Our early October visit to the Paint Mines on the plains of Colorado was a last-minute change of plans after our weekend camping reservations got rained out. Scattered showers and thunderstorms, I can handle. An inch and a half (4 cm) of rain while tent camping, I cannot. It would’ve been a miserable weekend. So we headed out east instead to escape the downpour and explore this colorful slice of the flatlands.
Recapping our visit to the Paint Mines provides me with a good opportunity to recap some Leave No Trace (LNT) principles as well. Despite the numerous signs asking everyone to stay on the trails, we saw people walking atop these fragile formations, touching them, letting their kids climb on them, etc.
I know I’m not a parent, but I still know it’s never too soon to teach your kids to respect our wild places. My parents started teaching me this long before I can remember. As soon as I could walk on my own, they made sure I stayed on the trails. Until they could trust me to follow the rules, they insisted I hold their hand. There’s a time and a place to let your kids run free and burn off some energy, but an area full of fragile geological features is not it.
LNT states that we should leave our wild places exactly as we found them, which means taking nothing from them and leaving behind no evidence of our visits. This includes the obvious things like throwing out all trash, but it also includes things such as staying on trails to avoid leaving footprints in fragile areas or crushing plants, picking up dog poop to avoid contaminating the soil or water with bacteria from the waste that isn’t native to our wild places, and not playing music while hiking as it disturbs not only fellow adventurers, but also the local wildlife.
Some of the best LNT advice I’ve received recently is to keep in mind that wherever you are, whatever you do, you’re an example to someone. A person who is new to the area is going to look around and see what others are doing to help them determine how they should behave. If you’re trampling wildflowers, approaching animals, letting your dog run free, or stepping on fragile features, they’re going to assume it’s okay for them to do that, too. But if they see proper behavior being demonstrated – in nature or even on Instagram – they’ll be more likely to follow that behavior themselves and we can create a ripple effect.
Anyway, if you’re still with me I’m climbing down off my soapbox now to actually talk about the Paint Mines themselves. This small park is located in El Paso county, way out in the middle of nowhere. There are 2 gravel parking lots, a bathroom, a couple picnic tables, and not much else. It’s a very undeveloped park. It’s also free to visit.
We parked at the first lot and this is the one I would recommend; the other lot is further from the formations. From the parking lot, a trail leads out to a viewpoint above the formations and then down into the formations themselves. Once down to the base of the formations, you can really begin to see the colorful bands of clay for which the Paint Mines are named. Native Americans collected this clay for thousands of years and used the pigments to make colored paints. The yellow, orange, and purple bands are the result of iron and oxidized iron in the rocks, and the white is from the mineral selenite. The photos below are unedited and depict the actual colors of this area.
Trails weave through the valley floor and take you from one set of formations to another. Signs ask you to not leave the main trails… though it is admittedly difficult to determine which trails are supposed to be there and which have been added over time. To play it safe, we stayed around the edges of the formations and didn’t walk anywhere that required us to brush up against or step on them.
The Paint Mines are about 2 hours from Denver, out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not exactly conveniently located. But if you’re in the area, it’s a nice place to stop for a quick two hour visit to learn the history and see some pretty colors in amongst the barren plains of Eastern Colorado.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Paint Mines Interpretive Park is located about 2 hours southeast of Denver, just outside the tiny town of Calhan
- Fees and passes: none!
- Hiking: there are 4 miles (6.4 km) of trails in and around the Paint Mines, though the trails through the formations themselves can’t total much more than 1 mile (1.6 km)
- Where to stay: there’s no camping in the park and very few lodging options, as this is a very rural area; the closest city is Colorado Springs, about 45 minutes west
- Other: to learn more about Leave No Trace and their mission to preserve and protect our wild places, visit their website