One part of Colorado that tends to get neglected by activity and adventure seekers is the eastern plains. Out-of-staters and residents alike often think the state is comprised only of mountains. The areas east of Denver might as well be Kansas. Admittedly, we tend to think that way as well because we are as in love with the mountains as everyone else. But in the spirit of our resolution, we decided to let it take us somewhere we normally wouldn’t think to venture.
Calhan, Colorado probably isn’t in any guide books. It’s in the middle of the giant Eastern Colorado prairie and is home to a whopping 780 residents. But, if you look just past the town itself you will find that it’s located next to a stunning and unique geologic feature that is seldom talked about. With the credit going to Cameron for this one, through some quick internet research, he discovered The Paint Mines Interpretive Park. From the pictures, the Paint Mines look like a movie set with its wild terrain and vivid colors. It was used by Native Americans as a source of clay and pigments for pottery and ceremonial paints; and later by the settlers for brick making. There is evidence of human life that dates back 9,000 years that has also been discovered nearby. Learning all of that, we were already hooked and knew it was a place we had to see. The bonus was that it’s close enough to the Denver metro area to make it an easy day trip with a 4-mile hike around the park thrown in for good measure. And so, our April Resolution Destination was born.
We wanted to get an early start knowing that we had to drive a couple of hours and we also wanted to enjoy lunch in Calhan after exploring the park. When Saturday morning rolled around, Cameron, who needs no alarm to wake up early, rose and began to make coffee. He was shocked to find Corrie right behind him. He assumed coffee in bed might be needed to get her rolling before 8 am on a weekend. And even if Corrie could only nod with half closed eyes in response to his questions because she was still too sleepy to speak, we were awake and ready to explore a part of our home state that we had never seen before.
Because of the delicate nature of the Paint Mines, dogs aren’t allowed (even though they would have loved it!). But we also didn’t want to leave them locked inside the house all day. So our first stop was to drop them off at their favorite place on earth… the farm. After that we headed southeast, past the familiar and into the Great Plains.
We knew that day called for slightly lower temps than we had experienced earlier in the week. But, other than that, the weather looked perfect. Sunny with a light breeze. We figured it was perfect. Cool enough to keep us comfortable while hiking (there is no shade along the trail), but with the intense Colorado sun still shining we figured we wouldn’t freeze. About 40 minutes into the drive we started to question how perfect the weather would really end up being, as our lovely light breeze had increased to the point that many semis had given up and parked along the highway and high wind warnings were posted all along the interstate. It seemed like we had actually picked the wrong day for a hike in the plains.
We decided to take the more scenic route to Calhan, rather than driving the same stretch of I-25 that is usually our main route (and we can’t stand). Despite the high winds, we were happy with this decision. As we exited the main highway and started to drive south on a lonely two-lane road, the winds had made the air so crystal clear it felt like we could see a thousand miles in every direction and the mountains still looked like we could touch them. The grasslands and rolling hills had a beauty all their own and we were even surprised to find some ponderosa forests way out there.
Every sketchy dirt farm and hoarding situation we passed (there were a lot!) left us speculating on the occupants and what they might be up to. Of course, we assumed all of the larger compounds with multiple homes or trailers on them were cults or polygamist sects. Maybe we shouldn’t keep watching shows like Wild Wild Country? Then, after a while, we ended up on dirt roads for about 10 miles and began to wonder if Google was trying to get us lost, killed or abducted. But eventually the trusty Googs got us where we intended.
It had been 55 degrees when we left home, but the further south we drove the colder it got. When we finally reached the Paint Mines the car thermometer was hovering right around 40 degrees. Add in the 60+ mph winds and we were facing a wind chill was in the teens & 20’s (according to NOAA’s wind-chill calculator) when we jumped out of the Jeep to peer down into the mines. (Yes, Cameron looked that up. And yes, Cameron is a dork). The wind and the wind chill were both brutal! We quickly decided that hiking the 4-mile loop around the park was not in the cards. We had packed a few light layers, but failed to bring our winter gear. But we had made the 2-hour drive and were determined to at least go down into the park and see what we could see. Climbing down to the mines Corrie thought her forehead was going to freeze and her ears were going to fall off – and that was after Cameron gave her his baseball hat to help shelter her. But, once we climbed down in to the mines we were fairly sheltered from the awful wind and began to warm up and enjoy the fascinating landscape.
There are so many different colors, shapes and textures. Around each bend and in each cavern was something new and incredible to see. From the overlook near the parking lot you couldn’t possibly see all the little canyons that we were able to explore once we hiked in. It was a landscape that made us feel like we were on a totally different planet. IPhone pictures simply do not do justice when it comes to portraying beautiful landscape, but especially this one. It’s a place that you really have to see in person to admire and respect the beauty and uniqueness.
We spent about an hour down in the mines exploring, snapping photos and taking in the sights. We eventually decided we had seen all that we were going to without hiking the full 4-mile loop and were ready for lunch. As we were walking out we knew we made the right decision on the timing because it was actually starting to get busy with others that were willing to brave the elements! We had been the first car in the lot when we arrived, but by the time we were leaving five or six families with kids had joined us. Sadly, on our climb out of the mines, we looked down to see kids and adults alike climbing all over the rock formations with no respect for the delicate nature of the landscape. There are few signs at the park, but in should be common sense, DO NOT CLIMB on such unique and fragile terrain. It frustrates us both to see Colorado’s natural treasures being trampled by the masses.
Though frustrated by the carelessness of others, we were so happy to be out of the wind and cold! We already had a lunch spot in mind before heading out that day, because Cameron did his research and because there is seemingly only one worthwhile restaurant in Calhan. We found Rooster’s Grille & Pizzeria to be a nice little spot with good food and very friendly, small-town, service. The menu is more extensive than a typical bar, and we both enjoyed our food and listening to the local conversations taking place around us.
The drive home was a bit more boring than the drive down, since we had already seen it all and the monotony of the plains began to wear on us both. If we had been able to hike for a while, the time spent in the car may not have been such a burden; but as it happened we spent too high a percentage of our time behind the windshield.
While we didn’t get to do everything we wanted to, we are thankful we got to see the Paint Mines. They are beautiful and the destination truly lived up to the spirit of our resolution – exploring areas of our state that we’ve never seen before. All the destinations we choose may not turn out as expected but we are thankful every time we go somewhere or experience something new. Calhan and the Paint Mines are definitely worth checking out yourself, especially with better weather.
DESTINATION RATING: 3.0 OUT OF 5.0 (would have been higher without the wind)
What We Learned:
DO bring a better camera than your phone, we were especially frustrated with the pictures we took.
DO eat at Rooster’s, good service, hearty food.
DON’T climb on the delicate formations and terrain in the Paint Mines.
DON’T go on a day with high winds, the prairie offers little protection.