Castlewood Canyon State Park - A Short History and Overview

About 50 million years ago, the area now known as Castlewood Canyon was covered with sediments by streams flowing from the Pikes Peak region.  A layer of volcanic ash 20 feet thick blanketed the area 37 million years ago.  The hot ash arrived from a volcano in the Mount Princeton area in less than 30 minutes!  This ash solidified into rhyolite, a rock favored by many early builders.  Castlewood was again a river bottom 34 million years ago.  A vast river system flowing from the recently uplifted Rocky Mountains deposited a thick conglomerate layer over the area.  This layer formed the Castle Rock Conglomerate, which is often referred to as the “cap rock” of the canyon.  For the last 5 million years or so, Cherry Creek has been flowing off of the Palmer Divide located south of the park.  This little creek has persistently carved through the old river deposits, forming our dramatic Canyon that we know today.

Well before its 1964 establishment as a state park, evidence shows native peoples were present. Paleo-indians traveled through 12,000 years ago, archaic groups 5000 years ago, and finally Utes, Apache, Comanche, Arapahoe and Cheyenne occupied the land up until the late 1800s. William Green Russell found gold in the area in 1858, and settlers began to more frequently claim land. To market its 40-acre plots, the Denver Water Storage Company formed with the idea to build a dam across Cherry Creek. Taking eleven months and $350,000, the dam was completed in 1890. It leaked from the start.

The Lucas family, Patrick and Margaret filed their homestead application in 1884 and built a wooden cabin though their application was not approved until 1901. A small, by current standards, concrete house replaced the cabin as the family prospered and grew to include eight children. Visitors take the self guided walking tour of their homestead to see remnants of their stock loading chute, milking parlor, spring house, the mysterious “fancy wall?, and hay storage structure.

August 3, 1933, at 1:20 AM on the proverbial dark and stormy night, Patrick and Margaret heard a thunderous roar. The dam had burst. Though the water took about seven hours before flooding parts of Denver up to four feet, the Lucas homestead was high enough to miss the onslaught. The dam keeper, Hugh Paine, who had been on top checking on the dam as it began to fail, made it back to his house but had to travel 12 miles to Castle Rock to reach an operating telephone. The phone operator, in turn, warned residents downstream. Two people died that night. Today, Canyon Point overlooks the site of Lake Louisa (or Castlewood Reservoir) where cattle now graze. The dam didn’t break where leaks had been seen. The creek had been undermining the dam’s sandy base and, due to continual heavy rains before the failure, Lake Louisa exceeded its maximum capacity, and down it crumbled.

By 1961, inklings of the creation of Castlewood Canyon State Park began with the sale of 87 acres to the State of Colorado by Lawrence P Brown for $10. The Park was officially established in 1964 and  development of the Park facilities started. The Visitor Center was built in 1992.  Friends of Castlewood Canyon State Park and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) purchased an additional 167 acres in 2002.  Thanks to fund raising by Friends, and contributions by GOCO and Douglas County, the land for the East Canyon Preservation area was secured, though the trail did not open until April, 2008.

The East Canyon Preservation Area is a pure nature preserve. There, visitors will find peace and quiet, with views of Pikes Peak. The East Canyon Preservation Area is not open to many activities that the Park’s visitors enjoy in the area of the Park west of highway 83, such as dog walking, or rock climbing. Preservation Area is closed from fall through winter giving the critters a vacation from hikers. The trail through the East Canyon takes you under the “Bridge to Nowhere”, so-called because when it was constructed in 1946, it simply dead ended until the mid-1960s when Highway 83 to Colorado Springs was completed. The bridge is an iconic image of the Park with wonderful views in any season from the Bridge Overlook.  Hiking the trail, visitors will see large deposits of conglomerate rock, the creek at the bottom of the canyon, the far views to the Canyon rim, and the large sections of rock that have fallen.  The Canyon is constantly evolving. The fissures in the rock were created as the Rockies rose; they run approximately north and south.  In the spring, the view of the Canyon is greener and Cherry Creek might be much wider as snowmelt fattens it up.  A typical visitor would see the Canyon floor more clearly at this time, as the shrubs will be just leafing out and the grasses will be shorter - all the better to see animals going about their daily lives.

Like the East Canyon Preservation trail, Castlewood’s other trails - Lake Gulch, Inner Canyon, Creek Bottom and Rim Rock Trails - travel through varied terrain and four ecosystems: grassland, montane shrubland, montane forest, and riparian.  Visitors can hike from the Homestead up to Rim Rock, down past the dam to Inner Canyon.  Then, follow the paved Nature Trail to the East Canyon Preservation Trail.  Upon returning from the East Canyon Trail, hook up with the Lake Gulch Trail back to the dam but, this time, head to the Homestead via Creek Bottom where one can look down at the falls (really spectacular after a rain). 

Castlewood Canyon’s unique features have motivated over 150 volunteer naturalists to help interpret Park treasures to its visitors and to keep the Park safe for visitors, its plants and animals.  Volunteers also join the ranks of Weed Warriors in an effort to rid the Park of its most noxious invaders: mullein, knapweed and thistles. These weeds crowd out the native plants on which the local animals thrive. Volunteers are rewarded for their dedication by constantly learning more about the Park through in depth classes on the Park’s natural features and on hikes with veteran volunteers. They occasionally are privy to events after the Park is closed for the day. 

On the trails, visitors witness long views to the mountains.  Or, they may find themselves down in the Canyon looking up at Castle Rock conglomerate punctuated by a tree or shrub begun when a seed found a home in a moist fissure.  Some of these survivors can grow quite large.   Well designed, the trails lead hikers up and down, into canyons, and out of forested sections into open, grass or shrublands. When near Cherry Creek, visitors should watch for small crayfish moving in the water or a kingfisher diving down from a branch to snag a small fish.

Many “critters” inhabit or travel through the Park. Some, like bear, mountain lions and bobcats are seldom seen though hikers often find their tracks or scat.  Predators find dinners of rabbits, mice, and insects.  All of Castlewood’s wildlife has a place in the food chain.  With the earlier presence of the lake, Castlewood Canyon once had a heron rookery.  Porcupines are often seen, though well disguised, in crevices of ponderosa pines, looking like a bunch of needles.   Such evidence is witnessed through high gashes where bark was stripped off a ponderosa, indicating where a porcupine has been dining.

The cycles of life among prey and predators continues throughout the year and, each spring, turkey vultures return to the Park to feast on any remains – nature’s vital cleanup service. They employ the thermals rising out of the canyons to gain altitude and begin their quest for the day’s meal.

Castlewood’s critters find homes in the ground, rock ledges and crevices, shrubs and trees. One of their more striking abodes is a dead tree or a snag.  The Park’s staff doesn’t cut them down (unless they’re a danger to people) to let the birds carve out nesting holes in these dead trees or feast on the insects that feed on the snags. Owls like to perch in them while surveying the ground below for dinner – or to digest that dinner.

Among the most common trees found in the Park are ponderosa pine, Douglas fir Rocky Mountain juniper and gambel oaks. Their prevalence depends on moisture (north facing slopes and riparian areas), and soil availability. Near the Homestead, visitors can see apple trees and lilacs planted by the Lucas family. Wild plums and choke cherries are prolific near the creek in west side of the Park.  Plan a hike when they are blooming; the air is amazingly fragrant.  The Creek Bottom Trail is a great place to see aspens.

Gambel oaks are short and shrubby where water is scarce and the sun is hot on plains and grasslands. In the canyon, nearer the creek, they grow taller. All sizes provide acorns for the animals and can be spectacular in the fall whether the leaves are still on the tree or are covering the ground.

Castlewood Canyon is a wild flower extravaganza – particularly when there has been lots of winter snow.  Colors abound spring through fall.  Sometimes a plant is just as beautiful when it has gone to seed as when in flower.  Prairie Smoke, an early bloomer, flowers late May through June. When its pink petals fall, the feathery seed heads look like smoke. The effect is particularly stunning when a large field (there’s one along the East Canyon Trail) is backlit by sunlight.  Other beguiling and descriptive names in the wildflower world are Cowboy’s Delight, Angel’s Trumpet, Blanket Flower, Paintbrush,
Milkweed, Cranesbill and Chiming Bells.  Come see them in bloom at Castlewood Canyon.

Besides individual activities like wildflower viewing, rock climbing, birding, drawing, photographing, and relaxing while watching for wildlife, the Park hosts many group activities. The canopied event centers are popular for group picnics and celebrations; several couples have been married in the Park. Special events like Turkey Vulture Day, Dam Days, and the Fall Festival draw out nature lovers and history buffs.

Local schools know to sign up early for programs such as the Webs of Life, Rock ‘n Roll, and Cycles Go Round, all conducted by the park’s Volunteer Naturalists.  The kids have fun in the Park while learning about its ecosystems, animals, and geology.  Hiking is, of course, probably the most popular activity in the Park. How much better can it be than to have a park of such incredible diversity so close to south metro Denver and northern Colorado Springs? Many first-time visitors tell the staff that they have driven over the Highway 83 bridge countless times between countless times between the two cities and finally decided to pull in to see what that canyon is about.  Welcome to Castlewood Canyon State Park – More than You Realized, Always More to Discover!

For an update of activities in the Park, please click on the Events Calendar link on the Home Page.