Just Another City Park

One of the oldest “parks” in Colorado Springs is North Cheyenne Cañon. Ever since the founding of the city by General William Jackson Palmer in 1871, this local landmark has enjoyed great popularity among residents and visitors alike. The official park originated in 1885, when the city purchased 640 acres from Colorado College, and reached its current size of 1600 acres through a land donation by General Palmer in 1907, as well as later additions.

Starsmore Center

The park’s entrance is graced by the Starsmore Discovery Center. This massive stone house formerly served as the residence of the Starsmore family and stood a couple of miles east, at the corner of S. Nevada Avenue and Cheyenne Road, the location of a present day fast food chain. In a spectacular action, the entire 200 ton building was moved to its new home on a trailer in April 1990, and opened as the park’s main visitor center two years later, which was also when the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon nonprofit organization was created. This year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary — Happy Birthday, Friends!

North Cheyenne Cañon Road

A serpentine, newly re-paved road lined by giant Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs winds up the narrow canyon for nearly 3 miles, paralleling the course of North Cheyenne Creek to the foot of Helen Hunt Falls. These are named in honor of a famous writer who relocated from the East to Colorado Springs for its purported beneficial climate. More about this remarkable woman in a future post. Adjacent to the falls sits a log cabin, in operation as a second visitor center since 2013. It replaced a dilapidated predecessor, known as The Cub. This structure was associated with the nearby Bruin Inn, a retreat originally owned by Colorado College that has long since burned.

Helen Hunt Falls (in the background on the left) and Visitor Center

A small distance beyond this site, the pavement ends at the junction of the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, now a parking lot. The former was built as the railroad bed for the so-called Short Line, to transport gold mined in Cripple Creek at the back side of Pikes Peak, and destined for the processing mills in Old Colorado City. Once mineral extraction ceased to be profitable, the rails were removed and the gravel route became available to car traffic.

Junction of High Drive and Lower Gold Camp Road

Parking lot, often filled to capacity

Following the collapse of one of the railroad tunnels, the affected portion of the road was barred to cars, and reserved for horses, pedestrians, and bikers. When flooding washed out stretches of the High Drive, it, too, opened only for travelers on hoof, foot, or spokes. Owing to this rich past, North Cheyenne Cañon Park received special distinction in 2009, by being included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The attractive scenery is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Miles of spurs branching off the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, combined with hiking opportunities in the canyon itself, result in a near-endless web of trails covering this mountainous margin of Colorado Springs. My husband and I have walked many of them, but keep gravitating to the Columbine Trail which begins at the lower trailhead west of the Starsmore Center, at an elevation of 6250 feet, and reaches the upper trailhead at an altitude of 7300 feet, after four miles. Southern exposure makes it one of the earliest, snow-free paths. Meandering in and out of copses of conifers and clusters of scrub oak, it affords glimpses of the Helen Hunt and Silver Cascade Falls, of the rock formations which rim the ravine, and of the vast expanse of the Great Plains to the east.

Columbine Trail

View of Silver Cascade Falls from the Columbine Trail

Looking east

Depending on the day, week, or month, the park may be crowded, and since we seek solitude, we avoid weekends, and other busy times. While breaking a sweat and feeling the blood course through our veins, we delight in the warm caresses of sunbeams, the rushing sounds of the creek, and the joyful songs of feathered tenants. Chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and towhees flit in and out of the trees, ravens and raptors soar overhead.

For years past, North Cheyenne Cañon has provided pleasures to seekers from near and far. This seeker hopes to find them there for many more in the future.

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Dippered Out

On this late December day, I enjoy the wintry brilliance of Elevenmile Canyon for the first time. Knowing it hitherto only in its summer apparel, today I participate in a birding and photography field trip offered by the Colorado Springs Aiken Audubon Society. Only three people signed up, but we benefit from having our leader to ourselves and are even chauffeured in her new car, aptly named Mountain Bluebird. It flies across the 40 miles on Highway 24 in under an hour. In Woodland Park, which lives up to its moniker, City Above the Clouds, we emerge from a veil of mist enveloping Colorado’s Front Range. Farther west in Lake George, we turn south onto Park County Road 96 and reach the entrance booth to the canyon at 9 AM where we pay the $6 fee. Administered by the USDA Forest Service, this site is popular among fisher(wo)men year-round, and on many summer days, the three campgrounds are filled to the hilt.

The gravel road parallels the course of the South Platte River and ends after roughly 11 miles at the foot of the 1932 dam which created Elevenmile Reservoir. The route occupies the former bed of the Colorado Midland Railroad, the first standard gauge railway in the state which primarily targeted the silver wealth of Leadville. Two narrow gauge lines already connected to this boom town, including General Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande, but only by circuitous paths. The main engine behind the Midland, industrialist John J. Hagerman, came to the West for its vaunted healthful climate, like many tuberculosis sufferers. His railroad originated in Colorado Springs in 1886, groaned up steep Ute Pass, and by the following year traversed what was then known as Granite Canyon.

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On the morning of our excursion, our drive through three surviving railroad tunnels reminds us of this earlier chapter in the history of what is now Elevenmile Canyon. The temperature climbs from 10 to 43 degrees Fahrenheit, and with warmth increasing, so does our time outside the car. Our leader, having faced conditions as low as minus 19 degrees in years past, thinks us a mollycoddled bunch, but even she lingers in sun-flooded patches which feel downright balmy by the end of the morning. Sun and blue skies are a congenial combination, rendered more so by the presence of snow. Frozen crystals glitter on granite and ground, icy art sparkles on stream and shrubbery.

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Among this inanimate splendor, the fluorescent feathers of winged beings flash flamboyantly, drawing our attention to their presence. This area is known to harbor Bald and Golden Eagles and we are fortunate to see both. A young, male Baldy allows us glimpses from nearby, but Goldy is circling high in the sky, close enough for identification, but too far for satisfactory photography.

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Where the river remains free of ice, it provides paddling room for Canada Geese, Mallards, Common Goldeneyes. Unexpectedly, we happen across an active American Pipit. Corvids caw in the calm, and the contented chatter of chickadees and nuthatches permeates the air.

Our most popular motifs, however, are American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus), also called water ouzels. They are usually found here in winter, but we are surprised to see one after nearly every bend in the river and count at least 20 individuals. What they lack in conspicuous colors, they make up with curious behavior. This includes the ability to dive, swim, and even walk under water, with the goal of capturing aquatic insects. When not submerged, they bob nearly constantly.

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They are solitary and territorial birds and defend their watery realm from neighboring rivals. For the first time in my life I hear their lovely vocalizations, not unlike the tinkling cadence of the element in which they conduct their lives. We have ample opportunity to take pictures, and each of us captures dozens, if not hundreds. But even birders with a long attention span tire. After 3 wonderful hours we nonetheless declare ourselves “dippered out” and leave Elevenmile Canyon in its gorgeous winter raiments behind us, for the time being.

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Rock Ledge Ranch

Today I will add to the lore about General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs. Based on numerous testimonies, he was a generous man. Only a few years after his marriage to Mary Lincoln “Queen” Mellen, his father-in-law died. Mr. Mellen had married Queen’s aunt, following the premature death of her mother when the girl was only four, which resulted in the gradual addition of seven half-siblings to Queen’s kin. After the patriarch’s passing, the General basically adopted the extended Mellen Clan, and they moved in at the Palmers’ home at Glen Eyrie for a period of time. William Palmer supported his relatives, even after most decided to live in England, and he continued to do so after Queen’s early demise at age 44.

Orchard House, frontal view

Orchard House, frontal view

During a stroll through Rock Ledge Ranch, adjacent to gorgeous Garden of the Gods, the stately Orchard House reminded me of the convoluted Palmer-Mellen family saga, and of the General’s character. He had purchased Rock Ledge Ranch, a former homestead, circa 1900 from the Chambers family. After one of Queen’s half-sisters, Charlotte (Lottie), went through a scandalous divorce and remarriage to the noted British zoologist William Lutley Sclater, the couple established residence in Cape Town, where he became curator at the South African Museum, until his resignation in 1906 when he and Lottie accepted the General’s invitation to relocate to Colorado Springs. Not content with securing his relation a teaching position at Colorado College, Palmer commissioned noted local architect, Thomas MacLaren, to build the pair their own domicile, Orchard House, in the Cape Dutch style of their former dwelling near the Cape of Good Hope — kindness and thoughtfulness taken to a high level.

Orchard House, back view

Orchard House, back view

The Sclaters’ time in the shadow of Pikes Peak coincided with General Palmer’s final chapters of life, following his horse-riding accident and ensuing near-quadriplegia. This did not prevent him from leading a vibrant life and Lottie was a great help and comfort to him for over two-and-a-half years, until his death in 1909, when the Sclaters returned to England.

Chambers House

Chambers House

Opportunities to explore Rock Ledge Ranch, now a living history farm and museum, abound. Multiple festivals throughout the year afford entrance into the former occupants’ residences, and glimpses into their lives. Mr. Sclater was an impassioned ornithologist. Because I share his fascination with feathered friends, an earlier visit to his office, and his collection of stuffed birds, left a lasting impression. At that point, I was not aware of his renowned two volume A History of the Birds of Colorado, published after he left the state. I would like to take a look at it, and an occasion will present itself soon. What I do recall are the delicious aroma and taste of Christmas cookies baked and served in the kitchen of the Orchard House during my last tour. As it happens, the annual holiday celebration will take place this coming Saturday, December 17, 2016, from 4 till 8 PM. For further details, please follow the link to the website here.

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A View of Manitou

While hiking the Paul Intemann Memorial Trail between Crystal Park Road and Ruxton Avenue not long ago, scenes of Manitou Springs gradually unfold, and with them reminders of how marketable the hamlet has been from the moment it was put on the map.

Since George Ruxton, British explorer, travel writer, and namesake of a prominent avenue and creek, traveled through the area in 1847, and commented on the “boiling waters”, much has been said and written about its major and minor selling points. General William Jackson Palmer and Dr. William Abraham Bell, who reveled in those bubbling soda springs during a railroad survey in 1869, became enamored of the site, and once Colorado Springs had been founded in 1871 by the General, his close friend and business partner Dr. Bell was credited with the creation of its neighbor to the west, Manitou, only a year later. In the ensuing decades, it was touted as a destination for sightseers and health seekers, thanks to Colorado’s sunshine and pure air, in addition to Manitou’s miraculous mineral springs. Even though the stream of seers and seekers has ebbed and surged at times, it has continued unabated. Boosters have successfully advertised every nature- and man-made feature for the nearly one-and-a-half centuries of the town’s existence.

From our vantage point on the trail, which winds along Manitou’s southern foothills, we note some of those attractions. Even the ones which no longer serve their original function have been reincarnated, thereby extending their life.

Incline scar on Mount Manitou, with Red Mountain in the foreground

Incline scar on Mount Manitou, with Red Mountain in the foreground

The most conspicuous mark on the landscape is a swath along the flank of Mount Manitou, location of the former Incline cable car which ran from 1907 until 1990. Initially, it conveyed supplies for a water pipeline, but was soon refashioned to carry humans. Its disassembly after a destructive landslide did not include the wooden ties which have become a major magnet for fitness chasers from near and far. As older photos attest, it used to be a steep ride, but appeared harmless in comparison with the lesser known Red Mountain Incline, a rickety and hair-raising affair, which might account for its short lifespan after its opening in 1912. Red Mountain has morphed into a hiking destination, accessible by a spur off the Intemann Trail. Somewhere near its summit, Emma Crawford, one of the luckless victims of consumption, as tuberculosis was known, chose to be buried, until her coffin was washed down the slope during a deluge. Even this macabre event was turned into a well-visited celebration, the annual coffin races happening around Halloween.

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Williams Canyon, with visitor center for the caves

Beyond US Highway 24, the angular rocks that border Williams Canyon draw our attention to the Cave of the Winds, promoted since 1881, when it was discovered by two school boys. The nearby Manitou Cliff Dwellings prove, “if you build it, they will come.” Little matter that Pueblo Indians did not call this part of our state home, several collapsed Ancestral Puebloan buildings from near Cortez, Colorado, were collected by an entrepreneur, and re-erected in their current enclave in 1907, where they continue to be open to the public.

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Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Manitou Avenue, the main street, bisects the community and is lined by shops and eateries, to which people have always flocked. The central spa building and numerous mineral springs recall one of the main reasons for the settlement’s existence — health. Adjacent to Memorial Park, we make out the latest rebirth of the spa tradition which seems to be a success. And today as yesteryear, health-conscious individuals imbibe mineral water from various springs, one of the few offerings which has remained gratis, even though schemes to sell bottled water have come and gone throughout the ages. Last, but not least, from the trail’s end, another major longstanding prosperous enterprise comes into sight, the Cog Railroad, transporting tourists to and from the top of Pikes Peak since 1891.

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View of Garden of the Gods and the Great Plains from the Intemann Trail

While one might admire the business acumen of the town fathers and mothers, in my eyes, Manitou’s most precious asset has been and will always be its stunning natural beauty: the breathtaking setting at the foot of America’s Mountain and Ute Pass, with sweeping views of Garden of the Gods and the Great Plains. Luckily, this is still free for everybody to enjoy.

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The Enchanted Garden

Were it not for visionaries like General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, who realized early in its history that precious land needed to be set aside to preserve and protect forever, it is unlikely that his generous gifts to the city which included North Cheyenne and Bear Creek Canyons, as well as Monument Valley and Palmer Parks, would have remained natural oases.

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One such oasis, considered by many the crowning jewel in a collection of precious gems, is Garden of the Gods. Even though it was not donated to the city by its founder, the General still deserves indirect credit. He convinced one of his friends and fellow railway aficionados, Charles Perkins, president of the Burlington Railroad, to purchase the land with the spectacular sandstone formations. Mr. Perkins opened it to the public during his lifetime, and after his death his children honored his wish and bequeathed it to the city, to “be kept forever free to the public”, as a large plaque at North Gateway Rock in his honor attests.

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For residents and tourists alike, it is one of our main attractions, though as a local lover of this curvilinear array of iconic rock, I derive the greatest pleasure by visiting early in the morning, and by avoiding weekends altogether. A dearth of parking spaces and bumper-to-bumper traffic can lessen one’s enjoyment significantly. I am glad to have participated in a few interesting and informative events there this summer, but they reinforced my need for solitude.

In May, I signed up for a guided hike during the 2nd annual Pikes Peak Birding and Nature Festival. While watching the sunset with its attendant play of shadows in the Central Garden, and listening to the descending tune of Canyon Wrens, a pair of nesting Prairie Falcons was busily hunting. Myriad circling and screeching White-throated Swifts made use of the last vestiges of daylight. Their annual migration to and high numbers in the park were among the arguments resulting in its designation of National Natural Landmark in 1971, one of 13 in Colorado.

My husband and I attended one of the weekly bat tours in June. Led by a very knowledgeable volunteer, it started with a brief lecture at the Visitor Center. We learned that out of Colorado’s 20 bat species, three oversummer in local stony clefts and crevices, the Little Brown, Big Brown, and Pallid Bats. Interestingly, only the males travel here, leaving the females behind in New Mexico, to tend to the raising of their offspring. Near a cliff wall at nightfall, we witnessed their emergence from their daytime hangouts. Before the nocturnal hunt for insects, they quench their thirst from a pond at nearby Rock Ledge Ranch. Hand-held echolocators enabled us to hear their species-specific signals with which they navigate. Expecting the bats’ crepuscular flight, a pair of Great Horned Owls was occupying real estate in the vicinity where we made out their silhouettes against the darkening sky.

One July day, I participated in a guided walking tour. It focused on the geologic processes of sand deposition and subsequent tectonic uplift responsible for the area’s vertical slabs, but as intriguing as these scientific explanations are, they pale before the rubicund beauty of this enchanting destination at the foot of Pikes Peak. IMG_5740 (24)

Diverse groups of people have traversed this land throughout the ages, American Indians being the first. Even though no written records exist of their experiences, we know from their interactions with the early newcomers, that they considered this a special, if not a sacred spot. Each successive wave of passersby has felt a similar sense of wonder, reflected correspondingly in the Garden’s name, and no matter how often I am there, I am overcome with the same, abiding sense of awe.

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