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Hiking in the Paint Mines Interpretive Park takes you through colorful rock formations sculpted by the forces of wind and water. This El Paso County, Colorado, open space might not look like much from a distance, but trekking into and around the exposed sandstone is a must-do activity. The otherworldly rock formations surrounded by prairie grassland will amaze and astound parkgoers. Keep reading for more on this fascinating interpretive park.
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About the Paint Mines Interpretive Park
The Paint Mines Interpretive Park, near the town of Calhan, opened to the public as an El Paso County park in 2005. The park gets its name from colored clays used as pigment sources in native American paint-making. These pigments, iron oxides in shades of tan, yellow, and red, appear in bands and clumps throughout a ravine of eroded rock formations in the middle of a prairie.
Situated east of the Rocky Mountains and part of the Great Plains, the area is so distinctive that it’s listed (since 2000) in the National Register of Historic Places as the Calhan Paint Mines Archeological District.
The exposed rocks are part of the Dawson Arkose formation and are about 55 million years old (quite a bit younger than the Dakota formation and Fountain Formation which feature in some other parks) Arkose is a type of sandstone containing feldspar fragments from disintegrated granite, in this case, Pikes Peak Granite. In addition to sandstone, the Dawson Arkose formation has shale and clay layers; jasper and selenite (gypsum) are also present.
How did this exposure happen? A waterway flowing into the Big Sandy Creek carved a branched ravine through the rock layers. Wind erosion also played a part in shaping the sandstone into pinnacles, domes, cones, and other fanciful shapes. A different layer of “cross-bedded sandstone” can be seen at the top of some stone spires, looking similar to a frosting blob on top of a cupcake: these rare formations are called hoodoos.
Archeological studies indicate that humans inhabited the land and utilized the clays and other materials starting at least 9,000 years ago. Objects found here include pottery, arrowheads, and dart and spear tips, some made of petrified wood.
Hiking the Paint Mines
About 4 miles (6.4 km) of trails await on-foot exploration within the 750-acres (303.5-hectare) park. The mileage is divided between two loop trails, a short overlook trail, and a trail that accesses the rock formations.
Note there are three parking areas from which to access the trails. The first is the main park entrance. There are two ways to get on the North Trail from this parking lot.
A second, smaller lot up the Paint Mines Road is the trailhead for the short Overlook Trail. Finally, a third parking area is further along Paint Mines Road and is the trailhead for the South Trail.
The Overlook and the Rock Formations
I recommend walking to the overlook first to survey the ravine, then heading down into the formations themselves. This path is the red route on the trail map below.
Start at the main parking lot and take the trail next to the permanent restroom building heading roughly south (this is the North Loop Trail). When the trail forks, stay right to walk up to the West Overlook. This trail dead ends, so once you’ve had a good view of the rock formations from above, retrace your steps and turn right toward the park’s interior on the South Loop Trail to move down into the rock formation area.
Here there is no set route. Instead, wander on old creek beds and explore the eroded clay hills and sandstone spires at a relaxed pace. They’re endlessly fascinating, and there are multiple spurs to investigate. And while you can look all you like, note that climbing on the rocks is against the rules.
After meandering through the rocky landscape of the Paint Mines, take one or both of the loop trails in the park if you want to put in a little more mileage. The Paint Mines North and Paint Mines South Trail loops have one intersection point, and combining them into a 3.8-mile (6.1 km) trek is easy.
Paint Mines North Trail
As noted above, the North Trail trailhead is at the main parking lot. The 1.5-mile (2.4 km) loop, the blue route on the trail map below, can be taken in either direction. It skirts the rock area and takes a turn around the prairie. Look for some exposed chalky white rock on portions of this path, but don’t expect the same features as the main formation area.
The Paint Mines South Trail
This trail, the green route on the trail map below, is a 2.1-mile (3.4 km) loop with the trailhead at the third parking area described above. Most of this walk is through prairie grasses. The park’s East Overlook on this trail delivers excellent views of Pike’s Peak to the west.
One other noteworthy feature visible from this trail is manufactured. Look to the east to see some of the 145 wind turbines that make up the Golden-West industrial wind farm. This controversial project provides renewable energy for Colorado but it unpopular with local residents.
The Paint Mines Overlook Trail
Finally, the Overlook Trail is a 572-foot (174 m) trail that leads from the second parking lot to the west rim of the ravine containing the rock formations. It’s marked purple on the trail map below. Anyone that wants to enjoy the colorful rocks but doesn’t want to walk into the rocks can still get a wow factor from the view here.
Pro tip: snag the lone picnic table here for a post-hike picnic with a view.
Other Information for the Paint Mines
Because of the delicate environment, the park is strictly limited to hikers only. As mentioned above, climbing on the rock formations is a no-no. Likewise, dogs, horses, and bikes are not permitted. And forget about bringing a drone-it’s also on the “prohibited” list.
Check the weather and be ready with sun protection (hat, sunglasses, appropriate clothing, and sunscreen) on clear days.
Be aware that the stream beds among the rocks can turn muddy if it’s rainy.
There are no water or electrical sources in the park. And there are not a lot of services close to the Paint Mines, so I recommend bringing everything you might need with you—supplies include adequate amounts of water, food, snacks, and the sun protection mentioned above. There are a few picnic tables at the trailheads for al fresco dining post-hike.
The Paint Mines trail system is self-contained, with no connecting trails in or out of the park.
Paint Mines Park is in Calhan, Colorado, about 35 miles (56 km) east and slightly north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, close to Highway 24. It’s about
While not quite the middle of nowhere, it is in a sparsely populated area.
On my first visit, I selected a route from a trendy mapping application to avoid highway traffic. Unfortunately, this choice was a mistake! There were miles of dirt county roads in fairly rough shape, too harsh for the vehicle I was driving. As a result, I kept detouring to avoid these roads and stay on the pavement. This diversion took me many miles and over an hour out of the way, but I eventually arrived at the Paint Mines.
So please don’t do what I did. Instead, take Highway 24 east from Colorado Springs (or west from Limon). This paved highway will lead you to the town of Calhan and the Yoder Road/Calhan Highway (turn south), then to the Paint Mines Road (turn east). Paint Mines Road is unpaved, but it’s well-maintained and only about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the park.
If coming from Denver or other parts north, check your route to avoid unpaved roads, and allow at least an hour and 40 minutes to make the 80+ mile journey.
Food, Drink, and Lodging
As indicated above, not many services are in the immediate vicinity of the Paint Mines. But Colorado Springs, Colorado’s second-largest city, has more than enough options for anyone stopping by after a hike at the park. Your favorite hotel chain will have multiple options. There are also a large number of boutique hotels throughout the city.
Custom Map of Trail System
I created this map to highlight trails in this interpretive park.
Red: Hike to the west overlook and the rock formations via the Paint Mines North Loop Trail;
Green: Paint Mines South Loop Trail;
Blue: Paint Mines North Loop Trail;
Purple: Overlook Trail
Don’t see the map or want to see the original? Click here to go to the map page on AllTrails.
Other Trail Information
|29950 Paint Mines Road
Calhan, CO 80808
|Total of about 4 miles (6.4 km) of trails
|Easy to moderate
|Loops plus numerous short spurs to explore the fantastic geology of the park.
|trail running (no bikes, dogs, horses, etc.)
|El Paso parks and rec pace page for the Paint Mines
Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) Page
AllTrails hikes for the Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Closest major city: Colorado Springs
The Paint Mines Interpretive Park showcases exposed and weathered sandstone rock formations that emerge from the surrounding prairie to the amazement of all who visit this El Paso County open space.
Have you visited the Paint Mines? What did you think? Leave a comment below!