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A view of Colorado Springs' Garden of the Gods with Pikes Peak in the distance from the Mesa Overlook. Photo by Jessica LaRusso
The 2021 Colorado Summer Guide

The (Not-So-Touristy) Guide to Garden of the Gods

With 1,367 acres of the most striking—and most accessible—scenery in the state, Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs is understandably a magnet for summer tourists. But Coloradans can still enjoy the park, even in peak season, by following this guide.

Coloradans are lucky to have many opportunities to view rolling grasslands, pine-covered hillsides, snowcapped mountains, and massive, colorful rock formations, but rarely do we get them all in a single vista. Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs is one such place, with its rusty red upturned slabs; the (usually) white top of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak in the distance; and lush vegetation drawing millions of people from around the globe annually. It’s easy to see why the area was considered sacred for thousands of years before a surveyor gave it its current name in 1859: The Ute people spent winters sheltered among the rocks, and it served as neutral ground for rival Native American tribes to gather.

In the late 1800s, a railroad baron named Charles Elliott Perkins purchased much of the land. Per his wishes, his children donated 480 of the most beautiful acres in the United States to the city of Colorado Springs in 1909, with the stipulation that they always remain free, undeveloped, and open to the public. Here’s everything you need to know to visit the, now, 1,367-acre National Natural Landmark—while avoiding the crowds.

When to Visit Garden of the Gods

If you live in Denver—just an hour and a half from Garden of the Gods—there’s really no reason to add to the crowds on a peak summer weekend. Instead, take a Wednesday off, or consider a shoulder-season trip: Some of the best photos of the park can be snapped in late spring, when the flora is verdant and Pikes Peak is still covered with glistening white snow.

Garden of the Gods Hours & Rules

Where to Park at Garden of the Gods

From the eastern entrance off 30th Street near the visitor center, the road through the park is mostly a one-way loop. During the offseason (roughly Labor Day to Memorial Day), or in the early mornings or evenings any time of year, you can often score spots in what’s labeled on maps as the “main” parking lot or P2—which has bathrooms and quick access to the Central Garden area, where a paved trail loops through many of the park’s must-see formations—at the north end of the park. You’ll also have a good shot at finding spaces in the dozen or so smaller lots located near various trailheads throughout the park. Any other time, your best bet is the “overflow” lot across 30th Street from the visitor center. (Trust us: Even if you manage finding a spot, you’re better off spending your time walking the half-mile from the overflow lot; unless idling behind a car line of Texans snapping photos of rock formations is a thing for you.) In the summer, a free shuttle runs between the overflow lot, the visitor center, and a drop-off spot near the Central Garden from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Tip: For an incredible photo op, drive up to the Mesa Overlook parking area off Mesa Road. Sunrise and sunset are particularly spectacular, but you can capture stunning panoramas of the park and Pikes Peak any time of day. 

What to Do at Garden of the Gods

Learn

Start by popping into the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center (free and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day). There, you can pick up a map, learn what animals to watch for (like bighorn sheep, black-billed magpies, mule deer) via a taxidermy exhibit, and see a cast of the dinosaur skull found only in Garden of the Gods: Theiophytalia kerri, from the Greek theios and phytalia, meaning “belonging to the gods” and “garden,” respectively, and discoverer James Hutchinson Kerr. The species also makes a cameo in How Did Those Red Rocks Get There?, a 12-minute film—$6 for adults, $4 for kids ages five to 12, four and under free—shown every 20 minutes in the theater downstairs. Adults will appreciate the brief overview of the park’s history and geology, while the time-traveling, point-of-view film keeps kids entertained.

Hike

Yes, Adventures Out West runs trolley, jeep, and even Segway tours from the visitor center—but the trails here are short and easy (especially by Colorado standards), so save your money and explore on foot. Talk to the rangers at the visitor center’s information desk to find the perfect route among the park’s 21 miles of trails for your group, or try one of our favorites:

The paved Perkins Central Garden Trail (about a mile if looped from the main parking lot; a bit more if you’re coming from overflow) is a must-do, as it winds through the park’s marquee formations, including Tower of Babel, North Gateway Rock, Pulpit Rock, and South Gateway Rock. Thus, it’s also the busiest. If you don’t want to dodge selfie sticks and Instagram influencers in the wild, go early or late in the day.

Midday, escape the throngs by hitting the Palmer Trail, which runs for a couple of miles along more forested areas on the west and north sides of the park and gains enough elevation to scare off flip-flop-clad tourists. You can access the trail from multiple points and lots, but be sure to hit the highest ground to the northwest of the park; from there, you have great views of the Central Garden area and the Kissing Camels formation to the east and Pikes Peak to the west.

The Siamese Twins—two hourglass-esque formations attached at multiple points with a hole in the middle that perfectly frames Pikes Peak—are worth more than the half-mile roundtrip stroll from the eponymous trailhead that most people take. In the evening, park at the Spring Canyon South Picnic Area to catch the Strausenback Trail north for views of the setting sun lighting up the Central Garden area. Then cross Garden Drive to catch a segment of the Palmer Trail up to the Siamese Twins, where, hopefully, the photo-op line has dissipated. Loop the Siamese Twins Trail and a connector back to your car. Total trek time: about a mile.

If you must get a photo of yourself “holding up” Balanced Rock (on the southwest end of the park), do it during nonpeak hours and, at the very least, earn it by taking the short hike there from the Trading Post lot. (Unforgivable: pulling off to the side thereby adding to the bottleneck effect of this roadside attraction.)

Rock Climb

You must have proper equipment (note: as of 2021, all climbing chalk and chalk substitutes are banned) and obtain a free permit online to do technical rock climbing at Garden of the Gods. Local companies such as Front Range Climbing Co. offer guided excursions, and families should look into Adventure Out West’s kid-friendly offering, which can be booked at the visitor center and includes an hour and a half of beginner-level scrambling, climbing, and rappelling for $79 per person.

Where to Eat Near Garden of the Gods

For casual breakfast and lunch or picnic fare, head into Manitou Springs, just past the park’s south entrance. Maté Factor Cafe is a local favorite for smoothies and sandwiches, and Manitou Brewing Co.’s patio is ideal for a flight and a bite post-hike. For a fancier meal, check OpenTable to score a reservation at the Grand View Dining Room at Garden of the Gods Resort & Club, which is perched on the ridge almost directly above the visitor center and, indeed, has grand views of the park. The hotel and private club’s various eating establishments—and those incredible vistas—are otherwise only available to guests and members. Mind the resort-casual dress code at all times. For a more relaxed vibe, go for breakfast in the morning with the kids.

Garden of the Gods Resort & Club, Infinity Pool
Perched atop a ridge just east of the park, the Garden of the Gods Resort & Club has epic views of the formations from its rooms, its restaurants, and even its adults-only infinity pool. Photo by Jessica LaRusso

Where to Stay Near Garden of the Gods

Although you can see most of the park in a day, two is better—especially if you’re trying to avoid the busiest hours.

If you can afford to splurge, book a park-facing room in the 70-year-old Garden of the Gods Resort & Club’s lodge, where large primping areas with walk-in closets hark back to more glamorous times, when celebrities like John Wayne, Walt Disney, and Gene Autry (and their dates) needed the space to dress up for dinner, tennis, and even the pool. These days, guests (who’ve been allowed to book stays since the resort opened to the public in 2013) prefer to sip wine—from in-room dispensers, of course—on their patios or balconies while gazing down at Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak beyond. Another perk? The ability to take in that same view from a treadmill in the gym, a patio yoga or spin class, or the adults-only infinity pool.

For a more economical option, check out Garden of the Gods RV Resort, located near the southern entrance of the park. There, you can rent a cottage or yurt or even pitch a tent, and Fido is welcome to join you; there’s an onsite dog park for him and a pool for the kids.

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