All along Colorado’s Front Range, a layer of Jurassic-era sandstone dubbed the Morrison Formation plays hide and seek. About an hour south of Denver near Colorado Springs, the magnificent red rocks peek out from the earth at Garden of the Gods. The forces that created the Rocky Mountains turned this layer of rock on edge, causing sandstone fins to jut hundreds of feet into the air. Erosion then took its turn, creating massive, fanciful structures that have been given names like Giant Footprints, Kissing Camels, Siamese Twins, the Three Graces and Tower of Babel.
Legend has it that two surveyors came upon the area, and one commented that it would be a “capital place for a beer garden.” His partner replied, “Beer garden? Why, it is a place for the gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods!”
These days, the nearly 1,400-acre park is a National Natural Landmark, owned by the city of Colorado Springs. The park provides year-round free admission and is packed with trails, educational opportunities, activities and events for every age and ability level.
“Garden of the Gods was given to the city by the Perkins family in late 1909,” says Bonnie Frum, the park’s director of operations. “It was considered a grand Christmas gift at the time.” A foundation helps raise the funds needed to maintain the park, which is the most visited attraction in the Colorado Springs area. “We’ve worked hard to preserve the beauty here,” Frum says. “Even so, we try to offer access to almost everyone, whether they want to ride horses, hike, climb or bike.”
Visitors can explore the beauty of this Front Range gem in any number of ways: Hiking on the 15 miles of trails on foot, riding mountain bikes or on horseback. A nearby stable offers hourly rentals for those without their own ponies. Twice a day, park naturalists share lore about the local history, geology, plants and animals in the area, along with other Colorado-themed topics. The naturalist walks are free, drop-in events, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. More adventurous explorers can climb the rock structures inside the park, after registering with the visitor center. During the summer months, 30-minute bus tours travel through the park, with narrators pointing out both well-known and hidden rock formations. A Junior Ranger program allows the youngest visitors to get in-depth knowledge of the area, as well as earn a reward for their efforts.
The visitor center also hosts daily nature presentations; these free, 20-minute talks explore the park from every angle, with topics including the local geology, ecology, wildlife and cultural history of the park and nearby Colorado Springs. February brings a popular Sunday afternoon lecture series, with past topics covering everything from the history of chocolate to live birds of prey.
For those who enjoy the big screen, a 12-minute multi-media presentation runs almost continuously; the show features lasers, four screens and time-lapse photography. The movie runs every 20 minutes in the summer and every 30 minutes in the winter, with a nominal cost. The Garden of the Gods Trading Post is an adobe-style building that houses a mind-boggling range of merchandise. Five-and-dime trinkets share space with t-shirts, Navajo rugs, Pueblo pottery, jewelry and mounted jackalopes.
Garden of the Gods backs up to Pike National Forest, so wildlife sightings are common. Black bear, mountain lion, deer, fox and coyote have all been known to roam in the vicinity. “We have about 60 bighorn sheep nearby,” says Frum. “And we throw a bighorn festival in February to celebrate. The funny thing is, they show up every year for their party.”
If You Go
Garden of the Gods
Admission is free.
Park hours: 5 a.m.-11 p.m. in the summer;5 a.m.-9 p.m. in winter
Visitor Center hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in winter. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day
Movie rates: $5 for adults, $2 for children. Groups of 10 or more qualify for a group discount.
Trading Post hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in winter
Kelly Smith, who is married and the mother of two daughters, is a longtime Denver resident. Kelly and her family embrace the Western life, enjoying skiing, whitewater rafting and the great outdoors. She is an editor at Colorado Parent magazine and a former editor at Mountain Living magazine. Her stories have appeared in Architecture & Design of the West, Colorado Homes & Lifestyles, Colorado Parent, Herb Companion, Log & Timber Style, Mangia, Mountain Living and Natural Home & Garden