colorado paint mines rock formation

Our big travel surprise in Colorado Springs

Paint Mines and Garden of the Gods

Weather has rarely ruined a vacation for us. We’ve experienced days of rain and the occasional early snowfall. And then there’s the time we finally received a coveted permit for a hike in Utah, only to have the temps reach 110. But overall, we can’t complain, although a little whining can be cathartic.

Our biggest disappointment has been forest fire smoke. We experienced it a lot during four recent vacations out West, including our latest trip to Colorado Springs. And while we groaned about hazy views sometimes thick enough to totally block out the mountain vistas, we tried to be respectful by remembering the real tragedy of wildfires, which is often loss of home and life.

We made the best of the situation. We started this vacation to primarily spend time in the Garden of the Gods, a beautiful city park in Colorado Springs. But when the grey rolled in, we decided to look for a side trip that might be interesting and less affected by the smoke. And we found it.

paint mines colorado
Morning sun illuminated the Paint Mines, about 45 minutes from Colorado Springs.

Hiking Paint Mines Interpretive Park

We discovered a place to explore about 45 minutes east of Colorado Springs, near the town of Calhan, CO. My research warned of weekend crowds, which has become status quo for almost any outdoor destination during the pandemic. So we timed our visit for a weekday morning and encountered maybe 10 other people.

We loved the Paint Mines. From a visitor parking lot, we hiked about one mile to reach the canyon floor and walk among the colorful rock formations. If you’re a photographer, I strongly encourage you to arrive between 9-10 a.m. or your favorite timeframe for great lighting.

If you’re looking for only a scenic drive-by or vista turnout, I think you should skip this location. The real beauty resides inside the paint mine canyons where you can walk among the colorful geologic formations, whose minerals were used by early residents in dyes and pottery.

garden of gods colorado smoke
Forest fire smoke dulled the vistas, but Garden of the Gods still impressed.
Garden of the Gods is an amazing city park.

Garden of the Gods still inspiring, even in smoke

 I describe Garden of the Gods as an urban park, located in Colorado Springs and managed by the city parks department. We encountered a lot of walkers and joggers who utilize the paved and dirt trail system for their daily exercise.

But it’s one of the most impressive city parks in the country, with its towering red rock monoliths. The site is designated a “nationally significant natural area” by the Department of the Interior.

There’s no entry fee to the park, which was donated by the family of a railroad tycoon. The park also features a very nice visitor center, although some of the amenities like its movie theater and nature presentations are inactive during the pandemic. In addition, the park is home to the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, described as a living history museum.

We love seeing wildlife during our hikes.
The forest fire smoke didn’t obstruct our views of wildflowers, like this Mojave pricklypoppy.

Colorado Springs offers vacation variety

In addition to hiking and bicycling, a variety of activities and destinations surround Colorado Springs, especially for families. Overall, I’d rate these other attractions somewhere between a national park experience and “touristy.” But for the right group of people, especially with children or grandkids, these other destinations can be fun.

Visitors can tour the United States Air Force Academy, ProRodeo Hall of Fame, National Museum of WWII Aviation, Ghost Town Museum, Olympic Training Center and Glen Eyrie Castle.  Also nearby are outdoor-oriented destinations such as Pikes Peak, Seven Bridges, Seven Falls and nearby Manitou Cliff Dwellings, a convenient place to study history but not the caliber of Mesa Verde National Park in the state’s southwest corner.

For us, we enjoyed sampling microbreweries when we weren’t hiking, especially Cerberus and Phantom Canyon breweries that served excellent food in addition to great taproom creations.

Overall, we’re glad we made Colorado Springs part of our vacation itinerary, which included Great Sand Dunes National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. We just never expected our highlight to be an obscure destination like the Paint Mines. Surprises like that make travel fun. We’ll roll the dice again, knowing full well the next time could be another jackpot, or bust.

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