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The Garden of the Gods' dramatic spires are the legacy of a Saharan-scale desert that covered the region about 280 million years ago; Shutterstock

Colorado by Nature: How Garden of the Gods Was Formed

A new exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center showcases dozens of images of the Garden of the Gods' dramatic spires. Here, read about their expansive geological history. 

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Back in 1859, when a surveyor named Rufus Cable first saw the towering fins of rock jutting over 300 feet into the air near Pikes Peak, he enthusiastically declared that it was “a fit place for the gods to assemble!” From this excited outburst came the name Garden of the Gods, by which we know this beautiful Colorado Springs park today.

The spires have long captured the imagination of those who have been fortunate to see them. A new exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which runs through October 11, showcases dozens of Garden images, dating from the 19th century to the present, in mediums ranging from paintings to photographs to tapestry.

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But how exactly did Mother Nature—perhaps with some help from Gaia or Zeus—create these colorful celestial spires?

Their story begins hundreds of millions of years ago, when the area around the Garden hosted the mighty “Ancestral Rockies” (so named because they rose in much the same place as our modern Rockies). Like all mountain ranges, they slowly wore away. Rewind 280 million years from present day, and all that was left of the once-lofty peaks were some low hills and a thick pile of sediment that would later form Red Rocks Amphitheater.

(Read our guide to hiking Garden of the Gods)

As the mountains disappeared, the climate began to dry out, and enormous sand dunes soon marched across the region, leaving behind a layer of pure, wind-blown sand whose smooth, round grains are all the same size. Many of the park’s spires, including North Gateway Rock and White Rock, are legacies of this ancient sand sea. Similar rocks, often with the steep, angular layering characteristic of sand dunes, have been found from Arizona to Montana, indicating that this desert was Saharan in scale.

After millions of years, the dunes retreated. The sands were buried beneath younger sediments and gradually compacted and cemented into the uniform sandstone locally known as the Lyons Formation, which is used across the Front Range as patio stone.

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Although originally deposited in horizontal sheets, the Lyons was later deformed by the tremendous forces associated with the rise of the Rockies, which about 65 million years ago began to uplift the much older igneous and metamorphic “basement” rocks that form the Rockies’ core. In the process the Lyons Sandstone was tilted, especially near the major faults, the planar features where much of the uplift occurred. One of these faults runs right through the Garden of the Gods, and its handiwork—the amazing fins—will surely continue to inspire visitors for what, to mere mortals, will seem like eternity.

(Read more from 5280‘s Colorado by Nature series)

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