The Paint Mines – a Colorado Geological Wonder

Leave it up to my mom. She’s nearly 80, and still seeks out hiking destinations like a high- schooler who just got out for the summer. And she acts the same way when she gets there. I always have admired her spunk.

For a few months, she’d been telling me about a fascinating place east of her hometown of Colorado Springs called The Paint Mines. Of course, she’s been there and done that already. I was late to the party, again.

She knows I’m always looking for different places and things to photograph, and knew I’d enjoy the hiking and scenery, even if I didn’t have my camera.

The day after our family’s Thanksgiving gathering was the perfect day to take her up on the offer. The stars were in alignment:  I was already in Colorado Springs, I had my camera, my Dad was serving as our valet, it was a sunny, warm and dry morning, and I needed to work off several thousand calories from last night’s turkey feast.

After a half-hour drive into the eastern Colorado plains, our adventure started out as an uneventful stroll on what appeared to be someone’s dull, sprawling ranch land. This would be perfect—if I were a prairie dog, or a tumbleweed. What could be of much interest way out here?

Well, okay. They say there are pronghorn antelope, mule deer, hawks, falcons, foxes, coyotes, lizards, even an occasional mountain lion. Maybe now I’m interested. I do see some pronghorn tracks.

There are also plenty of wildflowers and thrilling natural grasses! And hey, if you like flowering yucca, this is your Mecca! You lost me again. Big whoop. Let’s turn around, get out of here, and hit that Air Force-Army game at the Academy.

But wait…there’s got to be more out here if it’s been turned into an interpretive park. And they do have modern restrooms. That’s a really good sign.

So, trusting my mom’s recommendations on all things scenic and natural, I commenced to hiking, with camera gear in tow.

After a very pleasing mile-long stroll, over a few gentle hills, we descended into a swell surrounded by cliffs, rounded a bend, and suddenly came upon a vastly different landscape. And a cast of characters the likes of which I have never seen etched in the earth. Goblins, dinosaurs, bobble head dolls, serpents, reptiles, mushrooms, buildings, dwellings, and–Gasp! Shield your eyes, mother!–male and female you-know-what organs. All around them were colorful mazes, labyrinths, monoliths, gulches, outcrops, ridges.

All these formations of multicolored sediments appeared in large eroded shoulders on the hills and cliff sides. Trails and promontories offered wide-angle and close-up views of geological treasures that looked like they could be the dental profile of various monsters. Huge discolored and pearly white molars, central incisors, even bicuspids!

You can follow narrow, semi-hidden passageways through the rock. Play hide and seek. Get lost.

I felt like a kid again, in some fantasy playground. Maybe this was the prehistoric prototype for the Ronald McDonald playhouse. I’ve never been to Disney World, and I don’t hold a grudge against my folks for denying me that right of passage as a boy. No, this seemed like the preferred destination resort for me. No commercialism, no admission fee, no expensive vendors, no lines, no crowds. And no noise. My mom knows how to pick ’em. Mickey and Minnie can have their grand time down there in Orlando.

I’m whirling about in a sea of colors, patterns, curves, abstract alignments and juxtapositions, shadows, nooks, crannies and diverse textures. There’s sandstone, jasper, oxidized iron-infused clays, and soft, fine-grain sand lying on the trails.

The Paint Mines is a geological jewel recently designated as an 750-acre park by the El Paso County (Colorado) Parks & Leisure Services. The surreal, almost alien-like formations constitute about 30 acres of the serene, wide open park.

As visitors stroll along its 4.5 miles of sunny, scenic trails, they can take in views of the distant hills, farms, plains and the extensive band of woods known as the Black Forest back to the east.

My eyes were bugging out with the rich photo opportunities. It’s the stuff I most love to photograph. Your imagination runs wild while framing shots and afterwards, when you view the finished photos.

As is often the case when I get lost in my photography, I felt bad that I was now pretty much ignoring my folks and sister, and missing the opportunity to spend quality time with them, which is always limited. But they know me well, and know this is my irresistible passion. Besides, I told them if the mountain lion shows up and gets me, they get to keep the photos, and the camera.

I vowed to return soon, probably by myself, to shoot for many more hours, with more equipment, in different light, seasons and weather.

As a photographer who revels in nature’s abstracts, patterns and light variations, on this first visit I was immersed by an aura of fantasy, intrigue and wonder. In addition to the visual delights, it’s just a magical place to be. Quiet, detached, and simple. But powerful in its telescopic probe into earth’s past.

This unique geology, possibly one of only four such areas in all of Colorado, has attracted visitors for 9,000 years. The colorful clays were used by Paleoindians, and later American Indian tribes, to make pottery, tools and ceremonial paints (ergo the name of the site). Indians also liked the area for its unique hunting opportunities, due to its overlooks, and ideal landscape for cornering and isolating bison.