text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
A First Time For Everything
Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies. Back in the summer of ’93, it broke all kinds of records during its theatrical release—and I was there opening weekend. I’m not a huge dinosaur fan, but I am a huge Steven Spielberg fan.
I saw Jurassic Park four times in the theater—every weekend for a month. I know someone is thinking “what a huge waste of time!”. But, I really liked this movie, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I still remember how breathless I was after the opening scene. In a few short minutes, I knew I was watching a classic.
In 2013, Jurassic Park was re-released in celebration of the 20th anniversary, and guess what…I had to go see it again. Sure, I’d seen it a dozen times, since the original release (I’m a big fan, remember), but there’s something special about the theater. Watching it again took me back to the edge-of-my-seat thrills I experienced as a teenager.
I know not everyone is a big movie nut like me, but it does surprise me when someone hasn’t seen a movie like Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, or Raising Arizona (those are classics too, if you’re wondering). If you haven’t seen any of these movies, stop what you’re doing and go watch them...well, finish reading, then go watch them.
It's not uncommon for me to return to a hiking spot multiple times. Having access to excellent trails (places like Garden of the Gods, and Cheyenne Mountain State Park) make this super easy. So, this may surprise you. I’ve never been to Castlewood Canyon State Park. I've driven past it more times than I can count. "Oh, look! It's Castlewood Canyon. I've really got to go there someday".
I know, I know…unacceptable. Well, I think you know what I’m about to say…
Just The Facts
- Trail: Rim Rock Trail & Creek Bottom Trail
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 441 ft
- Distance: 5.79 mi. (loop)
- Trail Use: Hiking
- Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
- Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
- Access: All year long
- Trail Map: http://cpw.state.co.us
- Entrance fee: $7 Daily, $70 Annual
It takes about an hour to get to Castlewood Canyon State Park—if you live near Fort Carson. Even though it’s an easy drive, I still like to get up early, and get out before the sunrise. Don’t worry, this isn’t a hard rule to enjoy hiking. But, since I’m a morning person, this works out great for: beating traffic, beating crowds, and beating the heat. Heat isn’t such a big deal in early May, but as the summer months arrive, it’s a good idea to get out early, or hike closer to sunset.
My last few hikes have been weather-challenged. Cold and snowy, overcast and windy...you get the point. So, I was kind of disappointed to wake to heavy fog. I have nothing against fog. A heavy fog, hanging over a valley, or swirling around the treetops, can add mystery to a familiar spot. However, I was in the mood for epic views and clear skies.
Driving in fog isn’t usually a big deal, but when you can only see a hundred yards down the road...it’s a little unsettling. Plus, I didn't want my hike to be dull and boring, limited to seeing two feet in front of you and nothing else.
About ten minutes from the entrance to the park, a magical transformation emerged. The sun burst through the cold, gray mist, creating an almost perfect separation of light and dark. The shadowy veil of fog, clinging to the mountains, grudgingly retreated from the bright heat of the rising sun. Grey dissolved into sunshiny skies. A dazzling day after all.
Home, Home On the Range
A good starting point (at most state parks) would be the visitor center. You can find all kinds of interesting facts, history, etc. about the area, but I was in the mood to hike. There are trails to explore closer to the visitor center, but I'll save those for another trip.
I picked the west side of Castlewood Canyon (which is more remote and rugged) as my hiking destination. Plus, Homestead Trail gets bonus points for being so close to a parking lot.
The sunrise had eliminated all traces of the fog except for shimmering dew drops on the tips of the tall grasses. The new day was welcomed with meadowlark and sparrow song filling the canyon with happy tunes. The song birds had a companion. They were joined by the less melodious calls of wild turkey. I’m not sure if the turkeys were especially active, or what, but they were everywhere. I’ve seen a few hen and chicks while hiking, but not this many. It was fun to hear the call's echo through the canyon.
When the Going Gets Tough…
Homestead Trail isn't very long. I eventually had the option to take Rim Rock (to the left) or Creek Bottom (to the right). I felt like getting above the canyon first, so I chose Rim Rock. It’s a large loop, so I'll end up back at this spot at the end of my hike.
Cherry Creek was flowing swiftly, energized from all the rain over the past few days. A sturdy footbridge provides safe passage, and the start to some switchbacks.
I’m actually excited for the switchbacks today. They provide great vantage points to the rocky ledges, canyon walls, and valley below. The elevation gain isn't going to wear you out.
Wildflowers are starting to pop up between the gamble oak leaves. It’ll still be several weeks before they start to bloom en masse.
Most of the switchbacks are short and twisting, bordered by large stones, and boulders. There are also many stone stair treads covered with lichen in various shades of green and yellow. The stone staircases (each more impressive than the last) add an enchanted touch to the hike. Almost like I was walking through a long forgotten castle, ascending a crumbled turret. Is that why they call it Castlewood? Sounds legit to me.
I’ve Reached My Plateau
The highest points of Rim Rock Trail cross over an almost flat, smooth plateau of caprock. The trail blends into the rock and begs for you to wander the rocky edges. Turkey calls, and crashing waterfalls, echo off the 40-50 foot rugged walls. And, in the distance glowing bright-white against the cloudless, blue skies, the snow capped Pikes Peak.
It’s tough making it across the top of Rim Rock. Not because of physical exertion. It’s basically a flat road of rock. No, why it’s difficult, is because I’m stopping to take another photograph, or explore the canyon edge, every five minutes.
At times, portions of the rim will be closed due to nesting birds. So, be prepared and follow the instructions of posted signs. It’s critical for preserving the natural habitats and keeping the area free from disruption. It’s their home, after all.
Ruined, But Not Forgotten
About 2.5 miles into the hike, I got my first glimpse of the ruined Castlewood Dam. Constructed in the late 1800s, the Castlewood Dam was a problem child from the start. Water leaked through the stone structure, and provided more than its share of troubles. It was all a matter of time before the dam would fail, and in 1933, it did. The remains of the shattered dam reminds me how powerful nature can be. If you're interested in learning more about the Castlewood Dam flood, click the link here.
It’s kind of a no-brainer to hike down to the dam. It’s one of the main reason I chose this route. After the lofty heights of the canyon rim, I’m now headed to the creek bed below as Rim Rock Trail fades into Dam Trail. A quick descent, the somewhat steep stone steps, could lead to a slip or fall—especially if they're wet.
There isn't much of the original dam structure left. When the dam broke it took all but the outside edges with it. Even though the dam failed, it's still impressive to see.
It's tempting, but don't go crawling around on the ruins. There are signs in place warning not to disturb the site (it's not safe, if you are wondering).
After spending some time around the dam, I made my way along the bouldered shores of Cherry Creek.
Where The Water Flows
Jump back to the beginning of the hike for a quick second. Maybe you're new to hiking, and want to take things slow. If it’s midday, and the sun is high in the sky, a little more shade might be better. All good reason to stick with Creek Bottom Trail. If you’re pressed for time, or you’re only interested in waterfalls, Creek Bottom Trail might be a better start. The elevation gain is minimal and the views are worth every step. The perspective of the canyon rim from the creek is almost as impressive as being up above. So, I could’ve skipped Rim Rock Trail, and gone straight for the waterfalls, but I’m glad I chose the full experience.
My favorite part of Creek Bottom Trail is the sound. Even though the creek isn’t super deep, or even very wide, the small waterfalls are amplified by the acoustics in the canyon. I was expecting the water to be a little murky after all the rain, but it’s very clear. It’s fast moving, too. So, if you are going to take your dog with you, keep them on their leash. Leashed pets are a requirement in the park, and it keeps them safe near the water's edge.
A majority of the mid-morning visitors I met were all headed to the biggest waterfall. The creek weaves around enormous boulders, splitting into smaller streams, before converging at the falls. A little more than half a mile from the dam, I could hear the roar of the falls before I even got to it. Coming from the dam, I wasn’t able to get a good view until I was right on top.
There is a parking lot above the trail. It’s a very short walk to this scenic spot, so be prepared to share the views.
The trail continues for about another mile before I reached the junction, taking me back to the Homestead Trailhead.
Did You See That?
As much fun as I had on this hike, I’ve not seen all the park has to offer. I hiked the “more difficult” side of Castlewood Canyon, but I didn’t even visit the main entrance.
Yes, there’s more, and I plan on making another trip soon. Castlewood Canyon is anything but a "roadside attraction". I won't be back every weekend, but the canyon is definitely a four-season location, and one I'm glad I've finally explored. I’ve got the springtime experience...what will summer bring?