This is part of 5280's weekly Outdoors column, where every Tuesday we explore a part of the state for you.
Why we love it: Colorful spires and hoodoos looming nearly undiscovered in Colorado Spring’s backyard.
When to go: Whenever you want to explore a quiet corner of the Front Range with a picnic basket in hand.
To visit some unusual Front Range terrain, head to El Paso County’s Paint Mines Interpretive Park, which showcases 750 hidden acres of labyrinthine gulches, tall, thin rock spires known as hoodoos, and native grass meadows filled with wildflowers in the spring.
By foot or horseback it is easy to immerse yourself in this pocket of badlands—a spartan terrain of soft, crumbly rocks interspersed by deep gullies—created by the erosion of a stack of clays shed off the Rockies some 55 million years ago. The clays are the remains of ancient soils that formed when the Earth’s climate suddenly went haywire and caused the temperature to jump about 18 degress in just a few thousand years. The hallmarks of this intense bout of heat are colorfully displayed in the soft mudstone splashed with pigments of red, pink, yellow, and purple.
The park earned its name because Native Americans who have lived in this area for over 9,000 years collected the vividly colored clays for pigment in ceremonial paints and pottery. Archaeological evidence indicates they also used this land for hunting by exploiting the gullies and overlooks to trap and kill bison. More recent Euro-American settlers also mined these clays to make bricks and ceramics.
Located in Colorado’s eastern prairie, the park protects a diverse ecosystem including short and mixed-grass prairie, wetlands, and riparian corridors. Walking amongst the hoodoos—also known as fairy chimneys—is the best way to enjoy this tranquil spot. Several short, family-friendly loops are possible, including a couple figure-eights. While exploring, you may well spot red fox, mule deer, and short-horned lizards darting amongst the barren rock, hear serenading rock wrens and western meadowlarks, and perhaps even glimpse a pronghorn or soaring prairie falcon.
Getting there: From Denver, travel south on I-25 about 60 miles to exit 151, Briargate Parkway. Follow Briargate east for 3.6 miles, then turn right onto North Powers Boulevard. Continue 2.4 miles and take the East Woodmen Road exit. Turn left (east) to follow East Woodmen 6.5 miles to the junction with U.S. 24. Turn left onto U.S. 24 and travel 18.8 miles to Calhan. At the east end of town, turn right (south) onto Yoder Road. After 0.6 mile turn left (east) onto the gravel Paint Mine Road and follow for 0.9 mile to a 90-degree bend. To hike, park in the clearly signed lot half a mile beyond this bend. For an overview of the badlands, continue along Paint Mine Road another 0.5 mile to the overlook parking area, where a 200-yard-long, handicap-accessible walk leads to a wonderful vista.
Logistics: The park is open dawn to dusk.
Bonus: Admission is free.