Visitors to Red Rock Canyon once had to admire its visual splendors with a divided focus – keeping one eye peeled for a man with a shotgun.

The land, like the gun, belonged to John S. Bock, a cowboy and entrepreneur who began piecing together the parcels that would one day become Red Rock Canyon Open Space after his arrival here in 1923, and who thereafter used the threat of buckshot to keep it to himself.

Mere bluster was insufficient for the task.

The allure of the ancient red rocks is as old as the forces that shaped them.

It’s the story of a place churned by tumult – geological and human: food for thought for anyone who has stopped in wonder while running, hiking or pedaling among Red Rock’s delicate red fins and crumbling hogbacks.

Red Rock Canyon Open Space was opened to the public in 2003 after the city’s $12.5 million purchase of the 789-acre canyon property from the Bock family.

But the full story begins before time – or least recorded time.

Sand Formations at Red Rock Canyon Open Space - OutThere Colorado
Evidence of Red Rock Canyon Open Space’s past, whipped by wind and water, is evident in its sandstone formations. Photo Credit: Dena Rosenberry

In her 2012 book “History in Stone: The Story of Red Rock Canyon,” local writer Ruth Obee tells how archaeologists have determined that the rain- and wind-carved sculptures of Red Rock Canyon – actually a collection of five canyons – date back 1.7 billion years and span the eons to include a time when prehistoric sharks prowled an ancient sea.

Shark teeth are among the fossils discovered by archaeologists in the open space, which also includes dinosaur footprints and evidence of the sharks’ quarry: 3-foot-wide clams that would be the envy of seafood lovers the world over.

“One’s enough to make clam chowder for a crowd,” Obee joked during an interview.

Preserved dinosaur prints can be seen in rock at the open space, though their locations haven’t been marked to discourage vandalism and theft.

The earliest human visitors to Red Rock appear to have been the – Clovis-Paleo Indians regarded as the first human inhabitants of the New World – and the area was long frequented by the Utes, described by Obee as proto-environmentalists who balanced conservation and consumption and gave thanks for the animals they harvested there.

Obee says recent history was every bit as turbulent as the conditions that shaped the land, a point she will make at her presentation.

“One of my focuses is going to be on a story that isn’t always told or made part of public record and hasn’t been recorded – and that’s the effort to save this property from development,” Obee said. “It involves the colorful and notoriously testy Bock family, who owned it for 80 years.”

Included in the cast of characters is former patriarch John S. Bock, who Obee says “used to greet trespassers at the wrong end of a shotgun barrel.”

Obee, a longtime member of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, casts the citizen-driven effort to save Red Rock Canyon as a David-and-Goliath tale with a rotating cast of Goliaths: well-heeled developers looking to set the land aside for the wealthy.

“At one time, Donald Trump flew helicopters over it,” Obee said. “Nike people looked at it. Then, finally, came a developer riding into town with sights set on Red Rock Canyon. He had ambitious plans for a Club Med resort in the Rockies.”

He didn’t reckon on an insurrection knit from a broad coalition across the Pikes Peak region, Obee said.

With their help, elected leaders banded together to preserve a place now celebrated as the “locals’ Garden of the Gods.”

The story doesn’t end there, however.

Obee also documents the efforts that gave the open space its look and feel, including a push by a women’s group active in the conservation effort to name the new open space “Garden of the Goddesses.”

She details the construction of Contemplative Trail, which winds past rock fins into the park’s still interior. It’s a special place that encapsulates why people have always sought out these canyons, regardless of whether they were welcomed or threatened.

“I devote quite a bit of space to it in my book,” Obee said. “To my mind, it’s just one of the most beautiful trails.”

A writer and former high school English teacher, Obee spent more than 20 years traveling the globe alongside her husband, Kent, formerly a U.S. foreign service officer.

After stints in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tanzania and South Africa, the couple returned to Colorado Springs.

“It was the beauty of places like Red Rock Canyon that drew us back, and we deeply believed this was something that should be enjoyed by citizens.

Obee added: “It’s part of the wonderful legacy that we enjoy here.”

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