Balanced Rock, poised above the park road at the Garden of the Gods, defies the laws of physics as it balances on a sloped ledge of sandstone. The famed boulder, appearing in publications around the world as one of the best examples of a balancing rock, is the most famous rock formation at the Garden of the Gods, the number one city park in the United States. Sure there are lots of other balanced rocks in Colorado, like Miracle Rock and Balanced Rock by Grand Junction or the Balanced Rocks at both Rocky Mountain National Park and the Rampart Range, but the Garden’s Balanced Rock is the best of the boulders.
How long will Balanced Rock sit before it topples? Nobody knows, but one day it will fall onto the road below. Maybe wind and water will eat away at its base or perhaps an earthquake will shake it loose. Until Balanced Rock slides off its precarious perch, you need to go see it along with hundreds of thousands of annual visitors who stop for Colorado Springs’ favorite photo op. Some crawl under the boulder’s overhang or pose like they’re pushing it over, while others appear to hold up the rock like Superman or Atlas.
Geology of the Garden and Balanced Rock
- Balanced Rock, rising 35 feet above its pedestal base, weighs about 700 tons or 1.4 million pounds.
- Balanced Rock is composed of Fountain Formation sandstone deposited along the edge of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains between 290 and 296 million years ago. Coarse sediments with sand and chunks of rock were swept off the mountains by quick-moving streams and rivers, which then deposited them in deltas and alluvial fans. Heat and pressure later cemented the sediments into rock, including sandstone colored red by iron oxide, mud deposits that formed soft shale, and mixed sand, pebbles, and cobbles forming conglomerate.
- When the current Rocky Mountains began rising over 60 million years ago, today’s Balanced Rock was uplifted and exposed as part of a rock ridge that connected with nearby Steamboat Rock and an escarpment to the south. Water erosion and frost wedging excavated the ridge for millions of years. Its current shape, formed in the last two or three million years as a soft layer of shale at the base of the formation, eroded faster than the harder sandstone layers above, leaving the boulder perched on a narrow pedestal.
- Geologists call Balanced Rock an erosional remnant, a formation that was not transported and deposited in place but instead was eroded from surrounding bedrock. Balanced Rock, like other precariously balancing rocks, is an incredible natural wonder that appears ready to topple over at any moment.
20th Century Controversy
- Balanced Rock wasn’t part of the original 480 acres at the Garden of the Gods given to the City of Colorado Springs as a free park by the children of railroadman Charles Eliot Perkins in 1909. Instead, it was private property until the city was able to buy its 275 acres for $25,000 in 1932.
- Curt Goerke, a local 14-year-old entrepreneur, took photographs of tourists at Balanced Rock in the 1890s for 25 cents apiece. The business was so lucrative that his father, Paul Goerke, bought the rock and the surrounding area, called Mushroom Park, for $400. The photo business boomed in the roaring ‘90s and the early 20th century, with young Curt snapping pics of tourists sitting on burros beside the famous rock. They built a photo shop and lunch room by Steamboat Rock, and chopped steps to its summit.
- The Goerkes erected a two-mile-long wooden fence around their property and another one surrounding Balanced Rock to keep cheapskate tourists from taking their own photos. They charged 25 cents to visit the natural wonder, outraging local residents who wanted to visit the site for free. Visitors also hated the Goerke’s crass commercialism, including billboards along the road from Manitou Springs. A 20-year conflict between Paul Goerke and Colorado Springs led to the city’s purchase of Balanced Rock in 1932.
- Steamboat Rock is the 30-foot-high rock formation between the two lanes of the park road to the southeast of Balanced Rock. The summit of Steamboat Rock was reached by a stairway lined with handrails until its removal in the 1970s. A tourist shop with a lunch counter, gifts, and photo shop was built against the base of Steamboat Rock. Square holes for roof beams are still visible on the rock’s vertical northeast face. The Gazette Telegraph reported in 1932: “The unsightly store defacing the side of Steamboat Rock was completely torn down.” Steamboat Rock is now closed to climbing.
- Concrete, supposedly poured in 1910 by Kurt Goerke, surrounds the base of Balanced Rock. Much of the concrete has eroded away, but it still apparently protects the rock from falling.
- Balanced Rock is a Colorado Springs band named for the famous rock formation. The band’s website says, “Like the uniqueness and rarity that balanced rocks appear in nature precariously perched…defy gravity…the rock group Balanced Rock is a one-of-a-kind musical force of nature.” The band plays at various Front Range venues.
- On June 6, 2017, a school bus attempted to squeeze between Steamboat Rock and a cliff by Balanced Rock but became wedged in the narrow gap. The rocks received a few scratches but the bus sustained most of the damage. It took a tow truck a couple hours to free the vehicle.
What We Believe
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