It’s hard to beat Colorado’s scenery. Those photogenic snow-capped mountains and meadows of wildflowers, sparkling alpine lakes, and deep emerald forests are simply attention hogs.
But hidden in plain sight on the prairie east of Colorado Springs, a deep slash in the ground holds geologic and archaeological wonders that are just as breathtaking. It’s called the Paint Mines Interpretive Park.
The park is part of the El Paso County parks system , and is by far the most unusual piece of land in that system, which also includes more traditional city properties like dog parks, soccer fields and nature trails.
Over millions of years, this park's eroded gulches – layer cakes of clay frosted with sandstone – were formed and painted by leaching minerals. The resulting colors – butterscotch yellow, burnt orange, ruby red and soft green - glow in the soft light around sunrise and sunset. Hoodoos, stark white sandstone sculpted by wind and weather into shapes resembling chess pieces, stand as sentries for the labyrinths of eroded rock that resemble the gullies and drainages of South Dakota’s Badlands.
This is a small park, covering about 750 acres with about four miles of hiking trails. Short grass and mid-grass prairies surround the park with sagebrush and mountain mahogany breaking up the gently undulating landscape.
A little less than an hour’s drive northeast of Colorado Springs, the Paint Mines feel much more remote. The sun bakes this place, where on a typical day temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees higher than in the mountains nearby. Best of all, you can often have the place all to yourself.
The parks system began to buy and develop the land about 15 years ago, and care has been taken to preserve the treasures of the gulches. The clays that make this place significant dating back 60 million years have drawn locals and tourists to the Paint Mines for the last century. The landscape had always been private property, but most locals knew the “secret” of the Paint Mines through word of mouth and most had visited it at least once.
When the parks department began buying the land in 1997, they discovered many more treasures. Archeological surveys revealed evidence of Paleo Indians dating back to 7000 B.C. Points, tools, and fossilized wood point back to American Indians who were drawn to the mineral-stained rock that they used for paints and dyes. And bison bones were discovered by surveyors who believe that Indian hunters drove herds off the cliff walls, aptly called "buffalo jumps."
There are no wild bison on the plains anymore, but the land surrounding the Paint Mines is still home to coyotes, pronghorn and prairie rattlers. Often, red-tailed hawks ride air currents overhead, and burrowing owls inhabit prairie dog holes in the scorched earth that surround the gulches.
This is a primitive park designed to be that way on purpose. There is a bathroom and interpretive signs, but no picnic area or developed spaces. It’s only open to hiking, but dogs, bikes and horses aren’t allowed. Painted Mines is the perfect place for a contemplative walk.