Thirty miles east of town might sound like a long way to go for a hike. But the Paint Mines Interpretive Park is totally worth the wander. Its trails aren’t especially long, but the 4 miles of looping trails interconnect in the valleys among the stars of the show: colorful delicate spires, ridges and hoodoos created by eons of erosion.
We know you want to ask. A spire is a vertical column that is wider at the base than at the top. A hoodoo column is thinner at the base or midsection and larger at the top. Most hoodoos appear to have a rock balanced on top of the column. This is caused by erosion of the softer lower layers of soil in the vicinity while the hoodoo’s column is protected by a harder piece or stone above. It’s the perfect word to show up on Jeopardy or in a crossword puzzle.
The free Paint Mines Interpretive Park is listed as an Archeological District in the National Register of Historic Places as well as a wildlife preservation park. Prior to being purchased by the county for preservation, these surrounding acres were primarily a grazing and agriculture area.
Long known as the Indian Paint Mines, this area was private property and off limits to the curious until 2005. Prior to that it was just a rumored mystery and a peek through barbed wire fences to get a glimpse of the colors. On the eastern horizon, a wind farm of turbine towers can be seen. In the soil, oxidized iron, gypsum and other minerals create varied hues of clay in layers that Native American tribes utilized for paints and pottery. Quartzite crystals add the sparkle. There is even evidence that historic and prehistoric humans utilized the plants, animals and colorful clays of this area as many as 9,000 years ago. In the last century, these red, yellow, orange, purple and gray tinted clays were even used to create unique bricks for buildings. Artus Van Briggle experimented with these unique minerals in his pottery glazes.
Timing is everything at this unique park on the prairie. In many areas around Colorado Springs, we are spoiled with the luxury of decomposed granite on mountain roads and trails, but out here the clays can be a muddy mess after a rain or snow. The winds of winter can cut through your layers of clothing on a chilly day out on the prairie. There is very little shade on a hot summer day. We prefer a clear day with a few clouds for a hike like this. If you time it right, the El Paso County Fair in Calhan in July is a perfect combination with the Paint Mines only a mile away.
The Paint Mines traditionally were rarely busy, but the park has seen a tremendous increase in traffic in the last year or two. It can be quite active on summer weekends. Some areas have been fenced off, and park officials emphasize the need to stay on official trails to avoid damaging the fragile soils and geological features. Trails are designed for hiking only. No bicycles, dogs or horses are allowed.
Distance: 2 mile loop, 4 miles of optional exploring
Elevation Gain: approximately 380 feet
We recommend exploring the Paint Mines from its lesser known backdoor trailhead. (See “Getting There.”) Still part of the Paint Mines Park, this hike beyond the mines will take you on a trail through prairie grasses with yucca and wildflowers. It winds over gradual rolling terrain while the wind farm silently works in the distance. This is the canvas behind the paint.
Review the map on the informational signage in the parking lot before your hike. From the 30550 parking lot, follow the trail straight ahead and pass the junction on your left. The first half of the hike is a walk through a buffalo grass prairie, named after the bison that once swarmed this area.
You may be fortunate enough to encounter pronghorn antelope, mule- or whitetail deer or prairie dogs. If you are lucky, you may spot a coyote or a short-horned lizard. The odds are very good that you will spot a hawk or falcon circling overhead. You may spot bits of petrified wood that should be left in place. Colorado’s state bird, the lark bunting frequents this area with a most impressive song. Feel the breeze and savor the open space.
After this initial mile through blue gamma and buffalo grass, you will pass an interpretive sign. The trail curves left toward the colorful formations that are best seen in direct sunlight. As you drop into the bluffs, the prairie breezes diminish, and the wind farm’s spinning arms disappear from sight. You are immersed in the unique landscape that is a bit too colorful to seem real, and you have yet to reach the main area of trails with the largest formations. Take off your sunglasses to see the true colors, and marvel at the fact that you are the only person among the other hikers who thinks of this. At the lowest point of the formations you will even find some unique plant growth in the miniature wetlands.
If you choose not to go deeper into the formations, keep bearing left on every major trail junction to complete a 2-mile loop and return to your vehicle. If you wish to continue into the formations, now is the chance to wander, but remember this spot to find the 1 mile trail back to your starting point.
Driving through the relatively flat terrain between the Rocky Mountains and Kansas, the high prairie’s topography can easily go underappreciated. This ranchland stroll can remind us that geographic beauty—and surprises—can be found everywhere and that we should appreciate the land we too easily take for granted.
The main parking lot for the Paint Mines Interpretive Park is only 1 mile from Highway 24 as it passes through Calhan. Look for the sign to the Fair Grounds and turn right on Calhan Highway. Pass the El Paso County Fairgrounds; then turn left on Paint Mine Road. The main parking lot for the Paint Mines has good informational signage, the only public restrooms, and trail access to the larger formations. This is the most convenient location to hike into the gullies to explore the main area, but we recommend continuing on. Just beyond, there is a smaller parking lot with a nice view but poor hiking access. Keep going another mile.
Soon the road turns to dirt. Bear left at the perfect Y intersection to find a third, and little used, public parking area marked only with a stone sign that reads “30550.” This is your back door into the 750-acre park.
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 informative and adventurous guide explores hidden historic sites and points of interest in and around Colorado Springs.