June 21, 2001 News » Cover Story

Red Rock Canyon, the Secret Garden of the Gods 

A local writer's perspective on the controversy surrounding one of Colorado Springs' last best places

Some time in the next year, Colorado Springs will make one of the most momentous decisions of our time concerning open space. In question is whether the Red Rock Canyon property, a magnificent geologic wonder and a natural continuation of the Garden of the Gods (some call it "the secret Garden of the Gods") will be saved for future generations as quality open space or annexed by the City and turned into a resort and trophy home complex by an out-of-state developer.

Located near the base of Pikes Peak, south of U.S. Highway 24, bordered on the north by Garden of the Gods, on the west by the Manitou Springs' Crystal Hills suburb, on the south by Bear Creek Canyon and adjacent to Section l6, the Red Rock Canyon area covers some 787 acres. It forms much of the foothill backdrop to downtown Colorado Springs and serves as the urban separator between Colorado Springs and Manitou.

Very simply, it is that vast expanse of dramatic geology and open space one sees when looking south from the high point in the Garden of the Gods.

The greater Garden of the Gods ecosystem

The property's name comes from its majestic Lyons sandstone outcroppings. These late Paleozoic sedimentary rocks, with their awesome Gothic cathedral tilt and vertical upsweep, were formed from sand, gravel and mud washed down from the ancestral Rocky Mountains a little less than 300 million years ago. Geologically speaking, the rose-gold and salmon-pink monoliths, dunes, towers, steeples, pinnacles and mushrooms are not only breathtakingly beautiful, they are unique -- nothing quite like them exists anywhere else on Earth.

The Dakota and Niobrara hogbacks, which form the property's eastern parameter, are younger than the Lyons sandstone and less dramatic in profile, but they have their own fascinating stories to tell. "Niobrara" refers to the prominent band of white limestone easily seen from a distance. Once a clam bed, it is now a virtual warehouse of clam fossils. The Kodell sandstone, a bit older than the Niobrara limestone, forms the crest of the lower hogback. It preserves ammonites and tiny sharks' teeth, measuring approximately one-eighth of an inch. Near Pigeon Caves in the Dakota sandstone, an imprint of a dinosaur foot has reportedly been sited in a nest of matted vegetable matter. There are also well-defined leaf fossils.

Between the outcroppings are a series of parallel south-to-north-running valleys or "canyons" that offer the visitor access to the property's spectacular scenery. Each has its own character and charms. Two of these -- Red Rock and Greenlee Canyons -- bracket the main Lyons formation and constitute the true sanctum sanctorum of the property. Red Rock Canyon has been further "enhanced" with two artificial lakes.

Gene Smith of the City's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services says that Red Rock Canyon and the Garden of the Gods should be looked at historically and geographically as parts of a whole.

"They were all part of the same area," explains Smith. "It's just that there is a road separating them today and it's convenient to think of them as separate areas. Red Rocks, Garden of the Gods and Glen Eyrie were all part of the same greater Garden of the Gods ecosystem. The rocks held the heat and the canyons offered shelter. American Indians sheltered and camped here in winter."

The idea of a national park

Dr. Jeffrey B. Noblett, professor of geology at Colorado College, waxes eloquent when discussing the area's geological value. "No city in the United States has more geological history located within the city limits than Colorado Springs," he states. "Every period is represented except the Silurian."

He explains that while many formations found in Red Rock Canyon are similar to those found in Garden of the Gods, "the story here is different from Garden of the Gods. It's a simple story. It's a wonderful place to teach beginning geologists in high school classes and college.

"Kansas has the same geological history," he continues, "but you have to climb down an oil well to see it." Noblett says he thinks that the region "from Garden of the Gods through Red Rock Canyon to Section 16 should be set aside and preserved as one of the most geologically important parts of the natural history of the West."

Dr. Richard Beidleman, chairman emeritus of the department of biology at Colorado College, agrees: "Just a little more than a century ago there was a bill in Congress that set aside all the land from the Garden of the Gods to the top of Pikes Peak (an area which presumably included Red Rock Canyon) as the second national park in the United States. That should be publicized," he said. "Think what this area would be like if that were a national park! At any rate, what happened to the bill? Well, it went into committee -- what a great place for a bill to go! It went into committee and never came out again. Too bad."

Red Rock Canyon is a haven for wildlife including herds of mule deer, elk, bear and predatory and other birds. Like Garden of the Gods, it is home to many different kinds of native plants and animals because of its unique location in North America. Here, notes Melissa Walker in Pikes Peak Region Traveler, "the grasslands of the Great Plains meet the dry woodlands of the American Southwest, and merge with the evergreen woodlands of the Rocky Mountains."

Ute structures

In addition to its unique geological and natural history, the Red Rock Canyon property is, as the experts agree, the site of unexplored and undocumented archeological riches. In People of the Shining Mountains, author Charles Marsh noted circling stone walls four- to five-feet high and enclosed structures that appear to be fortifications. Jan Pettit, author of Utes: The Mountain People, in discussing the so-called fortifications with a group of Ute elders, was told the stone structures could have been used for catching eagles. Sadly, some of these enclosure walls have been bulldozed coincidental to opening a dump on the property.

According to the Old Colorado City Historical Society, "Arrowheads found in the area are most often small "bird point' made of petrified wood from the Black Forest area, perhaps suggesting that the hunt was more common than the battle along the hogbacks."

Red Rock Canyon Committee member, Don Ellis, who knows the area well, also reports that "in the middle part of the Dakota hogback just east of the crest is a metate site which was probably used for grinding corn meal." While some metate sites in Colorado date back to the Archaic era, beginning some 8,000 years ago, it is more likely that these sites are Ute in origin. Such fascinating glimpses into Ute history, along with other relevant and timely news, have been regularly highlighted in an informative new publication called The Red Rock Rag, edited and produced by volunteer Ellis.

Because archeologists have not conducted an inventory of the Red Rock Canyon property, "nothing has been recorded," said Meg Van Ness, in the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation at the Colorado State Historical Society.

"This doesn't mean it doesn't exist," she is quick to point out. "It simply means it hasn't been looked at." Registered sites on public land can be protected, but not on private land. And as Van Ness sums it up: "How do you know what you're losing, if you don't know what you've got?"

Gene Smith agrees: "An archeological survey would be very helpful. We know the area is rich in archeology, in human history as well as in natural history." If the Red Rock Canyon property is subjected to massive development, the truth about these cultural and historic treasures may never be known.

The importance of an archeological survey was born out when one was finally done in the Garden of the Gods Park in 1993. A workshop was held and all the Utes, as well as members of other tribes such as the Kiowa and Apache, came together to share their knowledge. Among other discoveries, hearths of prehistoric peoples and petroglyphs were documented. The Garden of the Gods also has among its exhibits the skull of a camptosaurus (meaning bent lizard), a medium-sized, 150-million-year-old dinosaur. A Colorado College geology class found a 6-foot-long Columbian mammoth tusk on a nearby mesa in 1950.

Some of the Red Rock Canyon property's "archeology" is of a more recent nature. In the 19th century the area was the site of several sandstone and limestone quarries. Dakota limestone was already being quarried by 1866. Out of the handsome soft red and salmon-pink sandstone and the eggshell and ivory limestone were sliced (like bread) and chiseled huge blocks that later found their way into some of Colorado's most historic edifices (including two dorms at Colorado College). The stone was also shipped to other parts of the country, particularly Texas. The largest of the sandstone quarry sites, which occupies only a small portion of the total land area, today resembles nothing so much as a crude, starter-kit imitation of a Mayan ruin. And, as one open-space advocate observes, "the quarry itself is still a very scenic and historic spot."

A 1920s news story reports the early existence of a cemetery on the property, first used in 1859, in what is today a gravel pit. The bodies were later moved to a cemetery on the mesa, but in the 1920s, parts of coffins could be seen protruding along the edges of the pit like marooned ships.

Starting in 1970, the upper end of the valley west of the Dakota hogbacks was used as a dump and landfill -- which ultimately extended over 80 acres (including eight acres in the adjoining Section 16) before its closure in 1987. There is also a buried motel on the property.

The jewel in the crown

The Red Rock Canyon property has been owned by the Bock family for the past 80 years. John G. Bock -- a sometimes poet/collector, who came to Colorado in 1923 from Philadelphia to recover from tuberculosis -- acquired the land, piece by piece, over a period of 20 years. This tract included the hogbacks, Greenlee and Sand Canyons, with Red Rock Canyon the jewel in the crown.

In developing it, Bock built some roads and opened trails. He also provided places where visitors could picnic while enjoying the scenery. Eventually he built the Roundup Stables near the lower end of Red Rock Canyon and leased the quarry site for pony rides. John Bock subsequently willed the property to his two sons -- one of whom, John S. Bock, is the current owner.

Red Rock Canyon, or "the Bock property" as it is also known, has long been the target of both open-space advocates and developers. Both groups have faced some of the same obstacles. From the beginning, John S. Bock has insisted that he would only sell the property as a single piece -- and for a non-negotiable $15 million. Complicating the equation was the 80-acre landfill -- a potential environmental liability of unknown proportions. Many local developers have looked at the property but then backed off, concluding that "the numbers just don't work."

Open-space advocates faced all of these issues plus the additional fact that the property was completely off-limits to them. For the venturous few who chose to slip past the large "keep out" signs, there was the possibility of meeting the owner and his shotgun. Most admirers of the land have contented themselves with viewing it longingly from the Intemann trail or Section 16.

Still, the value of the land as open space for the city has long been recognized.

In 1990, the landscape and urban design firm of Thomas and Thomas was commissioned by the City to conduct an "Urban Growth Area Inventory of Significant Natural Features of Colorado Springs." The study begins by tipping its hat to the City's Open Space, Park and Recreation Master Plan that "emphasized that the preservation, promotion and enhancement of the significant natural features have historically contributed to the desirable environment and image of the region."

In an evaluation of 12 geographic sub-areas in the Pikes Peak Region, Red Rock Canyon received top marks. In terms of both "natural features" and "visual variety," two-thirds of the property -- including Red Rock and Greenlee Canyons and the hogbacks -- was given the highest rating of "A/Unique." The remainder of the land -- largely in the easternmost Sand Canyon -- was given a second level "B/Distinctive" rating.

Red Rock Canyon already designated open space on City's open-space plan

In 1997 Colorado Springs presented its citizens an updated open-space plan. Red Rock Canyon was identified in it as one of 18 "candidate areas" for preservation as open space. A subsequent technical evaluation under the City's new Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program gave the property one of its highest ratings.

With the passage of the TOPS sales tax, citizens had, for the first time, a mechanism for actually realizing the dream of saving special pieces of land as open space -- a goal made all the more urgent by the booming economy and growth of the 1990s. From the beginning, Red Rock Canyon was one of the primary points of focus.

In early 1999, a citizens group, the Red Rock Canyon Committee (RRCC), was formed to promote the preservation of Red Rock Canyon as open space. The RRCC is currently headed by former Holly Sugar CEO Joe Fabeck and includes volunteers from both Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs in its ranks.

In order to educate people as to what was really out there -- back behind the trailer park and the stands of giant billboards, the RRCC secured permission from owner John Bock to conduct hikes on the property. During the summer of 1999, they were able to take more than 1,000 citizens, through the property to view its special splendors.

Later, Don Ellis of the RRCC conducted a survey of the hike participants. The response to the property was highly enthusiastic. Over half of the respondents ranked it "slightly higher" than the Garden of the Gods, "somewhat higher" than North Cheyenne Canyon and "significantly higher" than Palmer Park for all of the qualities rated.

Meanwhile, in early 2000, the prospect of development became real. Richard Yates, a Santa Fe developer, heading a company called Zydeco (a division of his family's Yates Drilling Company), decided he could "make the numbers work." Zydeco secured a multiyear renewable option on the property. Because the property is in El Paso County, Zydeco's first decision was where to pitch its development vision and annexation application -- Colorado Springs or Manitou Springs -- to secure the infrastructure support the development would require.

"We like Manitou!"

Zydeco opted for Manitou. Critics suggest Zydeco probably saw the smaller Manitou as being "an easier roll" than Colorado Springs in terms of approval of development plans for a challenging piece of real estate. Zydeco's own explanation as voiced by one of its local representatives was simply, "We like Manitou!"

In making their initial presentations to the Manitou City Council, Zydeco argued the development would broaden the town's tax base from $41 million to $75 million and increase annual sales tax revenues from $1.9 million to $3.1 million. Less was said about what supplying the needed infrastructure would cost Manitou -- particularly after Zydeco said it wanted Manitou to provide Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) because of the "blighted" nature of the property. This would have involved setting up a special tax district called an Urban Renewal Authority -- a practice generally reserved for slum renewal in urban areas. The TIF provided obvious benefits to Zydeco; what Manitou got out of it was less clear. One Manitou Council member professed to having real problems "getting my head around the idea this lovely piece of land is blighted."

To back up their projected tax revenue numbers, Zydeco presented a "concept plan" for "The Quarry" (their name for the development) to a working session of the Manitou City Council. Included would be two hotel resort complexes with 600 rooms, an 18-hole, 244-acre golf course and recreation area, 512,000 square feet of retail space, 1.39 million square feet of office space, 700 apartments, 800 single-family units and 60 luxury estates. Nothing was said about open space.

Zydeco's professed fondness for Manitou was not reciprocated by the town's citizens. Almost immediately several petition drives were started to put "no annexation without voter approval" measures on the November 2000 ballot. Reading the handwriting on the wall, the Manitou Council preemptively passed its own ordinance requiring voter approval for all annexations of over three acres. This effectively ended the Zydeco/Manitou romance.

In September 2000, on the last possible date before a deadline that would have been imposed had Amendment 24 passed, Zydeco turned to Colorado Springs and filed an application for annexation there.

Zydeco's approach to Colorado Springs thus far has been markedly different than that made to Manitou. The TIF appears to be history and no grandiose revenue-generating development plans or concepts have yet been floated. Instead, and probably correctly anticipating that the battle will be over open space, they have chosen to lead with their open space plan -- first in a series of private briefings to selected city leaders and opinion molders, and then in a public presentation to the TOPS working committee in December 2000.

A bit of the rest without the best

Zydeco's currently proposed open space is divided between two separate parcels totaling 245 acres. One, a little less than 100 acres, would be part of the broad valley between the Niobrara and Dakota hogbacks. While visually significant from downtown Colorado Springs, this parcel would be surrounded by development and in all likelihood would not constitute a piece of open space that would draw many visitors.

The larger parcel would be in Sand Canyon on the far western side of the property beneath Crystal Hills. Although this land does connect to Section 16, a well-known and widely used open-space parcel, much of it is very steep and thus less usable by the average hiker. For the same reason, much of it would not be buildable -- a point surely not missed by the developer. Almost all of this western parcel falls in the second-desirability "B" category in the 1990 Thomas and Thomas evaluation.

The crown jewels -- Red Rock Canyon and Greenlee Canyon plus almost all of the other dramatic red rock outcroppings on the property -- would fall within the Zydeco development, much of it being a large, private golf course for the resort.

Public reaction to the Zydeco open-space offering has thus far been largely negative. The Trails and Open Space Coalition (TOSC, not to be confused with TOPS), the region's leading trails and open-space advocacy group, called the Zydeco open-space offering "insufficient" and "incompatible" with the TOPS committee's "original vision to preserve approximately 500 acres of the Red Rock Canyon as quality open space." Similar sentiments were expressed by Cheyenne Commons, the citizens group that led the campaign to save the Myron Stratton Open Space, and the Skyway Homeowners Association.

All of these groups argue against annexation of the property by Colorado Springs based on the present limited Zydeco open-space offering. The Manitou Springs City Council, the Manitou Open Space Committee and the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board have all passed resolutions endorsing the RRCC effort to save the maximum amount of quality open space on the Red Rock property.

In the coming months, the fate of the Zydeco open-space proposal, and ultimately of how much and what kind of open space is saved in Red Rock Canyon, will be in the hands of a rising chain of Colorado Springs advisory groups and decision makers -- the TOPS Working Committee, the Parks Advisory Board, the Planning Commission and, finally, the City Council.

A less expensive alternative to development

Because annexation is involved, the question is not simply one of open-space advocacy versus developer rights.

Local news media are prone to describe the Red Rock Canyon property in clichd and reductive terms. One frequently used phrase is "prime acreage" -- but prime acres for what purpose and whose benefit? The question is all the more critical when the "prime acres" are geologically and historically unique. Colorado Springs' annexation policy says a proposed annexation must be "beneficial to the City."

Locally there is an almost daily flow of news stories about the City's growing infrastructure backlog -- miles of new streets to maintain and repair; greater demands on schools, police and fire-fighting services; a dwindling ratio of snowplows to miles of road to cover. Does it make sense to annex Red Rock Canyon for development when at present only about 60 percent of the city's existing annexed area has been developed?

Even in purely economic terms, open space could be a more beneficial alternative to development for the city. In the past, fiscal impact studies have ignored the positive economic benefits of parks or open space to the community. However, it is a fact that people are willing to pay a larger amount of money for homes located near an attractive open space or park. One need look no further locally than the price of lots now being offered on the north side of the new Stratton Open Space to see this principle at work. The increase in home value means that owners of these properties will pay higher property taxes, representing a "capitalization" of open space.

More than two dozen studies support the premise that parks and open space contributed to an increase in "proximate property values," with a positive impact of up to 20 percent on property values. Because the cost of park maintenance is relatively small (and even smaller with open space) compared with the costs of infrastructure needs for new development, when the proximate value is added over a period of years, parks and open space can end up being a benefit not a cost. According to one study, "the incremental increase in revenues that governments receive from the higher property taxes is frequently sufficient to pay the acquisition and development costs of the amenities." This could be doubly true when the amenity is one of world-class quality and would draw tourists and their dollars as well.

More important, what is going to be most beneficial to our community in the future -- a hotel, golf resort and housing complex in Red Rock Canyon or having the land available as open space for a growing population? The Utilities Department, one of the most careful monitors of where we are headed, predicts a population of 800,000 in 40 years. Will the resources of our current foothill parks and open space -- and particularly the Garden of the Gods, which is already being "loved to death" by some 1.7 million visitors annually -- be adequate?

In considering the best possible use of Red Rock Canyon, we should also not overlook the deeper and more human need for spaces where we can both recreate and get away from it all as population densities grow. Western writer Wallace Stegner summed it up most beautifully: "As the country at large grows more stressful as a dwelling place, ... quiet, remoteness, and solitude ... become more and more precious to more and more people. It is a good question whether we may not need that silence, space and solitude for the healing of our raw spirits more than we need surplus cotton and alfalfa, produced for private profit at great public expense." Just substitute here "mega-resort and housing/business complex" for cotton and alfalfa.

Perhaps the time has come for us to shift the focus to future generations and to practice what had been called by one city forefather "posteritism." In an address delivered exactly 100 years ago at the dedication exercise of the Century Chest (the one we just opened) at Colorado College, Louis R. Ehrich called on his fellow citizens to remember that the "Garden of Eden lies before and not behind us." He called for "a consecration to Posterity." He defined "Posteritism" as "a sacred regard for the highest welfare of posterity" -- including "the loving preservation of every attractive feature and landmark of Nature."

Certainly, our generation has benefited from the farsighted "posteristism" of General William Jackson Palmer, who founded the city's park system with a gift of 1,000 acres of his own land, and his friend Charles Elliot Perkins who, inspired by Palmer's example, donated his 480 acres of the Garden of the Gods to the city. It is hard to believe both of these men would not come down squarely on the side of the preservationists when it comes to the future of Red Rock Canyon.

Open-space advocate Lee Milner stated the case for preservation this way: "What would Colorado Springs do today if it had the choice whether to add the formal garden part of the Garden of the Gods to the park system or allow it to become a private golf course? Which would it choose?"

The Utes take us most directly to the heart of the matter. As one Ute elder recently commented about the Garden of the Gods, in an observation that applies equally to Red Rock Canyon: "It's a cathedral. And you don't live in a cathedral."

-- This article first appeared in KIVA: The Journal of the Cheyenne Mountain Heritage Center. The Center can be reached at 632-7000 or info@cmhc-kiva.com. A resident of south Asia and Africa for 30 years, Ruth Obee now calls Colorado Springs home. She is the author of Es "Kia Mphahlele: Themes of Alienation and African Humanism, published in 1999.


To join the Red Rock Canyon Committee, or to receive The Red Rock Rag newsletter, contact committee chairman Joe Fabeck at 719/685-4251. Go to www.saveredrockcanyon.com for updated information about development and preservation issues surrounding the canyon.


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