Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

A proper adventure in Colorado always comes with rocks. And we’re not talking about the last scree field you scrambled up during a hike.

We’re talking about big rocks. Great slabs and cliffs and formations commanding attention from afar — signature reminders of the fine job Mother Nature did in this state.

Here we take a moment to appreciate some of her handiwork:

1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

The Gunnison River flows through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose in December.CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE

“Since the early visit of Captain John William Gunnison in the middle of the last century,” begins a 1965 U.S. Geological Survey report, “the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has stirred mixed apprehension and wonder in the hearts of its viewers. It ranks high among the more awesome gorges of North America.”

The report describes Painted Wall as the “greatest cliff in Colorado” — the highest in the state, with 2,250 feet of sheer rock from rim to river.

2. Cathedral Spires

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Clockwise: Cathedral Spires in Rocky Mountain National Park, Dillon Pinnacles near Gunnison, Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Chalk Cliffs near Buena Vista, Garden of the Gods. CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE

Soaring over Sky Pond at Rocky Mountain National Park, there’s something ominous and otherworldly to their jagged, dark-grey appearance. But skilled climbers see a worthy challenge.

Summits are known as the Penknife, Jackknife and the Saber. The highest among them is Sharkstooth, scraping elevations above 12,600 feet.

3. Chalk Cliffs

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

The Chalk Cliffs, located eight miles southwest of Buena Vista, Colo., are made of a clay mineral known as kaolinite, created by hot springs percolating through cracks in the mountain, at the base of Mt. Princeton. The peak was named Chalk Mountain by George M. Wheeler during his surveying and mapping expedition of the Colorado Territory in 1871. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

With the Arkansas River, aspen-mixed forests and Collegiate Peaks, there’s no limit of eye candy around Buena Vista. One exceptional treat is the southeastern flank of fourteener Mount Princeton, which looks to be smothered in white paper — or chalk.

The Chalk Cliffs are not actually made of chalk. That’s kaolinite, an interpretive sign lets visitors know. That’s “a soft rock,” it reads, “produced by hot springs percolating through cracks in the mountain.”

4. Chimney Rock

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Kirk Speer, Special to The Gazette. Chimney Rock, an ancient Anaszi ruins site, is on the way to becoming Colorado’s next national monument. the gazette file

From a distance on the highway between Pagosa Springs and Durango, this unmistakable monolith is seen commanding a hilltop. It’s the centerpiece of a national monument protected for its sacred heritage.

Left long ago by Ancestral Puebloans, nearly 200 homes and ceremonial structures have been found within 7 square miles of Chimney Rock.

Every 18 years in the lunar cycle, the moon hangs perfectly still between the fabled rock and its towering neighbor, Companion Rock.

5. Colorado National Monument

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Towering monoliths of the Colorado National Monument at the west side near Fruita, Colorado. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

The wealth of geologic wonder here dates 1.5 billion years to the Precambrian age, the “basement rock” defined by darker hues. A vast array of granite, sandstone, limestone and conglomerates account for other bands and eras, sprawling across this mesmerizing plateau of the Western Slope.

Independence Monument is the tallest freestanding rock in the impressive collection, rising 450 feet off the canyon floor.

6. Dillon Pinnacles

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

The volcanic Dillon Pinnacles located along Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison, Colo., in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. The volcanic spires are formed by erosion of the steep south face of Dillon Mesa. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Near Blue Mesa Reservoir, a set of curious spires stand sentry. Those are the Dillon Pinnacles, their ash-colored tips recalling volcanic activity 30 million years ago.

The pinnacles are classified as West Elk Breccia, made of lava, rock and mud that weathered over time.

7. Dinosaur National Monument

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Cole and Carter Bridges of Salt Lake City, Utah, look at petroglyphs Tuesday, June 4, 2018, along the Fossil Discovery Trail between the Jensen, Utah, visitor center and the Quarry Exhibit Hall in Dinosaur National Monument at the Utah/Colorado border. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Here on the Colorado-Utah border, the Green and Yampa rivers cut colorful canyons and walls showcasing 23 rock layers. They tell of prehistoric seas and deserts — and, yes, they store the remains of the beasts for which this preserve is named.

8. Flatirons

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Kurtis Anders, 24, of Castle Rock, and Konstyantyn Halonkin, 25, of Aurora called dispatchers at 8:06 p.m. Tuesday near the summit of the First Flatiron. (AP file)

The iconic, titling beauties of Boulder’s skyline were once a pile of sand and gravel some 300 million years ago. So goes the tale of Fountain Formation members that are found across the Front Range.

But the Flatirons arrived thanks to “a geologic quirk of fate,” as local geologist Lonn Abbott has explained in Boulder Magazine: “Here, and only here, the Fountain’s layers are held together by an unusually strong, potassium-rich cement called adularia.”

The mountains rose and forces angled the rocks that would be aptly named by pioneers for the heated metal that pressed clothes.

9. Garden of the Gods

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

The Kissing Camels in Garden of the Gods Thursday, February 7, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

To understand Colorado Springs’ world-famous nature sanctuary, you have to travel back hundreds of millions of years ago to when sand dunes covered the region. Ancient wind, water and uplift sculpted the marvels we know today, with names such as Sentinel Rock, Tower of Babel and Three Graces.

10. Paint Mines

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Colorado Paint Mines Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

This massive maze of technicolor hoodoos and shelves abruptly emerges in the eastern El Paso County plains. It seems to be something out of a fantasy. But there’s a very real explanation for the Paint Mines.

The vibrant combination is the result of oxidized iron. The Dawson Formation occurs here, its origins tracing 55 million years to the Tertiary Age.

There is equal archaeological curiosity in the preserve. Human activity here has been dated as far back as 9,000 years. Researchers say Native Americans used the clay for pottery and ceremonial paints.

11. Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Scenes during the 2019 Colorado 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Red Rocks Park Amphitheatre in Morrison on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. Thousands gathered to honor the New York Fire Department firefighters and first responders who gave their lives and the nearly 3,000 civilians who died in the 2001 Sept. 11 terrorist attack.(Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Ship Rock and Creation Rock frame Colorado’s favorite concert venue. The sandstone walls, over 200 million years in the making, have been famous for their acoustics since 1906, when a big brass band became the first on record to perform here.

12. Rocks of Spanish Peaks country

Colorado’s 12 best rock formations — Garden of the Gods and beyond

Profile Rock is a dike that radiates from the Spanish Peaks in Colorado. Thursday, February 22, 2018 (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)JERILEE BENNETT, THE GAZETTE

In a USGS survey from 1968, the geology on the San Luis Valley peripheries was said to have “inspired men for untold centuries.” The landscape was described as “penetrated with dikes” — outcrops like spines criss-crossing the landscape under the gaze of a pair of peaks known as the “breasts of the Earth.”

It’s all on display from the Highway of Legends, on the way to La Veta and Cuchara. Some legends are symbolized by the rocks: the towering butte that was believed to be a mighty warrior and the series of angling slabs called the Devil’s Stairsteps. Profile Rock resembles a human face.


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