Garden of the Gods, a 1,367-acre Colorado Springs National Natural Landmark, is filled with captivating rock formations.
When searching for the beauty of natural red rock formations, Bryce Canyon, Red Rock Canyon, Arches National Park, and Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre all come to mind as some of the most stunning sites in America. However, a Colorado Springs underdog might actually be home to some of the most up-close and immersive experiences at the 1,367-acre Garden of the Gods.
Though it may not have the same caliber of a household name, the park, which has been designated a National Natural Landmark, has long drawn visitors to the region, with an estimated six million visitors a year. And in recent years, its picturesque sandstone and limestone formations — in shades of red, pink, and white that capture more than 300 million years of geological history —have found a spotlight on Instagram, helping it nab the No. 2 spot on Tripadvisor’s top attractions in the U.S.
Admittedly, I was guilty of dismissing the park during my overnight stay in Colorado Springs on a recent visit. I spent my time focused on the impressively interactive U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, which opened in 2020, the recently restored Broadmoor Manitou and Cog Railway up to Pikes Peak, which reopened in 2021, and enjoying the twilight lakeside view from my room at The Broadmoor. I was so entranced by each of those experiences that I kept extending my time at each of them. And once I learned it would only take about 20 minutes to drive around the Garden of the Gods main loop, I pushed it off even further.
Eventually, I drove in from Garden Drive off Highway 24 through a residential neighborhood, thinking for sure I had made a wrong turn. But in an instant, the unassuming landscape transformed and I was so taken aback that I pulled off the road immediately to take it all in.
Playfully spread out in front of me in every direction was the orangish-red hue of the geological wonders. Right at my feet were rounded lava-like stones winding up, down, and around me, leading out to several jagged stone towers in the distance. It was like a scene ripped out of Lord of the Rings' mixed with the whimsy of Dr. Seuss's fictional formations.
The farther I drove down the road, the more I was taken in by the vibrant colors. And soon, I found myself driving through two behemoth stone monoliths. It was such an immersive experience that it felt like a carefully calculated Disneyland ride, until I reminded myself that these were the remains of erosion and glacier creations from the Pleistocene Ice Age that left behind these sedimentary formations as true works of art.
This was anything but a quick drive around a loop, as I kept finding myself pulling over, stunned by the scenery. On the south end, I ducked under the Balanced Rock, which looks like it’s hovering on a tiny pedestal because the softer rock at its base has eroded more over the years. In the middle of the park, I wandered down a little path and soon discovered I was on a hiking trail up to Keyhole Window, a sandstone arch, which I peered through to find 360-degree views. And despite the sun setting by the time I got to Perkins Central Garden Trail, an easy and relatively flat 1.5-mile loop, I was able to explore a section of it, tracing the bases of some of the park’s tallest formations, like the Tower of Babel, Kissing Camels, and Sentinel Rock (also known as Twin Spires).
The primed-for-Instagram park is no doubt filled with Mother Nature’s best work, but what makes the experience so special is the variety of ways to engage with the red rocks. Just on my abbreviated visit, I had driven through, cruised around, walked on top of, and hiked through the formations, inherently creating a bond with these ancient stones in different ways.
The park itself leans into the variety of experiences by offering vehicle tours on a 1909 trolley and Jeeps; Segway tours; and electric bike tours; as well as climbing, horseback riding, nature walks, and a self-guided audio tour. The Garden of the Gods' website even has a personal planner to plug in your interests and how much time you have (from 45 minutes to more than three hours), and it will generate bespoke itinerary ideas.
No matter what, one thing that will never be a barrier to entry is the price. After General William Jackson Palmer, who founded Colorado Springs in 1871, encouraged his friend, railroad entrepreneur Charles Elliot Perkins, to build his home in the area in 1879, Perkins snatched up 240 acres. Perkins chose to never built on the land in order to preserve its natural beauty. After his 1907 death, his children honored their father’s love for land and donated it the city, with the stipulation it must always be free to visitors.
But perhaps nothing encapsulates the character of Garden of the Gods better than the origin of its name. While it may conjure up biblical references to Eden, it actually stems from a conversation between two surveyors working in the area around 1859. M.S. Beach exclaimed that it would be perfect place for a biergarten, but his colleague Rufus Cable said, “Biergarten! Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods,” according to the park’s site.
Since that origin story, the park has kept the promise that “it shall remain free to the public, where no intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured, sold, or dispensed, where no building or structure shall be erected except those necessary to properly care for, protect, and maintain the area as a public park.” And that's exactly what has helped it retain its magic after all these years.
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