Foot Traffic Only: Hiking Castlewood Canyon State Park's East Canyon Trail
text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
East and West
The popularity of Castlewood Canyon State Park has grown over the past several years. While the main part of the park (west side of Highway 83) gets most of the attention, the east side of the park remains less visited, and much more quiet.
Just The Facts
Trail: East Canyon Trail
Elevation Gain: 300 ft
Distance: 4 mi. (loop)
Trail Use: Hiking, Birding
Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
Bring Your Dog: No (pets aren’t allowed in preservation area)
Access: May 1 - October 31 (may be closed seasonally)
Trail Map: https://trails.colorado.gov/@break_trail
Entrance fee: $8 for day pass, or $80 annual State Parks Pass
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Two years ago, I wrote about my first visit to Castlewood Canyon State Park. I’ve driven past the park many times since then, all the while knowing there was a big chuck of the park left to explore.
The East Canyon Trailhead branches off from the smooth, concrete path that leads to the ever popular Bridge Canyon Overlook. Unlike the western half of the park, the East Canyon Trail travels through a preservation area, which is home to rare species of flora and fauna. This designation helps lower the foot traffic, and limits (or closes) access during fall and winter months. This isn’t an especially difficult trail, but it’s best for those visitors without little kids, or for someone who might find the rocky terrain tricky.
The trail heads off towards Highway 83, and then passes under the arched bridge, which spans the 232’ width of the canyon.
Here A Cairn, There A Cairn
The trail might seem a bit ambiguous, but there are plenty of large branches (to mark the trail borders), and a lot—and I do mean a lot—of cairns. If at any point you think you’ve lost the trail, just pause and look for the helpful piles of rocks.
The trail follows the general shape of the canyon, but keeps you comfortably away from the rim. There are stunning views to take in at every turn, so take your time and soak it all up.
About a mile into the hike, the trail drops into the canyon and crosses over the comforting burble of Cherry Creek. The chest high grasses line the canyon floor, and drape over the path, gently parting as you pass through them.
Soon you’ll scramble out of the canyon, and back to the rocky surface. Just shy of a mile-and-a-half in, you’ll find the marker for the 1.14 mile East Canyon Loop.
East Canyon Loop transitions from the rough, and gritty canyon to open prairie vistas, and wide grassland. The loop sweeps out away from the canyon, and then joins up with it again, at it eastern terminus.
Panoramic views of the Front Range are book-ended by Pikes Peak to the south, and Mount Evans to the north. You can even see Devils Head, right in the middle.
As the loop reconnects with the main trail, head back the way you came. The total length of the hike is right at 4 miles, but it doesn’t feel that long. The elevation gain is minimal, and you’ll probably only be sharing the trail with rabbits, and deer.
Lay of the Land
Travelling north along Highway 83, it’s easy to forget that this used to be a dirt road. What’s even more surprising is that it wasn’t fully paved until the 1960s; almost twenty years after the construction on the Cherry Creek bridge, in 1948.
While commuting between Colorado Springs and Denver, along I-25, can be difficult even today; before the 1920s it was also, a simple dirt road. This dirt road was so prone to accidents that it was given the ominous nickname “Ribbon of Death”.
In the 1920s, a plan was set in place to build a new route between Denver and Colorado Springs. Instead of repairing the established dirt-road-of-death, they picked a new path out east, and construction of what is now State Highway 83 began.
Out of the “roaring 20s” and into the “great depression” construction of the highway continued. By the end of the 1930s, smooth, safe pavement had reached all the way to Franktown, CO. But, a large obstacle was in the way—Castlewood Canyon.
The construction of a filled-spandrel arch design bridge was commissioned. But big changes were in store for the future of travel. The Interstate System.
Post World War II progress and expansion, determined that the original “Ribbon of Death” was actually a much better option to ferry motorist. In 1947, The first National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was approved. In Colorado, several routes were given the green-light, including all of I-25 from the Wyoming border to Raton Pass at the New Mexico border.
By the end of 1948, Cherry Creek Bridge was completed, but all other construction along Highway 83 was halted, including the remaining dirt road to Colorado Springs. Paving operations ended at the north-end of the shiny new bridge, and the “Bridge to Nowhere” moniker was born.
While the bridge had a less-than-glamorous start, it’s been more than appreciated since then. In 2002, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2003 it was overhauled to handle the increased traffic insuring it will remain for years to come.