Purple, pink, yellow, and orange pastels coat brittle walls of clay inside a fantastic labyrinth of white-capped hoodoos. A small weasel tiptoes from a dark crevice and into plain sight, sizing you up before scampering back into its lair without a sound. Remote, yet full of vivid colors and bashful wildlife, this kaleidoscopic collection of chasms, rifts, and slots—known as the Paint Mines—is unlike any other badlands in the country. Tucked away in a 750-acre park about 30 miles east of Colorado Springs, this fairly new interpretive park is one of the best-kept secrets of Colorado.
The bright cliffs at Paint Mines Interpretive Park aren’t significant just because of their beautiful colors but also for showcasing the best exposed portion of the Denver Basin, known as a paleosol, which is basically layers of soils that have been preserved under sediments and lithified into rock. By studying this site, geologists determined that the paleosol was the boundary between rocks of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. Dating back as far as fifty-five million years, Paint Mines is believed to be the remnants of an ancient rain forest where large animals, such as the hippopotamus-like Coryphodon, once roamed. The soft and colorful clay is capped by coarse-grained white sandstone, known as the Dawson Arkose, and it’s believed that the source of that sandstone is erosion from nearby Pike’s Peak. As is the case with other colored badlands around the country, oxidized iron deposits are responsible for the colorful clays found in the hoodoos.
Archeologists state that Native Americans likely inhabited this region dating back 12,000 years. These prehistoric people utilized the indigenous petrified wood to create arrowheads and dart tips, leaving behind flakes that can still be found today. Native Americans also took advantage of these badlands to hunt strategically. Hunters scared bison herds into this rocky labyrinth where they became easy targets for spears and arrows in the narrow passageways beneath the hoodoos. More recently Native Americans used the colored clay deposits for ceremonial paints and pottery. Modern man also took advantage of this site and quarried the clay at the beginning of the twentieth century, using the clay for bricks, ceramics, drain tiles, and terra-cotta for local construction projects.
Today you’ll no longer find buffalo roaming the landscape at Paint Mines, but there’s still an impressive array of wildlife. In fact the park was originally established to act as a wildlife preserve. Everything from horned lizards, mule deer, weasels, falcons, mountain lions, and coyotes call this park home. Keep a lookout for snakes as well. Many visitors comment that the wildlife tends to be quite shy in the area, so some patience (and quietness) may be needed to spot the local inhabitants.
There are four miles of easily navigable (though not wheelchair-friendly) and well-marked trails here that make for great short hikes. If you have plenty of time, then consider wandering through the entire course that meanders through the mostly flat prairie grasslands. This route can serve as a nice buildup for the spectacle of multicolored hoodoos that await you. Obviously if time is an issue, then you’ll want to bypass these trails that loop around the grasslands and head straight for the hoodoos. It’s a one-way trip of about one mile to get to the colored cliffs. A couple hours is probably enough time for most visitors to explore the park, but you could easily spend twice that amount of time if you chose to take a leisurely stroll through the entire park.
Don’t forget that bikes and pets are not allowed in the park (and for good reason). These geologic formations here are extremely fragile and prone to erosion, so be aware of your surroundings and tread lightly when you make it here. And of course do not climb on the brittle hoodoos. Be sure to abide by the rules and don’t affect any artifacts, rocks, plants, etc. In fact, if you come across any such artifacts or fossils, you should report it to the park by calling the number below so they can document the object. If you enjoy being led on hikes by a professional guide, then look into a guided hike with one of the park rangers, where you’ll be educated on the unique history of this park while taking in the sights.
- If you’re pressed for time, then park at the farthest north parking area—the most interesting formations are closest to that point.
- A sunny day, especially after a rain shower, is the best time to see these hoodoos at their brightest.
- Be aware of the weather forecast as you head into the area, because storms are known to catch visitors off guard and roll into the park very quickly.
- Bring plenty of water if visiting in the summer, since there is virtually no shade and also no facilities in the area.