Reaching for the Sky: Visiting the Garden of the Gods

Think Colorado! Think Colorado Springs! Think Garden of the Gods!

And there we stood at 6, 500 feet on a warm November day, staring at the Gateway Rocks that scratch the sky with their sharp red angles far below a giant and snowy Pikes Peak rising ever higher to over 14,000 feet.  This “garden” is truly a remarkable place, 70 million years in the making when the Rocky Mountains began their uplifting from a sea level marshland crawling with dinosaurs to a high and arid sandstone plain bearing the jagged remains of a multi-layered covering of sandstone fins.

Gateway Rocks and Pikes Peak

Gateway Rocks and Pikes Peak

We stood and stared at gray-white Morrison Cliffs along with glaring white Lykins Formation ridges juxtaposed with bright red Lyons sandstone and pink Fountain Formation sandstone fins. Vincent Van Gogh would have gone crazy here! We took the Gateway Trail at the northern edge of this city park founded in 1907 and later named National Natural Landmark in 1971. Our trail led us over Pierre Shale where fossils can still be found. In fact, years ago, I led a group of Japanese students along this same trail when a young Japanese co-ed shouted in amazement: “kaki-ya koko-ni arimasu!” (oysters are here!). She reached down to pick up a beautiful fossilized shell from prehistoric seashore times.

Angular sandstone fin

An angular sandstone fin

Why the name “Garden of the Gods?” Apparently, some early European settlers reacted to this landscape by saying it would be a great place for a beer garden. But, thought they, it’s more than just a beer garden, it’s a garden for gods. Early-day Ute Indians thought of it as a special place; they had an Origin Story about a Water Grandmother who, desiring some land instead of endless ocean, spun a web of land from her being to stretch it out, large enough to satisfy the mythic Coyote. Since post-glacial times, the Utes had been present for thousands of years until they were relocated by the US Government to the Ute Mountain Reservation in southern Colorado, or to the Uintah Ute Reservation in eastern Utah.

Landscapes beyond the Gateway Rocks

Landscapes beyond the Gateway Rocks

We continued on our ramble along the trail to be surprised by a small creature sunning itself on the rocks. We later found out it was a western fence lizard. All around us grew a variety of dryland trees, including twisted junipers and aromatic pinyon pines, the very tree that was harvested by the Utes for pine nuts. White-podded yucca and prickly pear cactus punctuated the ground that lay before us. The Utes utilized these plants as well. Yucca pods provided them with a banana-tasting fruit, and the yucca roots gave them fiber for sandals and soap suds for cleaning. Cacti, with spines burnt off, provided them with a tasty inner pulp. As we reflected on these ancient people, we climbed a bit of a hill to gaze at the Gateway Rocks only to notice a bevy of swallows flying in between these cliffs in search of insects.

Balancing Rock

Balancing Rock

We could have continued hiking along this trail, and would have taken others the rest of the day, but instead we gave in to the gnawing pangs of hunger and proceeded back to the visitor center’s cafeteria.

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