From Colorado Highway 94, Corral Bluffs doesn’t look like much, a gentle rise above the rolling prairie, lower or similar in elevation to the Waste Management landfill just to the east.
“I think I’ve seen this place before on my way to the dump,” said Dave Ryan, riding in a line of cars snaking across the grasslands on a recent Saturday.
But what appears to be just another roll in the prairie is actually one of the Pikes Peak region’s most important geological and archaeological features, a landscape of canyons, washouts, high bluffs and overlooks with views that seem to stretch forever.
Last year, El Paso County nearly made it a dirt bike park, a controversial prospect that galvanized opposition and paved the way for the Colorado Springs Trails and Open Space and Parks program to buy the land. Now, the public is getting a chance to explore it.
TOPS officials don’t know when Corral Bluffs will open to the public, but the city is allowing the citizens’ group Corral Bluffs Alliance to host guided tours this summer and fall.
A study commissioned by El Paso County showed that the bluffs area has been used by humans for centuries — from hunters in 6200 B.C. to 19th-century cowboys who corralled cattle there on the way to Denver’s stockyards — and the city won’t come up with a master plan for the area until more archaeological and paleontological studies being done of the area are complete.
The TOPS program, funded through a voter-approved sales tax, paid $1 million last fall for 522 acres that make up the heart of Corral Bluffs.
“I get the sense people are anxious to get in here. They would like to get in and see what they can find and see the scenery,” said Phyllis Cahill, a group member who led a hike July 11.
That hike, like the others the group has offered, was full. Eight more are planned through October. They are free and open to the public, but reservations are required.
“I’m always interested in finding new places to go and this seemed like a good one,” said hiker Tom O’Bryan. “We go hiking in the mountains quite often and it’s nice to go somewhere different.”
“I just thought this was an opportunity to see something new and it’s beautiful. It’s so exquisite, and I’m just so glad the city saved it,” said Cyndi Deswik, of Woodland Park.
“I’m always amazed at the beauty that’s right here on the plains,” she said.
As hikes in Colorado go, this is easy, short and dry. So why was Cahill wearing gaiters?
“Those are for snakes. I’ll be going first,” she said, as the group prepared to head from the already constructed trailhead into the prairie.
Sure enough, within 10 minutes, a rattlesnake forced the group to take a detour. Later, another delay occurred when a boy fell into a cactus.
The hike was about two miles, through a dry creek bed where layers of rock are exposed, up a cactus- and yucca-filled hillside to a bluff with long views and back down to a rounded canyon that American Indians may have used as a buffalo jump, luring buffalo over the side to kill them. The walk took about two hours.
During a hike in June, hikers found two arrowheads, which they had to leave since no one among them was an archaeologist, Cahill said.
Because such artifacts may be scattered around the bluffs, city officials say they won’t know what shape recreation will take until the scientific studies are complete.
“I would say this open space is quite unique from our other open spaces and parks,” said Chris Lieber, TOPS program director. “We know we have very fragile soils out there and paleontological and archaeological value, perhaps in higher concentrations than we have had in other properties. We want to be good stewards of that resource.”
Lieber expects to have public meetings later this year and a master plan for the open space done in the spring of 2010. He said he does not know when it will be open to the public. Since it has not been public land, there are few trails, and volunteers would be needed to build them.
Lee Milner, a member of the TOPS Working Committee who fought plans for a dirt bike park, envisions a trail through the canyon floor, up to the rim and around the rim, which he hopes would be a loop. But much depends on whether the city acquires more property for the open space, since the bluffs area extends well beyond the property bought by the city.
Lieber said there have been discussions about more acquisitions. He did not elaborate.
So for the near future, guided tours are the only way to experience Corral Bluffs.
Those who went July 11 left with a new appreciation for the unspectacular high ground they had seen only from the highway.
“It doesn’t look like anything from a distance until you get into it,” said Ryan, a hiker.
“Certainly it was worth all the effort it took to preserve it,” O’Bryan said.
• 8 a.m. Sunday
• 8 a.m. Aug. 1 — all spots are filled.
• 8 a.m. Aug. 2
• 8 a.m. Aug. 22
• 8 a.m. Sept. 5
• 1:30 p.m. Sept. 26
• 1:30 p.m. Oct. 3
• 10:30 a.m. Oct. 17
The hikes are free, but reservations are required. Send an e-mail to email@example.com or visit www.savecorralbluffs.com for details.