The mile-high city is the gateway to some of the most famous mountains in the country. In the wintertime, there are almost as many ski and snowboard bags coming through the airport as actual luggage. People arrive and often immediately head west toward Snowmass Village, Aspen, Breckenridge and Telluride. In the summer, locals head north of town to nearby Boulder and Fort Collins as a starting point for biking, fly fishing and hiking. The beauty of Estes Park, the famous Stanley Hotel and Rocky Mountain National Park draws visitors from around the world. With all to do north and west of Denver, the south often gets overlooked, but savvy outdoor enthusiasts know of a very special place not far off the beaten path.
Colorado Springs is perhaps best known as the home of the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic Training Center, but just outside of downtown you’ll find one of the more unique natural areas in the West in the Garden of the Gods. Garden of the Gods is a registered National Natural Landmark that encompasses some 1,300 acres right in the backyard of Colorado Springs. The natural area is famous for towering sandstone formations with Pikes Peak as the backdrop. There are endless activities to do here, and unbelievably, admission is completely free.
Visitor & Nature Center
Before venturing off into the park, make the time to stop in at the visitor center for some background information on what you are about to experience. Here you will find exhibits on local geology, flora and fauna, what animals you might discover in the park and a history of native people who inhabited the lands. There is also a dinosaur on display that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. There are interactive maps and fliers to help you plan your trip.
Traveling within the Park
There are many ways to get around once you’re inside the park, and it all depends on what you are most comfortable with and how much time you have. You can drive yourself to many of the park’s highlights or choose one of several guided options. One fun way to experience the park is by a bus tour. This is no ordinary tour bus, as each bus was built in 1909 and is more like a trolley with open-air seating for 14, offering great views along the way. These tours last 45 minutes and are $17 per person. Booking a Jeep tour will get you into places others can’t, and tours range from 75 to 90 minutes and start at $30 per person. You can even see the park through a guided Segway tour which features several stops and plenty of historical information all at a leisurely pace. For those wanting to keep the experience as affordable as possible, there are both self-guided and free-guided nature walks. Led by local naturalists and volunteers, these nature walks run every 30 minutes with each guide offering different historical perspectives about the Garden of the Gods.
While many come for a glimpse of the scenery, others are looking to add in some exercise and explore as many corners of the park as possible. There are about 15 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails within Garden of the Gods. They range from short and easy ½ mile trails like the Ridge Trail, which climbs about 100 feet to give you a higher perspective of the surrounding towering sandstone formations, to the 3-mile Chambers/Bretag/Palmer trail, which circles a large portion of the park through rocky trails. As with all natural areas, hikers and bikers are to stay on designated trails as to not disrupt local vegetation or create additional erosion issues.
With so many formations within Garden of the Gods, the area has become a beacon for seasoned rock climbers as well as those interested in attempting the sport for the first time. If you are comfortable in your abilities, you can pick up a map at the visitors’ office and select a climb that challenges you. New climbers can arrange with local companies who can help determine skill level and where the best locations will be. There are designated routes set up all over the park, and luckily, if someone is already tackling the face you were interested in, there are dozens of other faces and formations to scale. While climbing is free, all climbers do need to register for a permit, which can be done at the visitors’ center or online before you go.
If you happen to be in town or visiting a park on a Thursday, you can do the weekly 5k run with the locals. Park volunteers have carved out five different 5k routes, and you can choose whichever course you would like. Runners go anytime between 4 and 6pm, and like most everything else in the park, it’s free to participate. Those looking for additional history on how the area’s unique formations and landscape came about can see a new movie in the Geo-Trekker Theater. The film takes you back more than one billion years, showing what the area looked like and some of the dinosaurs and other creatures that inhabited it. The 20-minute movie is $6 for adults and $4 for children. After a day of sightseeing, hiking, climbing or biking, stop by the café for a drink and a bite to eat.
With more than two-million annual visitors to Garden of the Gods, it’s no secret that this is a special place. Since its discovery in the late 1800s, visitors have been inspired by the one-of-a-kind landscapes available so close to town. Organized competitive runs and road races are held inside the park, as those who enjoy outdoor activities tend to enjoy them even more in such a beautiful setting. Garden of the Gods is a photographer’s dream, with an immense amount of contrast in colors, shades and angles, all with snowcapped mountains as a backdrop. There are many species of birds that make the area home as well as foxes, deer and bighorn sheep, all just an hour and a half from the moment you leave the airport.
While Colorado is home to a spectacular amount of parks, recreation areas, quaint small towns and wilderness camping, one of its best and most accessible parks is right in Colorado Springs. If your next ski trip or summer adventure takes you through Denver, schedule a day to head south and see this incredibly unique natural area. Whether by foot, bike or vehicle, you’ll be amazed by your surroundings and will leave with some incredible photos and memories as well.