fungus) on the ridge behind the visitor center, directly overlooking the park. We hope that the stewards of the city, whatever political party the represent, protect its future legacy and not squander it to advance the shorter term payoffs of rapid and rampant development.
After our visit to the Garden it was time to head down to Old Colorado City – the former capital of Colorado Territory – for some sightseeing, eating and browsing through tourist shops and fu-fu nick-nack galleries. Brian clung desperately to his wallet as Sylvia went full ‘bull in a china shop’ mode.
This was about all the time we had in Colorado Springs, and our time in Colorado was fast headed into the western sunset. We’d like to come back and see more someday…other destinations in the great Centennial State also are tempting us. No wonder the Gods have their garden here…this is a state fit for the hiking gods!