An easy day hike on the eastern plains of Colorado
The sun shines in Colorado almost every day, and this was no exception. The morning was clear, and watching the antelope sway across the prairie and the horseback rider move cleanly up the ridge in the distance was worth the hour in the car. I was headed to Calhan, Colorado and the Paint Mines Interpretive Park in El PasoCounty, about an hour east of Colorado Springs and about two hours south of Denver.
Rolling into the parking lot first thing in the morning, the view included the gently sloping hills and prairie in the distance. Grabbing my hat and camera, I headed down the easy trail toward the hills. The grade started to increase as I passed a family with a small child who was chasing butterflies and watching birds. Although the bench at the top of the hill looked inviting, I kept going and around the corner and the formations came into sight. It was amazing to see the white, red, and orange badlands appear suddenly from the prairie.
Rainbows in the rock
Winding down the wild-flower rimmed trail, the hoodoos and spires were more intimidating as I got closer. As I made my way around the north side of the area, the trail headed up again to an overlook. In one direction, the vast prairie laid out with trails. In the other direction, the stark white formations looking like frozen, rocky, milk. The pale rocky falls fronted the colorful rock layers in the rest of the park. I made my way to the rainbows in the rock.
The clay and sandstone formations are gently formed by wind, rain and blowing sand. The gullies and caves that are carved out of the rock form an intricate maze of color and shadow. This red clay found in these formations was mined to create pots and used as ceremonial body paint by the Indians. This was also a hunting ground for the first inhabitants because of the abundance of deer and bison in the area. In the early 1880’s the first settlers homesteaded the area.
There are about four miles of trails in these 750 acres. Around the formations, the trails are actually dry stream beds. In this area, the weather can change quickly and flash floods create the trails as the water runs off. The wildflowers are blooming wherever they can get a foothold and the paths are lovely. A frequent visitor to the park mentioned that often artists set up easels in the morning to paint the beautiful landscape.
The particulars: The Park is open from dawn to dusk 365 days per year and is free to the public. The hiking is considered easy here, though be aware that there are some steep inclines. The services include a few picnic table, a few benches along the trails and a toilet near the main parking lot. This park is not designed for wheelchairs. There are two additional overlooks to the park with short trails to small picnic areas that seem more accessible.
There is no overnight camping allowed in the park. This is a great park for kids, though climbing or disturbing the formations is illegal. Visitors should bring their own water and be aware that it can be quite hot on a summer afternoon and there is very little shade.
To get to the park, take I-25 to Highway 24. Go east on Highway 24 to Calhan. Once in Calhan, go south on Yoder Toad/Calhan Highway, then turn east on Paint Mine Road and follow the signs. For more information, visit the El Paso County website.