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Wheeler Geologic Area is a highly eroded out cropping of volcanic ash in the La Garita Mountains of southern Colorado

Colorado rocks!

Here are 17 of the state's best geological hikes, where you can find everything from dinosaur fossils to ancient ruins to waterfalls — and even volcanoes.

June 10, 2019

By Cory Phare

What makes Colorado so, well, colorful? Chalk it up to our geological complexity, from the clay under the Great Plains to the towering Rocky Mountains.

To learn more about the state's stunning geology, RED reached out to Barbara EchoHawk, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Here are her picks for 17 intriguing hikes that cover nearly every corner — and geological period — in Colorado.

Precambrian Eon and unconformity

  • Red Rocks Amphitheater, Golden (easy to moderate)
    “Red Rocks has some of our area's oldest rock,” EchoHawk said. “You’ve got Precambrian metamorphic rock 1.7 billion years overlaid by sedimentary rocks that are 1.4 billion years younger. There's a big chunk of the sequence that's missing, either because it was never deposited or because it was eroded later – it’s like a book with missing chapters.” 
Check out some of the state
Check out some of the state's oldest rocks on Red Rock Park's Geologic Overlook Trail.

Paleogene Period

  • Paint Mines Interpretive Park, Calhan (easy to moderate)
    “If you head northeast of Colorado Springs, you’ll find Paint Mines – there are gullies and canyons with many different colors - red, purple, yellow, brown, white; you don’t expect it when you’re in the plains,” EchoHawk said. “It’s also an archaeological site. People used to gather pigments for pottery and ceremonial paint. There's a loop hike of 3 miles or so; the ground is crumbly and rolly, so footing can be challenging. There's some great bird watching, too.”
The colorful Paint Mines Interpretive Park near Calhan, is an unexpected archeological treasure on the plains east of Colorado Springs.
The colorful Paint Mines Interpretive Park near Calhan, is an unexpected archeological treasure on the plains east of Colorado Springs.

Cretaceous Period dinosaurs

  • Dinosaur Ridge, Morrison (easy)
    “We’ve got evidence of dinosaurs all over the place in Colorado,” EchoHawk said. “A lot of people know about Dinosaur Ridge right outside Morrison, but it’s worth mentioning that you can hike up to see tracks and bones there, as well as ripple marks laid down at the edge of the Cretaceous sea.”
Dinosaur foot prints from what was once tidal flats on the shore of an ancient ocean in the Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, just outside of Denver.
Dinosaur foot prints from what was once tidal flats on the shore of an ancient ocean in the Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, just outside of Denver.
  • Picketwire Canyon, Comanche National Grasslands near La Junta (moderate)
    “It’s harder to get to, but Picketwire is North America's longest dino trackway,” EchoHawk said. “If you hike or bike a little more than 11 miles into the Purgatoire River canyon, you will see the trackway, and along the way you will pass by petroglyphs and an old Spanish mission. It’s a long hot hike in the summer, but the tracks are super cool.” 
  • Trail Through Time, Mack (easy)
    “This is right off I-70 on the Colorado-Utah border,” said EchoHawk. “It’s about a mile and a half loop with a little quarry and a spot where you can see fossilized dinosaur neck bones exposed in the rock. It’s easy to get to and an easy walk.”

RELATED: 4 tips for climbing a 14er this summer


Inclined strata

  • Devil’s Backbone, Loveland (easy to moderate)
    “Inclined strata are tilted rock layers,” EchoHawk said. “At Devil's Backbone, the Dakota Formation is tilted up almost vertically. To reach the ridge and a very scenic view of the valley, there's a short trail on Larimer County Open Space. Other inclined strata in Colorado include Boulder’s Flatirons, Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods, and Red Rocks.”

Basalt/lava flows

  • Devil’s Causeway, Flat Tops Wilderness, east of Yampa (moderate)
    “This one’s a little bit scary,” EchoHawk said. “You hike up out of a low area onto a basalt ridge that's only four feet wide, with a drop of hundreds of feet on both sides. You can turn around and go back, or you can cross the causeway and do a long loop hike that takes you through some extremely beautiful territory.” 
Devil
Devil's Causeway in the Flat Tops Wilderness, east of Yampa.
  • North Table Mountain, Golden (easy to moderate) 
    “This is a relatively young basalt flow, geologically speaking,” EchoHawk said. “When the lava cooled it contracted and cracked into columns, which you can see as you hike up the trail.”

RELATED: 5 trails to hike within an hour of Denver


Recently formed

  • Lawn Lake Alluvial Fan, Rocky Mountain National Park (easy)
    “When you reach the fan, you see a tiny creek coming out of the mountains and wonder, ‘How did that creek bring these gigantic boulders down?’” EchoHawk said. “In 1982, a small dam broke upstream. The resulting flood brought those boulders down and also flooded Estes Park. The floods of 2013 reactivated part of the fan. The boulders are really interesting to look at and fun to climb up, too.”

Explosive volcanoes

  • Castle Rock Trail, Castle Rock (easy)
    “The top of Castle Rock butte has big pieces of rhyolite rock from a volcanic explosion around Salida about 37 million years ago. After the rhyolite formed, huge floods broke it into the chunks that are in the Castle Rock Conglomerate,” EchoHawk said.
  • Wheeler Geologic Area, Creede (hard)
    “This one’s hard to get to, but incredibly beautiful,” EchoHawk said. “The eruption of the La Garita caldera resulted in the creation of the Fish Canyon Tuff that's now weathered into whimsical shapes. If you have a high 4-wheel-drive vehicle you can drive the 14 or so miles. You can hike it, too; just remember it's primitive with no facilities, so plan to pack-in and pack-out everything.”
Wheeler Geologic Area is a highly eroded out cropping of volcanic ash in the La Garita Mountains of southern Colorado
Wheeler Geologic Area is a highly eroded out cropping of volcanic ash in the La Garita Mountains of southern Colorado

RELATED: 7 must-see Colorado literary landmarks


Waterfalls

  • Ouzel Falls, Rocky Mountain National Park (easy to moderate)
    “These falls in Rocky Mountain National Park are beautiful and reasonably easy to access,” EchoHawk said. 
  • Zapata Falls, Alamosa (easy to moderate) 
    “For this year-round hike, you end up in a narrow slot canyon that opens up with the falls right at the end, coming down at you,” EchoHawk said. “And while you’re out there, make sure to hike up the Great Sand Dunes, too.” 
After exploring Zapata Falls, hike around Great Sand Dunes National Park.
After exploring Zapata Falls, hike around Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Canyons

Tourist on the granite cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Tourist on the granite cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
  • Colorado National Monument Rattlesnake Canyon, Fruita (hard)
    “There are more arches anywhere here except for Utah,” EchoHawk said. “That whole area has interesting features – the sedimentary sandstone and pervasive fractures create columns and other vertical formations.”

Mesas

  • Grand Mesa, Mesa (easy to hard)
    “Grand Mesa owes its flat top to a series of basalt flows. Crag Crest trail is one of the favorites for its views of lakes and forests,” EchoHawk said.
  • Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez (easy to moderate)
View of the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park. The famed location is home to incredibly well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
View of the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park. The famed location is home to incredibly well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.

 


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