One day in June 1994, Dale Campbell was riding his bike on Colorado 83 across the grasslands beyond Colorado Springs when suddenly the terrain warped.
Suddenly on the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, he realized he was crossing a canyon. What was prairie and sky became great walls of rock, a deep and narrow chamber carved by Cherry Creek.
“What’s going on here?” Campbell recalls thinking.
That was the first time he laid eyes on Castlewood Canyon State Park. And that was the moment that inspired his stewardship. Four years later, he was among forces pushing back against proposed development in the fields bordering the canyon. A group raised $100,000 toward preserving the land — a group that is now the Friends of Castlewood Canyon State Park, of which Campbell is president.
For two decades, he’s been spreading the word to all unaware city dwellers like himself once. To all fellow Springs residents who stick to the closer foothills. And to others living in Castle Rock and Parker, the population hubs on the canyon’s other peripheries.
For people in the know, “we tend to call it the jewel of the prairie,” Campbell says.
It hides out along wavy pastures where cows graze and pronghorn roam, out where the metro fades and America’s Mountain seems to loom even larger. The high peaks farther north hang in view, too. Though recently they’ve been shrouded in the polluted ozone — a reminder of how precious these fields are, unscarred, almost.
The hands of man have been all over Castlewood Canyon. Between prairie and pines, the “A.D. 1890” dedication stone for the dam can still be found with crumbled concrete. Engineered 83 feet thick at the base, 65 feet high, 630 feet long, the dam would be the life source for dairy farms and orchards spotting the valley. Like the Titanic in the next century, it would be mighty.
Then came the mightier rains on the night of Aug. 3, 1933. The dam broke.
The park keeps written recollections of the “wall of water” roiling toward Denver, the harried warnings to flee. “The smell of the flood,” one recalled, “you will never forget it.” Another remembered “a filthy baptism.” Some considered God merciful for only two people died, though entire herds were wiped out.
The park also maintains much sweeter memories of the lake that was. Families came on horses and Model Ts for afternoons of swimming and boating. It was an oasis on the arid plains, as surprising as the neighboring canyon that inspired rugged adventure. One reflected: “When you went into it, it seemed to say welcome back, but please take care of me.”
Those memories are on the visitor center shelf beside a modern appreciation by Gina Bernacchi. She writes of the four ecosystems miraculously existing here within 2,636 acres: the grassland and montane shrub lands, where spotted towhees kick brush looking for insects; the montane forest, where bigger birds make nests in canyon crevices and where deer also make home, on guard for mountain lions; and the riparian corridor, where lizards scamper. More than 250 plants survive on these fringes, adjusting for harsh climates: hot and dry summers, cold and windy winters.
All of it makes visiting the park like “going on a treasure hunt,” Bernacchi writes, “it is full of surprises just waiting to be discovered.”
There’s the 1894 homestead for Patrick and Margaret Lucas. Overlooking timeless, evergreen slopes, the ruins are beside the apple tree that still bears fruit 100 years after Patrick planted it. There’s the Creek Bottom Trail running here, leading to alpine-like wildness, a cascade tumbling out of the canyon.
Then there’s the Bridge to Nowhere, seen arching over the craggy rims. Longtime park volunteer Ron Claussen loves to listen to the water and imagine a bygone era.
“Of course,” he says, “the sad part now, you’re sitting there imagining what it was like, and you hear a semi-truck go down Highway 83.”
Things have gotten busier. Though easily missed, Castlewood Canyon feels the strain of preserves everywhere across the Front Range. On five occasions this year, parking lots have been full, says park Manager Brent Lounsbury. Visitation was up almost 40% from 2012 to 2017, when a record 168,000 visitors were counted.
Lounsbury hopes Leave No Trace ethics are reaching the new wave. “We want to do everything we can to keep the park the way it is or better,” he says.
“We,” including Campbell and the Friends group. The changes haven’t been enough to dissuade him from the canyon. On the contrary, the feeling is the same from that bike ride 25 years ago.
“It’s just an ongoing sense of discovery,” he says.