Between Colorado Springs and Denver lies the Palmer Divide, an elevated ridge that creates a subtle pass between these two large cities. This ridge is better known to commuters as Monument Hill. The pass becomes more noticeable during the snow storms that are captured here and rerouted due to this ridge. This ridge splits the drainage from the nearby mountains. On the north side of Monument Hill the water runs to the Platte River through Nebraska to the Missouri River. On the south side of the hill, the water drains into Monument Creek, then on to the Arkansas River. It is amazing to think that these waters split on Palmer Divide, spill into the Mississippi River hundreds of miles apart to rejoin in St. Louis, and finally pass through New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico.
At the base of the mountains, at the top of this little ridge, is the pleasing town of Palmer Lake. Even though the inevitable growth of newer homes surrounds the lake and original town, the speed trap curve of older buildings that is downtown Palmer Lake is alive and well.
Before Interstate 25, the original north/south highway (Highway 105) ran through the towns of Monument and Palmer Lake, then on to Larkspur and Denver. We still drive this two lane road once in a while for a leisurely and scenic escape from I-25. It is easy to see why this route became the preferred method 100 years ago, connecting the small communities at the base of the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
The lake came first. Palmer Lake was officially recognized in the 1830s and this natural spring fed lake was the draw for the first settlers of the area. A lone barn remains from the first homestead (G) in the 1860s and may still be seen in use over 150 years later. Cattle were driven between Texas and Wyoming on the famous Goodnight-Loving trail that ran nearby and the McShane Fort was near the railroad tracks east of town. Potato farming was a big deal and a yearly Potato Festival livened up the harvest season. The Palmer Lake potatoes made a good showing at the Potato Exposition every year at the Denver Western Stock Show.
In 1871, the D&RG railroad was built over this ridge, originating in Denver, heading south for Mexico and routed by this tiny lake to provide year-round water for the steam engines. After their laborious ascent of Monument Hill, the lake replenished the water the steam engines needed for the crossing. Not long afterwards, a competing railroad company built their line paralleling the first set of tracks. These two lines ran on opposite sides of the lake with similar stations on opposite shores. A large ice house was on the south shore of Palmer Lake where blocks of lake ice were harvested up until 1941 for chilling the “refrigerated” railroad cars. A number of years ago, the natural spring supply was damaged during an attempted dredging of the lake so Palmer Lake is now being fed by two reservoirs just above town that were originally created by the railroad to sustain the supply. No longer needed as a water source for the steam engine’s boilers and the iced refrigerated railcars, the lake is the pride of the town and a scenic fishing and recreation spot. During drought years when the lake is dry, tongue-in-cheek residents have been heard to call their town “Palmer Meadows.”
Sundance Mountain is the triangular backdrop to the town. In 1934, residents of Palmer Lake came up with the idea of a large lighted star above town. Erected by fire department volunteers, the flat face of this hillside holds a star that is lit for the month of December (see A Step Farther, below). The posts that support the strings of lights were old city water pipes. These heavy pipes were carried up the mountain by sheer manpower as well as the cement, cables and other supplies used for construction. No roads or visible trails mar the face of Sundance Mountain. Recently rebuilt with new wiring and LED lights, this star will continue to give I-25 travelers the warm fuzzies for many Christmases to come. Well done, Palmer Lake.
That was quite a bit of history on Palmer Lake, but we’re here to talk hiking!
The Hike: Kipps Loop
Distance: 4 miles round trip
Difficulty: 2 out of 5
Elevation Gain: 150 feet
To get to the Kipps Loop parking lot and the Greenland Open Space trailhead, cross the railroad tracks (1) north of the lake. Continue on County Line Road for one half mile to the archway (2) over the trailhead on your left at the bend in the road. Most of this hike is in open grassy fields and gently rolling hills with little shade. Kipps Loop is a simple 4 mile out-and-back round trip, but can become much more as it is part of the larger 8.5-mile long Greenland Loop. From the parking lot, hike one mile. Turn right (3) on Kipps Loop. Continue one more mile gently uphill, to find (4) Mr. Kipps.
Kipps Loop is named after Edward Thomas Kipps, whose solitary headstone sits just off trail, elevated in the pine trees at the bottom of a small bluff. The base of the monument states that he was from London, England. It is an impressive headstone that seems out of place on the hillside; an antique wrought iron fence completes the picture. This local cemetery was relocated long ago because it was too far from town, but we can only speculate as to why Mr. Kipps and his monumental headstone were not invited along.
This hike isn’t just about visiting Kipps but more about the experiences along the way. Sights include an old stock pen, a cattle water pond, the view of Spruce Mountain to the north and the sights and sounds of an occasional train (6) working hard to make it over the Palmer Divide. When you are ready, retrace your steps to the trailhead.
We only focused on this hike because it has a historical element at the end, but there are several other excellent hiking options accessible from Palmer Lake. From this point you can see Spruce Mountain Open Space to the north. We recommend this hike for your to-do list. Spruce Mountain cannot be accessed from this trail but it is a quick drive up South Spruce Mountain Road.
From Mr. Kipps knoll the trail continues on the much longer Greenland Loop (5). The Greenland area at the north end of this loop was named by Helen Hunt Jackson, Colorado’s noted novelist of long ago. Greenland, a town that no longer exists with the exception of a few farms, won her over with its abundant grassland and picturesque bluffs. The north end of the loop can be accessed at interstate exit 167.
For a more challenging hike, with trees, you may want to visit the Palmer Lake Trail. On the west side of town is a genuine Rocky Mountain hike up a steep canyon (J) that will lead you quickly to the two city reservoirs and beyond. The first one you reach has been appropriately named Lower Reservoir. Soon after that the trail reaches Upper Reservoir, which is above the Lower Reservoir, apparently named because the Lower Reservoir is lower than the Upper Reservoir. Got that? At the west end of the Lower Reservoir, to the right, is the unmarked Ice Cave Creek Trail that loops around to the Upper Reservoir. The trail that extends a little beyond the Upper Reservoir leads into a nice treed valley, but no particular destination. An excellent parking area is available at the south end of High Street on Old Carriage Road.
New Santa Fe Regional Trail: Park on the east side of the lake. The Santa Fe Trail is a comfortably level route on the abandoned Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. This trail runs south through the United States Air Force Academy as a part of the Colorado Front Range Trail. There is also a nice walking trail around the lake.
The Colorado Front Range Trail: The Greenland Trail and the Santa Fe Trail mentioned above are part of the much larger Colorado Front Range Trail. The Front Range Trail is a long-term project to create a multi-use trail from Wyoming to New Mexico and has a trailhead access in the parking lot at Palmer Lake. This border-to-border Front Range Trail is currently about 30% complete, but the segment through Palmer Lake is a wonderfully completed 40 mile trail between Greenland and the town of Fountain. The north end can be accessed from the Greenland Exit no. 167 on Interstate 25. The southern terminus is at the ponds of the Fountain Creek Regional Park near exit no. 132. Mostly hard packed dirt and minimal hills, this trail is ideal for a lengthy bicycle ride. With an elevation loss of 1,300 feet over 40 miles, it is a gradual, almost imperceptible downhill grade southbound, but you can feel the subtle climb going north.
All that and we haven’t even mentioned Mt. Herman Loop and Raspberry Trail. We all know that life is what happens while you are planning life. We propose that hikes happen while planning a hike. Do you need a destination, or do you wander?
Palmer Lake is just one of many countless historic towns in Colorado, each with their own distinct personality, scenery and history. This town’s four different types of trails and the proximity to the interstate highway make it especially appealing. The restaurants that have been around for ages, the curve in the road that runs through the center town, the trails and of course the lake itself will provide incentive to return when you can.
From Interstate 25, take exit 161 for Highway 105. Turn left at the light and then take the first right after crossing over I-25. Follow Hwy 105 for 4 miles to the town of Palmer Lake. Watch your speedometer as speed limits vary on Hwy 105. If you are coming from the north, the County Line Road exit will also bring you here.
A Step Farther: Dizzy, the Light Bulb-Carrying Dog
I stood there in wonder! Amazing! Dizzy must have been something to see! Standing nearly five feet tall twice the size of a normal German Shepherd dog weighing 300 pounds, and made of bronze, no less. Oh, wait … this was just a representative statue commemorating the real canine. My bad.
When exploring with Rocky around the Village Green Park surrounding the Lucretia Valle Library and Museum, we happened upon the sculpture commissioned by the Palmer Lake Historical Society for the 50th anniversary of the town’s Star of Bethlehem on the side of the mountain. Dizzy represents the volunteer spirit of those who built the star … and how to exploit cheap work out of our furry friends. This was in the days before Canine Labor Laws.
Bert Sloan and B.E. Jack had convinced the men and women of Palmer Lake to construct the star on the side of the mountain above town. Of the many hard workers, one of special note was Bert’s dog, Dizzy, named after the famous pro baseball player of the era, Dizzy Dean. The Shepherd was Bert’s constant companion might as well put him to work too. I hope he was rewarded at least with yummy doggy treats. Dizzy, not Bert.
Bert made a small pack that he carefully strapped to Dizzy. As the crews worked on the mountainside, Dizzy carried supplies from one group to another. A call of his name or a whistle, and Ol’ Diz would come running packed with tools, nails, electrical wire, and even light bulbs. The volunteers must have learned quickly not to put the light bulbs in the same pack pockets as the hammers.
In 2013, the Star of Palmer Lake was designated as a Colorado Historic Site by the state. The lit star that greets drivers on I-25 at Christmas time as they pass up and over the Palmer Divide still shines bright to this day. Bert and Dizzy would be proud.
Like This Hike? Check Out the Book
This article is adapted with permission from Easy Hikes to the Hidden Past: Pikes Peak Region Edition. Written by local authors Rocky Shockley and T. Duren Jones, the book is an informative and adventurous guide to exploring hidden historic sites and points of interest in and around Colorado Springs.