In conjunction with attending the 2017 World Synchronized Skating Championships in Colorado Springs, my girlfriends and I paid a visit to nearby Garden of the Gods Park. This beautiful park has been designated as a National Natural Landmark under a federal program in the Department of the Interior, associated with the National Park Service. It is one of over 600 such designated sites across the nation which were desigated “to recognize and encourage the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources” (this quote is from the web site).
Garden of the Gods is also a city park belonging to Colorado Springs. It was given to the city in 1909 by the children of Charles Elliott Perkins, fulfilling his desire that it be maintained as a park free for the public to enjoy. It is truly an extraordinary city resource.
The Visitor Center is located just outside the park across N 30th Street. First-time visitors are strongly encouraged to go to the Visitor Center before going to the park, since that is the only place maps are available. (They are not on the web site.) When you receive a map you also receive information about driving on the park roads, most of which are one-way with no stopping permitted on the roadway – even though it is very tempting to stop and gawk at the astonishingly beautiful scenery.
From the Visitor Center there is a stunning overview of the park (see the banner photo for this post), including Pikes Peak between two of the larger rock formations.
After our orientation we proceeded to drive into the park entrance and then counterclockwise around the one-way Juniper Way Loop. Our plan was to park at the north main parking lot and hike the Perkins Central Garden Trail. The trail is really more like a walk than a hike: it is only about 1.2 miles long and is paved, essentially like a sidewalk, with grades that are gentle enough for wheelchair access. It is likely busy any time, but was certainly so for our visit on a beautiful Saturday morning in early April. We were lucky that another vehicle was ready to vacate a parking spot just as we approached driving down the aisle.
Immediately adjacent to the parking area there is an impressive wall of red sandstone.
Also adjacent to the parking area, before we started actually walking along the trail, I noticed a black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) in a nearby conifer bush (most likely juniper).
The GPS track shows the configuration of the loop, with the orange dot denoting the trailhead at the parking area. The trail is in a semi-loop or balloon configuration. The balloon string is about 1/4 mile long and the loop itself is about 3/4 mile. The total elevation gain is only about 135 feet and is very gentle.
I was interested to note that the park is “rock climber friendly.” Of course, the rock formations are a natural draw to climbers. A notable aspect was several areas where there was a fence with a gate, as well as signage indicating that entry was only for climbers with permits and proper equipment. (Permits are obtained at the Visitor Center.) We saw a couple of climbers on the trail but not actually climbing.
The Central Garden Trail goes through the heart of the park, passing numerous impressive formations, mostly red sandstone. This is an example of the view along the first part of the trail. The largest formation, closest on the right, is North Gateway Rock.
Within North Gateway Rock there is a smaller formation called Kissing Camels. It is visible from both sides, since one side of the loop passes the other side of North Gateway Rock. In this view I deliberately didn’t zoom in, in order to provide a bit of scale. But the camels are easy to spot!
We went around the loop in the counterclockwise direction. The west side of the loop is essentially at the edge of the main rock garden and passes a few isolated formations. All seem to show the results of erosion over millennia, forming fantastic shapes with various interesting cavities and cracks.
Raucous bird calls announced the presence of scrub jays, presumably, based on range, Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The one picture I snapped was good enough to confirm the scrub jay identification and darker gray coloration of the Woodhouse’s scrub jay.
A bit farther along there was an especially interesting-looking formation with several jagged vertical layers. Such layers were originally horizontal, then were thrust upward into a vertical orientation by geological forces. The contrast between the red rock and green foliage was beautiful.
The south end of the loop passes by Three Graces. Clearly some visitors like to try to climb up one of the cracks – and other visitors like to watch.
As the loop curves to go north the trail passes South Gateway Rock, which features areas of lighter color rock. Some of the lighter rock is identified in park signage as gravelly composite.
A distinctive formation at the junction of the trail’s balloon string and loop is called Sentinel Rock. I can imagine a few different forms in different parts of this formation. For example, the front part looks like two legs and feet, and I see a face in the upper part, with a lop-sided nose and mouth.
Along the main trail back to the trailhead, one of my girlfriends pointed out this rock, noting its resemblance to a skull. Its flat-topped shape is in contrast to a different Skull Rock I saw on a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
After we returned to the car we continued our drive around the Juniper Way Loop, which passes other interesting formations. Since traffic was busy and there wasn’t a safe/legal place to pull over, I resorted to taking a couple of pictures out the car window.
After completing the Juniper Way Loop we returned to the Visitor Center for a lunch break and more opportunities to enjoy spectacular views of the park. Our visit was brief, but it would be easy to spend an entire day (or more!) enjoying Garden of the Gods and its 15 miles of hiking trails.