By Bill Plock
Golden, March 2023–The small one-engine plane droned loudly overhead under filtered sun. It would rise and almost stall. Then it quietly glided, nose slightly down, for a few seconds before the engine sputtered alive as it leveled off. I supposed that is some sort of emergency training.
I stood in the middle of South Table Mountain. Curious if the pilot chose this area to practice with its wide open flat top formed about 65 million years ago during a lava flow. It might look flat but there are plenty of undulations of rock that would make for a bumpy landing.
The plane kept climbing and stalling, the sputtering engine drone was annoying in this otherwise peaceful and majestic place. The plane’s peculiar behavior mirrored the history of this mountain. I reflected on the 50 years or so I have been exploring it as it continues to unveil questions about what has transpired here for decades, centuries, millennia really. It’s the ultimate historical striptease.
Every time I’m there I see or experience something that makes the journey memorable. It’s got a vibe, a little like the forbidden zone in Planet of the Apes, a little like an old Western movie sprinkled with a smidgeon of mystery from a true crime show. But with overarching nature and beauty.
Long before the area was invaded by gold seekers, native Ute’s conducted ceremonies and burials on top. Grapeshot thought to be from early Spanish explorers was found in 1895 and In 1869 a trail was cut to the top of Castle Rock.
Mysterious structures and piles of rubble, quarries, a shooting range, and utility poles poke out of the lunar landscape crisscrossed with 16 miles of trails. Bikers roll on gravel and mountain bikes. The smooth trails are also perfect for exploring on foot. Skyscrapers in Denver dot the Eastern horizon while the front range of the Rocky Mountains cascades to the West with the town of Golden nestled in the valley between South Table Mountain and Lookout Mountain.
The prominent Castle Rock on the western edge welcomes explorers to perch on top and view Golden and beyond (Castle Rock is on private land so stay on the trails). Castle Rock once housed a cafe built in 1906 and in 1913 visitors could ride a funicular to the top where a casino had been built. The scar from the rails is easy to see making a straight line on the north side of the rock formation.
By the 1920s the casino had turned into the Lava Lane, a whites-only dance hall offering jazz music and a place to congregate during Prohibition. Business faded and the building was taken over by Ku Klux Klan members as a meeting place. In 1923, almost a thousand white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan met at the summit of South Table Mountain. According to the Colorado Transcript, “A large fiery cross had been erected on the highest point of Castle Rock and it burned throughout the ceremonies, visible for several miles.” In 1927 the building burned to the ground.
In 1905 Camp George West was built on the south side of South Table Mountain and military maneuvers took place on top. In 1969 the Colorado State Patrol moved to Camp George West eventually building a testing track on top which is also used for bike racing in the summer. In the 1990s Nike attempted to purchase the land and wanted to build a 5,000-person office building, but they pulled out. Rumor has it they were just threatening to receive better tax advantages to stay in Oregon.
As a kid growing up on the eastern face of the mountain, most of it was off-limits to visitors. But thanks to Jeffco Open Space acquiring land over the years, most of it is now accessible–pay attention as some areas are still privately owned. There are seasonal closures in areas to protect raptor populations. Trailheads are found on the East, South and West sides of the mountain in neighborhoods and just east of the National Renewable Energy Lab. The north side is home to Rolling Hills Country Club with very limited access.
The approaches from the west and south sides rise gently from the parking areas and are more doable for gravel bikes than the steeper trail from Golden accessing Castle Rock. Once on top, trails make loops and circumnavigate most of the top edges with trails cutting through the middle. They are a combo of crushed rock and hardened dirt. With so many loops and fun, quick-hit hills to navigate you can piece together all kinds of routes that never get stale. Here is link to a map and regulations from Jeffco
You will see some mysterious things and in the summer be aware of the large population of rattlesnakes.
The plane finally left and flew east towards Denver. The songs of birds filled the air and a couple of deer emerged from the brush as my feet crunched the small pebbly path curiously looking at graffiti on the gun range I had never seen.