ANCIENT HISTORY: Red Rock Canyon a window into prehistoric past

July 3, 2007
photo - Paleontologist Sharon Milito pointed out a dinosaur footprint just above her hammer last month at Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Paleontologists have found marine fossils: clams, the teeth of shell-crushing sharks and the large tail of a fish. Photo by (CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE)
Paleontologist Sharon Milito pointed out a dinosaur footprint just above her hammer last month at Red Rock Canyon Open Space. Paleontologists have found marine fossils: clams, the teeth of shell-crushing sharks and the large tail of a fish. Photo by (CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE) 
To hikers, bikers, dog walkers and climbers, the Red Rock Canyon Open Space on Colorado Springs’ west side is a place to get away, relax, push yourself, or get lost amid soaring rock formations.
To paleontologists, the canyon is much more. It’s an ancient seabed. A place to trace the footsteps of dinosaurs. To sift through volcanic ash. Collect shark teeth. It’s a window to the Pikes Peak region from 70 million to 300 million years ago. WHAT THEY’VE FOUND Paleontologists Sharon Milito and Michael Poltenovage are surveying the canyon — its shale, limestone and sandstone formations — for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, said Matt Mayberry, city cultural services director. They got off to a quick start. During her first visit, while on a lunch break, Milito made a dramatic discovery: a huge dinosaur footprint in the sandstone. “It’s my most exciting find,” Milito said. Since then, the pair have found more dinosaur prints and gathered and documented an array of marine fossils: clams, the teeth of shell-crushing sharks, the large tail of a fish and numerous imprints of nautiluslike ammonites. The fossils and imprints are from an outcrop that was the floor of an inland sea about 70 million years ago, Milito said. Glance at the ridge and see the ripples in the rock from the wave action of the sea. Seashells are embedded in the rock. Nearby, a sooty-looking pile of dirt cascades down a hillside like mine tailings. Milito dug into the deposit and revealed layers of dark and light soil. “This is volcanic ash,” she said. “It was deposited by volcanoes on the West Coast. It probably settled on top of the water and then was covered by the sea and a layer of shale. “Then another eruption brought another layer of ash. Then more shale. We are going to count the layers and see how many eruptions occurred.” On another ridge of older rock, boulders are covered with imprints of leaves and trees. Maybe this was a mangrove forest when the area was a tidal beach. “We’re learning that you can walk across millions of years in Red Rock Canyon just by walking through its ridges,” Mayberry said. “It’s very exciting research. And it will help us understand what this region looked like 70 or 80 million years ago when this area was an inland sea.” WHAT’S PLANNED Milito and Poltenovage are helping create a map that will be used to build trails for those who want to take a similar hike back in time. The agency hopes to use the information to develop interpretive trails through the open space, Mayberry said. “Two interpretive trails are planned — one focused on history and the other on geology, the rock formations, why they are here and what they mean,” Mayberry said. But the agency wants public help in laying out the trails and deciding how to present the canyon’s history, its flora and fauna, its ancient past. GET INVOLVED A series of two-hour public meetings will be held in the second-floor courtroom of the Pioneers Museum to discuss the findings and how the city should use the research. They are planned for July 12, 19 and 26, and Aug. 16 and 23, Mayberry said. The first meeting, at 6:30 p.m. July 12, will feature two presentations focusing on the history of Red Rock Canyon. “We want people to tell us what they are interested in seeing at the site, and how we deliver this information beyond basic signs,” Mayberry said. The city also wants ideas on how to direct people to dinosaur prints and other prehistoric relics while protecting them. Until a plan for protecting the prints, shark teeth and other fossils is developed, the city is not revealing exact locations. On July 26, the meeting will focus on geology with a presentation from Milito and Poltenovage on their research. Future meetings will discuss native cultures and the archaeology of the site, the biology of Red Rock Canyon and a wrap-up session, Mayberry said. Eventually, the research could become part of a book about “ancient Colorado Springs.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0193 or DID YOU KNOW? A 53-acre landfill was operated from 1970 to 1987 at the southern end of one canyon. Smokestacks vent methane gas from the buried witches’ brew that experts say will remain toxic and off-limits to people for decades. A trailer park and rental homes were in the park for years, closing in 2005. In 2003, open-space advocates persuaded Colorado Springs officials to buy the 789-acre property for $12.5 million. The Red Rock Canyon Open Space opened Oct. 29, 2004. DID YOU KNOW? The first pioneers laid claim to Red Rock Canyon in 1866. In the 19th century, stonecutters quarried huge chunks of the canyon’s 320-million-year-old red sandstone outcroppings. The 6-footsquare blocks were hauled out by railroad, on tracks laid deep into the canyon. The stone was used to build Colorado College, the Brown Palace in Denver and other buildings. Gold mills were built on the eastern edge of the property after the 1890 gold rush in Cripple Creek. John G. Bock started acquiring the property in 1923 and offered guided horseback tours in the canyon for decades. He and his family lived in the canyon.
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