This is a step by step guide to the main trail at Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs, through the heart of the park's largest and most scenic red rocks.
There are interpretive signs along the trail. This guide enhances that information and gets you excited before your visit.
The guide begins at the main North Parking Lot on Juniper Way Loop road.
The trail is 1.1 miles total loop from North Parking Lot.
Allow at least an hour to dally and gaze.
The trail is paved and wheelchair accessible.
Rocks Formations: Lyons Sandstones, both red
& white, deposited 290 to 245 million years ago. Some rocks (such as
Three Graces & Cathedral Spires) are older, Fountain Sandstones.
Highest red rock: North Gateway Rock, 320 feet high.
Animals: Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Rabbits, Coyote, Red Fox, various rodents. Not as likely to see: Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Black Bear.
Birds: White-throated Swift, Violet-green Swallow, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-tailed Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Canyon Wren, Black-billed Magpie. About 130 species total.
Oldest plant: One-seed Juniper. One tree in the park is estimated to be 900 years old.
Other trees: Rocky Mountain Juniper, Pinyon Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Gambel Oak
Garden of the Gods Park:
Established 1909, when Charles Perkins' heirs gave 480 acres to the City of Colorado Springs.
National Park quality: In 1886, Congress proposed 30 sq. miles encompassing Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak as our nation's 2nd National Park. But there was already too much private land within the proposed park to make it feasible.
Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971 by the National Park Service.
Current size of the park: 1367 acres. (over 2 sq. miles)
Elevation: 6400 feet above sea level at the Gateway.
mile 0.00. Like Whoa! As soon as you step out of your car at the North Parking Lot you are hit by classic big-time western scenery. Red sandstone cliffs tower above you, right there. The effect is most visible in children, who can be seen running down the trail excited and yelling, "Look! Look!"
Before you start the hike, look to the northeast, in the opposite way from the red rocks. This is the best place in the park to see Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Mostly they stay high on the open slopes of an old quarry site on the mountain to the north, but sometimes they are seen on the rocky ridge across the road from the parking lot.
The restrooms at the North Parking Lot are the only restrooms, so if you gotta go, go now.
Starting south down the trail, the dominating red rock on your right is named North Gateway Rock, and the white rock on your left is aptly called White Rock. Also on the right, and continuing away in the same direction as North Gateway Rock, are South Gateway Rock and Cathedral Rock (also called Gray Rock).
All of these rocks you can see from here, both red and white, are composed of Lyons Sandstones, which were deposited starting 270 million years ago and buried under subsequent layers. More recently, the Rocky Mountains were thrust up, and all along the front, where the mountains meet the plains, like here at Garden of the Gods, the layers were tilted vertical. The softer layers eroded faster, and left the more resistant layers to stand protruding in spines of rock extending along the front of the mountains.
mile 0.05. At the 2nd paved semi-circle on the left side of the path, you can get close to White Rock and see some of the names that have been carved in the rock. People have carved their names all along the base of White Rock and many are from the 1800's. The oldest name and date on White Rock is "Wll. Ketner 1731". (It is not at this view, so don't try to find it here.) To put that early date in perspective, this would have been 75 years before Zebulon Pike first saw the "Grand Peak" which is now named Pikes Peak. Do we know anything about Wll. Ketner other than he was here in 1731? How many others like him camped here, in those days of trappers and mountain men, that didn't carve their initials in the rock?
mile 0.11. Chuckwagon Plaza.
For about 50 years starting in 1937, the Junior Chamber of Commerce served Chuck Wagon Dinners and put on a cowboy-style stage show at this large open area. By 1955, there was an 8,370 sq. ft. shelter, fireplaces, and separate buildings for toilets and for dishwashing & storage. Starting about 2 PM, you could smell the chicken cooking from all over this end of the garden. About 700 people would be herded through the chow line in about 20 minutes. Entertainment included grabbing tourists from the audience for stealing silverware and branding them. Cowboy songs echoed off the red rocks. Our idea of what is appropriate use of this setting has changed since those days. The Chuckwagon Pavilion was torn down in 1995.
If you are here in the summer, you will notice the hundreds of White-throated Swifts zipping about in the sky along the cliffs of the red rocks scooping up insects. They are opportunistic fliers that use the wind to gain speed, and are among the fastest birds on the planet. They spend all day in the air, and even mate in the air. Along with Swallows, Pigeons, Wrens and other birds, they nest in the many cavities in the rock cliffs. Prairie Falcons also nest in the cliffs amid their food supply, and Red Tailed Hawk are often seen perched on top of North Gateway Rock. The Swifts arrive in late March and by the end of September they have flown south.
Garden of the Gods is an Ecotone. An ecotone is a transition area between different
plant communities, such as forest and grassland. Garden of the Gods Park contains
5 distinct ecosystem as defined by their vegetation.
- Ponderosa Pine ecosystem, found in mountains
- Pinyon - Juniper ecosystem, found in foothills
- Foothills shrub ecosystem, containing plants such as Gambel Oak, Mountain Mahogany, and Skunkbrush
- Prairie Grassland
- Riparian, containing Cottonwood & Willow
The sword-leafed plant along the trail, 2 to 3 feet tall, is Great Plains Yucca. In May, it grows a stalk of white flowers 5 feet high. In late summer, the flowers become woody seed pods.
mile 0.20. Signature Rock, a 15 feet high boulder on the right, next to the trail, just before a major junction of trails. Like on White Rock, many early travelers have carved their names here. It was considered good form then, but not now. These tablets of sandstone are large, but not large enough to accommodate the signatures of over a million visitors per year. The tree above and behind Signature Rock is an apricot tree. It is not native. Has it grown from a seed tossed by some early tourist?
The Central Garden Trail curves right, through the Gateway, the naturally eroded gap in the Lyons Sandstone. North Gateway Rock is on the right and South Gateway Rock is on the left. The smaller 60 feet high rock in the middle, on the west side of the Gateway is Sentinel Rock. The mountain in the distance, barely visible to the right of Sentinel Rock, is Pikes Peak, 14,110 feet elevation, 9 miles away. Camerons Cone, 10,707 feet elevation, 5 miles away, is the tree covered mountain between South Gateway Rock and Sentinel Rock.
mile 0.21. Gateway & Charles Perkins plaque.
The plaque on the cliff of North Gateway Rock commemorates Charles Perkins and the gift of The Garden of the Gods to the City of Colorado Springs in 1909. Charles E. Perkins, the president of the Burlington Route railroad, purchased Garden of the Gods in 1879 as a site for a summer home. He seldom visited Colorado Springs, and never built that summer home, but kept his land open for use by all as a park. After his death in 1907, in accordance with his wishes, his daughters gave the land to the City of Colorado Springs. In order to receive the gift, the city agreed to 4 conditions:
- The park will be known forever as "Garden of the Gods"
- No intoxicating liquors may be manufactured or sold in the park.
- No buildings may be erected except as necessary to maintain the park.
- The park shall be forever free to all the peoples of the world.
From here the Central Garden Trail makes a big loop on the west side of the red rocks before returning through the Gateway. This guide takes the trail right.
mile 0.24. A sign says "Rock Climbing (Scrambling) Is Prohibited Except as authorized by City Ordinance". To climb legally you must wear technical rock climbing equipment, and register at the Garden of the Gods Visitors Center. The steep, rubble filled gully, that goes all of the way up to the lowest notch, (the right notch in the picture), at the top of North Gateway Rock is called Tourist Gully. It probably acquired this name from all of the tourists that climbed it and then couldn't get down and had to be rescued. Of all the places in Colorado Springs parks, where people slip and fall, and there are many, Tourist Gully ranks #1 in most rescues and casualties.
Technical rock climbing in the Garden of the Gods began in the 1920s, when the great climber Albert Ellingwood, a college professor at Colorado College, made first ascents. Now, it is a rare day when there aren't roped climbers on established routes on many of the rocks. One of the most popular rock climbing routes is the Potholes route on Sentinel Rock 180 degrees behind you from Tourist Gully. Climbers call Sentinel Rock by the names Red and White Twin Spires. The Red Twin Spire is Lyons Sandstone. The White Twin Spire is older Fountain Sandstone.
mile 0.35. Hidden Inn site. There is a very short side trail on the right to several interpretive signs. In 1915, a pueblo-style building, Hidden Inn was built between the vertical layers of sandstone visible to the north, for the purpose of selling refreshments and curios. I wonder if Charles Perkins rolled over in his grave. According to a 1968 guide to Garden of the Gods, Indian dances were given on the hour at Hidden Inn. Until 1995, when the new master plan for Garden of the Gods Park was implemented, this was a much different scene. The path you have been walking on since the Gateway, was a road with automobiles driving on it. The large grassy area to the west of Hidden Inn site, was a parking lot.
mile 0.39. Trail junction. The trail to the right leads to a handicapped parking area on the west side of Juniper Loop Way.
mile 0.42. Stone bench.
Early pictures of Garden of the Gods show the Central Garden area almost devoid of vegetation with the red rocks rising out of dirt. It looks a lot better today with trees and grasses complementing and contrasting with the red rocks. The Rocky Mountain Junipers that grow in the Central Garden were planted by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1935.
mile 0.48. A dirt path ("social trail") to the left crosses the center of the Central Garden Trail loop. This is not a trail, but it is a shortcut back to The Gateway if you need it.
mile 0.55. Trail junction. The dirt trail to the right crosses Juniper Loop road and leads to the Palmer Trail. The Palmer Trail is a more rugged alternate route back to the North Parking Lot, 1.6 miles from here. The Palmer Trail climbs 150 feet elevation and provides panoramic views of the Garden of the Gods Central Garden.
mile 0.60. Stone bench.
This is a good vantage of the largest rocks: from left to right, North Gateway Rock, South Gateway Rock, and Cathedral Rock.
Since the 1870's, people have been naming the shapes in the rocks that resemble animals and other likenesses. In that spirit, here follows a few of the names that stuck. Kissing Camels is probably one of the most famous names. The Kissing Camels are atop North Gateway Rock, and more obvious from the Visitor's Center and the east entrance. From here they look more like Dove Kissing Squirrel. Just to the right of Kissing Camels, along the skyline of North Gateway Rock, is Egyptian Mummy. The mummy is reclining 45 degrees and looking to the right. In the middle of South Gateway Rock and 2/3 of the way up, is Weeping Indian. The head of the Indian is the top of the left half of the white rock on the mostly red rock, and his head is shaped by the outline of the white rock on the left side.
mile 0.62. Trail junction. The lower trail, left, is a shorter route back to the North Parking Lot. It is 0.1 miles shorter. This guide takes the upper trail, to the right.
mile 0.65. Trail junction. The trail to the right leads to a parking area on the west side of Juniper Loop Way, and also connects with the Scotsman Trail and Buckskin Charlie Trail.
mile 0.70. Three Graces Plaza.
The rock on the left is named Three Graces and the rock on the right is Cathedral Spires. This is a different rock than nearby Cathedral Rock. Cathedral Spires has also been called Montezuma's Temple Ruins, and climbers call the tallest spire Montezuma's Tower. A popular climbing route is directly up the narrow north ridge (left skyline) of Montezuma's Tower.
The top of Three Graces, when viewed from the side (east or west), used to be called The Seal and The Bear, and was famous. In 1942, after two days of rain, The Seal fell down during the night. The crash was heard at Hidden Inn.
mile 0.72. Trail junction. The Upper Loop Trail, on the right, climbs 100 feet elevation to the north shoulder of Sleeping Giant Rock.
mile 0.76 In 1912, a stage was built in the natural bowl on the cliff at the south end of South Gateway Rock for Indian dances. This was part of a grand festival, "Shan Kive", loosely translated from Ute as "Heap Big Fun". 7000 people came to see the Utes dance. The 1913 Shan Kive was bigger, with more events, and began with a 10.2 miles foot race, commencing at the Shan Kive grounds near Adams Crossing, through Colorado City, to Colorado Springs, and returning through Garden of the Gods. There were 12 finishers of the 18 people that started the race. The winning time was 70 minutes.
mile 0.81. Trail junction. The lower trail, left, rejoins the upper trail.
Probably the biggest events staged at Garden of the Gods were the Easter
Sunrise Services, performed at this site for 76 consecutive years from 1920
until 1995. At it's peak in the 40's and 50's, 20,000 to 25,000 people attended,
and CBS radio broadcast it nationally.
That 30 foot rock at the base of South Gateway Rock was the Tomb used in the pantomime of the resurrection, and there were seats for the 250 voice a cappella choir permanently in place in the slope in front of Tomb Rock. There were three tall crosses posted in the saddle to the south between Cathedral Rock and Sleeping Giant Rock, where part of the pantomimes were acted. Picture 25,000 people and automobiles filling the entire Central Garden on a frosty dawn, observing a grand pageant and sermon, amid this setting of red rocks! In 1996, to relieve the stress of trampling, the Easter Sunrise Service was moved to the field at Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site. The last service there was in 2002. 5000 people attended.
mile 0.87. Trail junction. The trail straight goes around the Central Garden Trail loop (again). This guide takes the trail right, through The Gateway and back to the North Parking Lot.
mile 0.89. Sentinel Plaza & Gateway.
"The Beautiful Gate" was one of the first names given this place, this ground level opening between the massive red rocks. It is one of the most dramatic places in the park. Until 1995, there was a road through it. It was a great decision to make The Gateway into a pedestrian only area, where people can walk and gawk without having to dodge and smell and listen to automobiles.
mile 0.93. Trail junction. To return to the North Parking Lot, take the trail straight ahead, northeast, and then north, that goes up the valley between North Gateway Rock, on your left, and White Rock, on your right.
mile 1.13. Main North Parking Lot. You are back at the start.
Want more hiking? There are many miles of trails in the park. I recommend this scenic 4 miles circumnavigation of the red rocks on the following trails: Palmer - Scotsman - Buckskin Charlie - Niobrara - Valley Reservoir - Chambers - Bretag.
Some of the things you can no longer do at Garden of the Gods, you can still
do in Colorado Springs, and it is almost as good.
- Chuck Wagon Dinners: Flying W Ranch.
- Indian dances: Several local tourist attractions host Indian dancers during the summer.
- Easter Services: Local mega-churches stage large-scale productions.
- Heap Big Fun: Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Days - July
- Garden of the Gods 10 Mile Run: Since 1977, there has been an annual 10 mile race through Garden of the Gods. - May or June