Hidden Canyon: Castlewood Canyon State Park

Hidden in the rolling prairie on Highway 83 near Franktown, Colorado, is Castlewood Canyon State Park. Don’t drive by too fast, or you’ll miss it; many people don’t even know it’s there. It’s worth the drive from Denver or Colorado Springs, because this park has several unique features other local parks don’t have, such as:

Unique geological formations. More than 60 million years ago, the park was part of a vast tropical rainforest. Mt. Princeton, near Buena Vista, which was once an active volcano, spewed Wall Mountain Tuff, a pyroclastic cloud of ash, over the Castle Rock area. This deposit of ash is visible today as large black rock formations in the park. Those interested in geology can also find large deposits of rhyolite and some of the most interesting Castle Rock Conglomerate in the area.

Castle Rock Conglomerate (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

Castle Rock Conglomerate (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

Four different ecosystems. Hikers can enjoy over 12 miles of trails, on which they can encounter four different life zones containing a large variety of flora and fauna and the ruins of a 1920’s homestead. Panoramic views of the Front Range are unlike any other.

A panoramic view to the south, where Pikes Peak can be seen in the distance. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

A panoramic view to the south, where Pikes Peak can be seen in the distance. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

A murder mystery. In 1965, the body of Roger Henry Floth, age 26, was found under the bridge that crosses the south end of the canyon (the bridge was intended to lead to another road connecting Highways 83 and 24, but that never materialized). A homeless man from Denver, not much was known about Floth, but the south end of the canyon used to be very remote, and “a good place to commit murder and get away with it,” according to a park volunteer. Floth’s body and head were found on one side of the bridge, and his legs on the other. Even though the police had two suspects in the crime, no one was ever prosecuted. Workers in the Visitors’ Center say that Floth’s ghost is responsible for odd noises and movement after the center is closed for the night. Perhaps these creepy stories might make ghost hunters consider the Haunted Trail hikes featured this month at the park.

A massive flood after a dam break. Back in 1890, the area around Castlewood Canyon was dotted with farms, orchards, and potato fields. The Denver Water Storage Company decided to dam the canyon and make a reservoir, since Cherry Creek and many springs in the area drain into it. The dam’s designer and chief engineer, A. M. Welles, built the dam on the native soil of the area, Dawson Arkstone, which at the time was deemed stable (it was later found to be much too brittle to sustain weight in the long term). People came from Denver, Castle Rock, and Colorado Springs to enjoy the pastoral beauty of the lake, calling the area their favorite place to fish, swim, and enjoy nature. Welles received much criticism over the next few years when the dam sprang a few leaks, but the company labeled them “springs” rather than leaks. After six years there was a 100-foot washout, and people started to complain pretty loudly. Welles got sick of the constant criticism, writing a letter to the Denver Times that stated in part, “The Castlewood Dam will never, in the life of any person now living, or in generations to come, break to an extent that will do any great damage either to itself or others from the volume of water impounded, and never in all time to the city of Denver.”

The Castlewood Dam, circa 1900. (Credit: Sherrie Horn; original photo courtesy of Denver Public Library).

The Castlewood Dam, circa 1900. (Credit: Sherrie Horn; original photo courtesy of Denver Public Library).

The dam held up for 33 more years, and when it broke in the early morning of August 3, 1933, it was still dark outside. Remember, this was a time when no TV or internet existed, so the only form of notification available was the phone; most of the people who lived in the area were on a “party line” which meant one line for everyone, and each house answered to a different ring pattern. One very long ring meant an emergency.

It had been raining for a week, and a cloudburst the previous evening had dumped eight inches of rain in three hours. Hugh Paine, the caretaker of the dam at the time, knew the dam was at risk when he and his wife heard rumbling. He picked up the phone to call it in to the operator, but the line was dead. In the dark, he went to his neighbor’s house, and together they traveled 12 miles to Castle Rock to get the word out. The phone operator, a woman in Parker named Nettie Driskill, sat up all night at great personal risk, using that long ring to warn people in surrounding areas to get themselves and their livestock to higher ground. She was a hero, and her efforts netted articles in the Denver Times and Life magazine. The flood did indeed reach Denver, despite Welles’ prediction, and it wreaked havoc on the city streets, bridges, and businesses.

A photo of the flooding in downtown Denver after the Castlewood Dam broke. (Credit: Sherrie Horn; original photo courtesy of Denver Public Library)

A photo of the flooding in downtown Denver after the Castlewood Dam broke. (Credit: Sherrie Horn; original photo courtesy of Denver Public Library)

Today, Castlewood Canyon State Park hosts visitors from all over the world who can hike through the canyon and view the remains of the dam and the effects of its destruction. Those who venture down to Cherry Creek at its bottom can hop from boulder to boulder and wade through its knee-deep clear water. Trails also ring the edge of the canyon, and while hot in the summer, these trails afford hikers an amazing panoramic view of the area, while hawks circle the canyon at eye-level.

A modern view of the dam. Note the grassland on one side, and forest on the other. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

A modern view of the dam. Note the grassland on one side, and forest on the other. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

If you go: A day-use pass is $7 for each vehicle, so carpool if you can. The Visitors’ Center has lots of hands-on activities for kids, along with an educational movie if you’re interested in the park’s history. The Visitors’ Center is also home to Sid and Nancy, two bull snakes found in the area. Plan to take at least four hours to explore the trails and open spaces. Trails are moderate near the north end, where the dam is, and range to difficult near the south end, where there’s lots of rock-hopping.

Cherry Creek flows through the bottom of Castlewood Canyon. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

Cherry Creek flows through the bottom of Castlewood Canyon. (Credit: Sherrie Horn)

Late spring or early fall is the best time for a visit, as the sun is almost too hot during high summer. Bring a picnic for the south end, where there are tables and grills to use, or pack a lunch in your backpack and eat on a sandbar by the creek. Pack lots of water if you plan to hike down into the canyon, because going uphill on the out can be a challenge if you’re dehydrated. The trails wind around and are at times quite steep, so wear boots and be mindful of the altitude if you’re bringing guests from out of state. Don’t forget your sunscreen, no matter what time of year it is. For more information and a list of monthly activities, go to www.cpw.state.co.us. All public programs are free of charge with a valid parks pass.