2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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"THE RICHEST SQUARE MILE ON EARTH:" 

Including Golden Gate Canyon State Park,
Dory Hill Campground, & the Old Mining Towns  
of Central City & Black Hawk

FRIDAY, JUNE 4

"Green mountain meadows, lush aspen groves, and pine-covered hills greet you at
Golden Gate Canyon State Park, 16 miles northwest of Golden. With more than 12,000 acres
of beauty ranging in elevation from 7,600 to 10,400 feet, Golden Gate offers a variety
of outdoor recreation opportunities within a one-hour drive of the Denver area."
 
- from the Golden Gate Canyon SP brochure and trail map
 
 

Until Jim began researching the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50K, we'd never heard of this beautiful state park. It's a gem (that's part pun, since it's in gold country). We haven't visited very many of Colorado's state parks over the years, but we might start adding more of them to our list of warm-weather destinations after seeing how nice this one is.


View of the Continental Divide from one of many vista points in the Dirty Thirty race (photo by Jim)

This relatively new event, which includes 7- and 12-mile races in addition to the 50K distance, is run on mostly single-track trails within the park. Although Golden Gate Canyon SP has one campground that accommodates RVs, it is located significantly farther from the race start/finish than a private campground Jim found on the internet: Dory Hill CG.

In this entry I'll talk about the park, the campground where we stayed, and some of the mining and other history of the area that lies in sort of a triangle between Golden, Idaho Springs, and Nederland. I'll write a separate entry about the race and show course photos that Jim and I took.

GETTING THERE

Gold seekers had a tougher time than we did to get from the foothills of Colorado Springs and over the mountains to Black Hawk and Central City back in the 1860s. It's a hilly trek but at least we had nice paved roads to follow! We determined that our easiest route from the USAF Academy would be I-25 north to I-470 around the southwestern part of metro Denver, then west on I-70 to US 6 just past Golden, CO.

After climbing out of the Denver 'burbs we could see Mt. Evans to the south and the beautiful snow-covered peaks that form the Continental Divide in front of us:

Although we wouldn't be crossing the Divide yet, those peaks would form a backdrop to our activities the next few days.

We exited the freeway at US 6, a winding canyon road that quickly led us to the intersection with CO 119, AKA the "Peak to Peak Scenic Highway." We quickly climbed through a cool, shaded gulch with high rock walls and wildlife warnings (below)

to the little town of Black Hawk, which seems to be primarily modern casinos. We'd come back the next day to explore Black Hawk and adjacent Central City a little more.

Our destination that day was the Dory Hill Campground, located five miles farther northeast on CO 46. 

DORY HILL CAMPGROUND

Dory Hill is a privately-owned campground half a mile off CO 119 and about seven miles from the entrance to Golden Gate Canyon State Park. It sits at a lofty 9,227 feet elevation. In addition to about thirty RV and tent sites with water and/or 30-amp electric hookups, there are also a dozen cabins with electricity that visitors can rent.

We were able to get one of the few pull-through RV sites but had to back up to get out of it. That wasn't a problem; it would have been if someone had been parked behind us that was using a nearby cabin (that's us in the next photo, with two cabins to the left of the truck).

There were a few other sites large enough for our rig. The one we liked best was taken when we got there. You can make reservations if you know ahead of time which particular site you want. Since this was our first time there and we didn't know which site would be best, we made reservations but the campground owners chose the site we'd use.

Our site was $28/night, which is more than we like to pay but less than many private campgrounds nowadays, especially ones in popular tourist areas like this. Tent sites with water but no electricity are $26/night (yikes!). Cabins with electricity are $45/night and guests must supply their own sleeping bags and pillows. All these are base rates for two people and one vehicle per site or cabin; additional people and/or vehicles cost more.

The campground has an office with basic supplies, a game room, and books/magazines to borrow, a laundry, bathroom, beer store, and fuel pumps we didn't use, and a dump station we did use on the way out. Although we didn't have a Verizon cell phone signal for calls or broadband internet access, we could get WiFi on Jim's laptop and a few stations on the TV.

This evening I was seated at my computer and facing in a different direction when Jim told me to go outside and look. It "looked" like the nearby mountain was on fire!

Ironically, there is a fire station right across the road from the campground but no fire trucks were needed tonight. The intense colors were only the setting sun reflecting off the clouds.

Notice another person out there taking pictures in the photo above? I'm not the only one . . .

.

I took a series of half a dozen pictures of the dramatic sunset as it morphed from primarily fiery  yellows to equally intense oranges across half the sky.

GOLDEN GATE CANYON STATE PARK

Curious about the area, we took a little driving tour today in three different directions from the campground to find the race start, see part of the Peak to Peak Scenic Highway, and try to find Jim a hamburger in Black Hawk or Central City.

We reached one edge of Golden Gate Canyon State park on CO 46 less than four miles from Dory Hill. The visitor center and Crawford Gulch Road, which leads to the start/finish of the Dirty Thirty race, is a few miles farther east past Kriley and Slough ponds. Both ponds appear to be popular with anglers.

 

Our first stop in the park was the very nice visitor center, above.

Adjacent to the entrance deck is a trout pond where visitors can enjoy some solitude on a short trail, but not fish. With a Colorado fishing license you can fish in all the other ponds, lakes, and creeks in the park, however.

Inside the visitor center are numerous exhibits about the history of the area, the plants and wildlife found here, and recreational opportunities in the park. We spent about twenty minutes reading interpretive materials and looking at old photographs.

WILDLIFE AND RECREATION

Golden Gate Canyon State Park is "rich" in wildlife, so rich that controlled public hunts are permitted during certain seasons. You can find information about hunting elk (below) and other critters at the park office or on the web site.

Besides hunting and fishing, other popular recreational activities in the park include hiking, running, biking, horseback riding, picnicking, and camping.

The park has thirty-five miles of trails ranging from less than one mile long to almost seven miles long. They vary in difficulty from moderate to "most difficult" and can be combined in many ways for longer distances, as they are in the Dirty Thirty race. Some trails are for foot travel only. Others are for hikers, runners, cyclists, and equestrians.


Along the Mountain Lion Trail

The twelve trails are each named for an animal native to the area and are cleverly marked on trail signs and maps with the animal's footprint:

All twelve species except buffalo (bison) -- and maybe burros? -- still live in the park: in alphabetical order they are beaver, black bear, blue grouse, buffalo, burro, coyote, elk, horseshoe hare, mountain lion, mule deer, raccoon, and snowshoe hare.

You can get a good trail map at the visitor center or online. This one is too small to read but gives you an idea of the layout of the park. Trails are in red and green. The hash-marked portion in the middle of the map is private property the state hasn't been able to purchase for public use.

The park has a number of event facilities, including the Red Barn Group Picnic Area that will be used in the Dirty Thirty race. It also has 125 individual picnic sites, two campgrounds, several backcountry campsites and shelters, several cabins and yurts, and a ranch guest house.

The race course passes several of the remote backpacking campsites, at least one shelter (below),


Shelter #4 on the Mountain Lion Trail

and the guest house. The campgrounds and cabins are accessed off a different road and we haven't seen them.

Since bears are present in the park, all backcountry campers are supposed to hang their food up high like this in "bear bags" so the critters don't hang around the campsites and pose safety concerns:

After we left the visitor center we drove several miles farther on Crawford Gulch Road through park and private property and back on park property again until we came to the Red Barn Group Picnic Area on the eastern side of the park.

The race will start on the road near the Red Barn. Runners will go uphill through this large parking area and proceed up the Mountain Lion Trail, which starts just to the right of the blue truck below:

During the race, that parking area will be packed with runners' vehicles.

At the end of their races runners will descend from Windy Peak to a different trail head closer to the finish line, follow the dirt access road past this rock formation (below), and finish where they started on Crawford Gulch Road:

They will get to enjoy lots of beautiful mountain and valley views along the way!

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Local natural resources have attracted humans to the Front Range and Golden Gate area for at least 12,000 years. The earliest known inhabitants were big-game hunters at the end of the last glacial period; they hunted bison and mammoths from about 12,000 to 7,500 years ago.

When the climate warmed, the indigenous people had to change their lifestyle to one of hunting and gathering different sources of food. They relied on bison, elk, deer, rabbits, other small mammals, and plant-based foods for their subsistence (about 7,500 to 900 years ago). Most of those plants and all of the animals except bison are still found in the area today.

Well, maybe not that one. He's preserved in the visitor center but his siblings continue to roam the rocks and mountains in the park.

A succession of Indian tribal groups began inhabiting or using the area at least 400 years ago. The Utes have the longest history here. Other tribes, including the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, primarily lived in the Plains but also made use of various resources in the foothills and mountains.

As the settlement and development of Colorado by non-Native Americans progressed, tribes were removed. By the 1880s the last of the free-roaming tribes were placed on reservations.

THE RICHEST SQUARE MILE?

Apparently it was for a little while.

Back in 1859 John Gregory discovered gold about five miles from Golden Gate Canyon State park in what soon became known as Gregory Gulch. Hordes of prospectors swarmed the area, building little mining camps along the precipitous canyon walls. Per the 2010 AAA Colorado-Utah TourBook (p. 48), "Although later eclipsed by the lodes at Cripple Creek, the gold dug from Gregory Gulch amounted to more than $67 million."

The most direct route to the gold mines, according to the exhibit (above) in the park visitor center, was up the canyon from Golden City, a supply town located at the entry to the canyon. Within a month after Gregory's discovery, the "Golden Gate Canyon Toll Road" opened for business.

Ha! It didn't take long for someone to figure out how to make some bucks without having to dig for gold. Just charge everyone else who wanted to do it! As many as 5,000 people per month paid the toll to struggle over the rugged fifteen miles of "road" by foot or in wagons or stage coaches. One of the stage stops was on land now in Golden Gate Canyon State Park at the top of Smith Hill Gulch.

How rough was that road? One account described the experience as "incredible that any animal less agile than a mountain goat could reach the summit." The road was so steep that a half-ton wagon required a 20-ox team to pull it to the top. Huge green trees were used as a drag to slow the wagons on their descent.

Sounds to me like it'd easier to hike or ride a horse up and down that bumpy road than ride in a wagon or stage coach. Ouch!

MINING CAMP LEGACY

Central City and Black Hawk are apparently the only two mining camps in this area that have survived to this day. Each now has a population of about 500 and 100 people, respectively.

Black Hawk, located right on Hwy. 119,  is essentially a place to lose your money in a bunch of casinos! When I looked up the town in the AAA TourBook to quickly learn more about its history (since I had no internet connection to do a web search), all I found was a list of ten gambling establishments!

We don't play lotteries or gamble, so no thanks (well, unless you count staying invested in the stock market during these turbulent economic times!).

Central City (above and below) is more interesting to us. It has a National Historic District with a preserved 1870s main street and Victorian homes dotting the hillsides.

 

 

Central City has several other redeeming features like museums and an opera house. The summer Opera Festival has attracted patrons from around the state for about eighty years. Visitors can take guided tours of the opera house, Gilpin History Museum, Thomas Historical House, and probably some other buildings not listed in the AAA tour guide.

I took all these "windshield" shots in Central City either while Jim was driving or while I was driving (!) after I let him out to get a Subway sandwich. We couldn't find either a fast-food hamburger joint or a free parking space so I just circled around the historic area while Jim waited for his turkey sandwich. I made mental notes of which streets I'd like to walk if we're ever in the vicinity again. I'd like to see more of the architectural details.

Oh, yes. Central City has its fair share of casinos, too, like Fortune Valley (above) but they are mostly in vintage buildings and not as gaudy as those in Black Hawk.

THE DIVIDE

During this three-pronged drive we also went north a few miles to see whether the "Peak to Peak Scenic Highway" would be suitable for hauling our camper from the area this weekend (next destination: the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming).

Despite some road construction it looks like CO 119 will be a good route for us to follow to Nederland and beyond. I loved tracking east of the Continental Divide:

 

This is a very scenic area to visit, with plenty of recreational activities and more sedentary ones, too, in a large circle including Golden, Idaho Springs, Mt. Evans, Nederland, and Boulder. Dory Hill CG advertises that it's also convenient to Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. It's not. You can find plenty of places to stay that are closer to those points of interest.

Next entry: the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty race

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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