Ask any horse, and he'll tell you the value of a good water hole: priceless. Knowing the spots where the water flows ice-cold, even in 100-degree oppression, is key to survival. It's how the West was navigated and how hikers today continue to stave the hopes of circling vultures.
William Jackson Palmer, railroad baron and founder of Colorado Springs, scouted the east face of the Rockies in 1867 for the Union Pacific Railroad. While surveying near present-day Garden of the Gods, Palmer discovered a serene valley enriched by fresh water. He later returned to construct a castle and name a canyon after his Queen (his wife's nickname).
Following Palmer's death in 1909, wealthy entrepreneurs juggled his Glen Eyrie estate on the market for nearly half a century before The Navigators ministry finally laid permanent claim to the land in 1953.
Today, water-seekers first must pass through this superbly maintained historic parcel on a dusty ascent to the Punchbowls, a collection of cool pools revered by many as the most rewarding local destination on a relentlessly sunny day.
After a brief check-in at the gate and quick abandonment of our car, my girlfriend Sam and I flip-flop up well-tramped dirt and gravel paths and over some rickety wooden footbridges. Roughly halfway up, a beautiful waterfall captivates handfuls of tourists, sorting thru-hikers from spectators in a gentle manner.
Those in the know begin a committed scramble up a slope of scree, or loose rock debris, around the waterfall's right face and continue up Queen's Canyon. Crossing the winding creek bed countless times, we spy small groups of playful trout. We spot a few Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep on the high canyon rim.
Just as our excitement starts turning to restless anticipation, we round a final bend and hear happy voices ahead. The last few steps of any good journey are at a quicker pace; we run.
Other friendly hikers greet us and everyone civilly shares the good lounging spots around the pools. Refreshingly, nobody shows a superior air as their favorite spot is overrun by two more sweaty brows. A jovial 20-something, trailing blood in his footprints, shows me a good jumping spot. Another sunbather explains that the jumper cut his foot attempting a tricky rock climb upstream.
I drop my pack and we ease into a small pool to acclimatize, then take the full plunge into the deepest pool, to heart-pounding acclaim. The water momentarily steals my breath with its iciness, and suddenly Colorado summer is far from my waking conscious -- I could be taking a dip somewhere near Greenland. Sam's wide eyes tell a similar story, and we spend the next hour partly in the Arctic and partly in the high mountain desert, but surely nowhere near home.
-- Matthew Schniper
The Punchbowls, accessible 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., MondayThursday, free.
Escape Route: Take 30th Street past Garden of the Gods entrance to the Navigators entrance at 3820 North 30th St. Stop at guard house to sign hiking permit. Proceed past Glen Eyrie castle to marked parking. Follow obvious trails past the waterfall and up the creek bed.
Extra Credit: Attend a public tea in the castle before your hike or tour the gardens on the way out. (Call 719/634-0808 for hours and price.)