There’s a spot in Red Rock Canyon Open Space where you can see the direction the wind was blowing 280 million years ago.
“It’s a spot that makes my heart pound. You look east from the top of Quarry Pass and see petrified sand dunes,” said Pikes Peak Community College geology professor Ken Weissenburger.
Rock helps explain almost everything in the 789-acre park in west Colorado Springs. Time, ancient sea floors, dinosaurs, Ute warriors, and early city dwellers are all connected here by stone. But it takes an expert to really see the story. Fortunately, the Friends of Red Rock Canyon is keen to share information about the park’s geology, paleontology, history, native cultures and biology.
The effort is admirable because the untrained visitor looking for that 280 million-year-old wind at the top of Quarry Pass may look for another 280 million years and not notice anything.
Back in the Permian Period (290 million to 248 million years ago), Weissenburger said, Red Rock park was part of a coastal desert on the ancient supercontinent of Pangea. Dunes creeping across the windy plain moved in scale-shaped sloughs, pushed by wind. The dunes were eventually buried and became the red rock that is the park’s namesake. Erosion cut a cross-section of the old dunes.
From Quarry Pass the diagonal lines of the old sloughs — also called cross bedding — are visible in the eroded rock. But, like many of the park’s most interesting features, you have to know what to look for.
“If you spend any time here, you start to see how everything is connected,” said Don Ellis, a local historian who was strolling with the geologist.
There’s a lot to learn from Red Rock Canyon. About 300 million years of geologic history was upended here by the rise of Pikes Peak.
The distinct formations sit in a neat row, like books on a shelf. They tell the story of millions of years of climate change, but they also, in some cases, preserve specific moments from eons ago.
On a rocky ridge in the eastern part of the park, a handful of footprints mark the moment when giant plant-eating dinosaurs wandered through the mud of a coastal forest. Fossilized fish bones in a powdery shale are the leftovers of a bigger fish’s meal in a teeming shallow sea 70 million years ago.
“It’s as if one page in a book was torn out, and left here for us to read,” said Weissenburger.
Life continues to leave marks in the stone. Early European settlers found the prominent hogback of Dakota sandstone on the east side of the park dotted with small stone forts, probably used by the Utes as lookouts and defensive positions to guard the springs of Manitou from intruding plains tribes, according to “The Indians of the Pike’s Peak Region,” a 1914 book on the region by Irving Howbert.
“This was a natural gateway to the mountains,” said Ellis. “The rocks made it a good place for defense.”
Along the stone rampart are scooped depressions called metates that the Utes wore smooth in the process of grinding something.
“Whether it was grains or acorns or ceremonial pigments from the nearby rocks, we don’t know,” said Ellis.
Settlers in the 1860s found that the sandstone could easily be cleaved into blocks and carted away for use in building foundations.
“The whole ridge was quarried,” said Ellis. “If you know what you’re looking for, you can still see the wagon roads.”
The stone blocks are still around, too. Walls in a small church in downtown Colorado Springs were built using blocks of the 100 million-year-old beach sands where dinosaurs once tread. Early residents also cut huge blocks of the red Lyons sandstone, which were carted out on trains.
All the quarries were abandoned by 1912.
“The rock taken out ended up in several Denver mansions,” said Ellis.
On one little-seen quarry wall, there is a piece of history no one can explain. The words “Workers of the World” are chiseled with a craftsman’s expertise in the stone. They probably date from the 1920s, when a socialist workers movement known as the Industrial Workers of the World was at its height.
“But we don’t know for sure where it comes from or who did it,” said Matt Mayberry, director of the Pioneers Museum. It’s one of many things the city is trying to learn more about as it prepares an interpretive plan for the park.
Read more about the history of the area and the park itself on the Friends of Red Rock Canyon website (redrockcanyonopenspace.org) and Paleotrails Project website (paleotrailsproject.org).
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