South Gateway Rock. Photo: Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel
Looking west as you cross the Colorado prairie, the Rockies rise tall above the landscape. On a clear day they can be seen from about 100 miles away. Pioneers, crossing the endless plains, saw these towering mountains days before they arrived at the base. In Colorado Springs, at the base of the mountains, sits a cluster of giant red rocks, seemingly dropped from the sky. They’re as out of place in this muted palette as a splash of vivid color in a black and white photo.
View of the Gardens with the Rocky Mountains in the background from the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center. Photo: Penny Whalen
The Garden of the Gods, named by a pair of surveyors in the mid-19th century, is an area of geological formations over 300 million years old. Now a registered National Natural Landmark, it belongs to the people of Colorado Springs. The original 480 acres were donated to the city in 1909 by the family of the late railroad magnate Charles Elliot Perkins. The gift came with the stipulation that access would always be free. Expanded over the years, the site is now 1,323 acres, including the adjoining Rock Ledge Ranch.
Plaque commemorates the gift of the original 480 acres by the Perkins family in 1909. Photo: Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel
If you want to know the how and why of these red monoliths, start your visit with the short film How Did These Rocks Get There. The presentation is enhanced by a rotating pterodactyl (three-sided) map that rises from the theater’s floor. It is shown at the Visitor’s Center every 14 minutes. (There’s a charge to view it.) According to Penny Whalen, Assistant Director of Tours at the Gardens, “The information you will absorb from the presentation will significantly enhance your experience of the park.” It’s worth the price of admission.
There are a variety of tours offered Memorial Day through Labor Day, available at the Visitors Center:
Other times of year, private tours are available through Adventures Out West.
Without stopping, the main-loop ride (three-and-a-half miles) is about 14 minutes; touring secondary roads adds another 15 minutes or so during busy traffic times.
Balance Rock, seen from the east. Photo: Penny Whalen
You can also see the park on foot on your own or with a guide. The Garden of the Gods offers free 30-minute, nature walks daily year-round, at 10am and 2pm. They are led by a naturalist who talks about the flora, fauna and geology of the area. You can also walk the trails through the formations on your own, oohing and aahing at this gift of the gods. In warm weather, make a day of it. Bring your lunch and enjoy a picnic along the way. You can even do technical rock-climbing in designated areas. Stop at the Visitor’s Center for a permit. Bicyclists are welcome to ride their mountain bikes on designated trails; the one-way roads through the Gardens have designated bike lanes.
Walkers and bicyclists at Balance Rock. Photo: Steve Collins
For something different, visit Garden of the Gods on horseback. You can bring your horse and ride the designated trails through the Garden. Don’t have a horse? Academy Riding Stables offers daily group trail rides year-round, weather permitting. Or book a private ride. Sandy Lerma, who works at the stables, says, “It’s the best way to see the garden.” The ride goes past a lot of formations you won’t see in the car. “You can see them on foot,” Lerma points out, “but the horse covers a lot of ground and you see more in less time. Plus, it’s fun.” Academy’s wranglers, aka guides, are knowledgeable about the geology and history of the area. For rates and other information call the stables at 719-633-5667.
Kissing Camels. Photo: Penny Whalen
The Garden of the Gods is a must-see on any visit to Colorado Springs. For some, it may be reason enough for a trip.
Balance Rock, seen from the west. Photo: Penny Whalen
White Rocks are from a later geological era than the red rocks. Photo: Steve Collins
View from window at DoubleTree Hotel, Colorado Springs. Photo: Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel
Tower of Babel, the northern-most section of North Gateway Rock. Photo: Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel
Detail of North Gateway Rock shows pockets created by freezing and thawing over millennia. Photo: Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel
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