Colorado Paint Mines - A hill covered in colored rocks
Feature Articles

Paint Mines congestion treads on Mother Nature

County setting up a master plan to mitigate issues

A nearly $200,000 planning process has begun in an effort to improve and protect the geological beauty and archaeological significance of the Paint Mines Interpretive Park near Calhan. 

The 750-acre park, famous for its colorful clay formations and rich history, has experienced a significant increase in visitation initially sparked by the pandemic and carried on by social media popularity, which has caused an increase in site management issues that can’t be ignored.

Vandalism, visitor congestion, unintended park uses such as rock climbing and creating social trails, and overall degradation to natural features have occurred as a result of the surging site traffic. 

Colorado Paint Mines - A hill covered in colored rocks

“Now we have all these visitors coming out and through social media — the very thing that is attracting people to the site — we’re also seeing behaviors that are not acceptable,” said Ross Williams, El Paso County Parks planner. “We’re seeing people sitting on top of rock formations. We’re seeing photos of people blatantly rock climbing, even with signs that state ‘DO NOT CLIMB’ in the foreground of the photos.” 

Williams said most of the time people don’t visit with intentions to harm anything, and that points to the importance of educating park users about park rules. 

“Leave no trace, take nothing but memories and pictures, stay on the trail,” Williams said. “I guarantee in all cases people will enjoy all of our parks from the trail without having to venture off.”

He said the county doesn’t expect to see crowds decline to anywhere near what they were pre-pandemic, so the new master plan is timely.

“We just knew we had this wonderful site that we didn’t want to see fall into a state where we had to close it,” Williams said. “So, it was like, ‘We need to move forward now.’ And a master plan is the first step to making sure we’re addressing everything that needs to be addressed.” 

A close-up of a rock formation

For nearly two decades, the park has been managed through numerous plans from a simple interpretive display plan to baseline and archaeological reports for the site and one management plan written many years ago. Williams described the master planning process as combining all of those plans into one comprehensive plan, then modernizing it with the expectation that the Paint Mines will continue to see more use over the coming years. 

The process is currently in the beginning stages and is expected to span over the next 14 months. 

El Paso County is tackling these issues head-on with the help of DHM Design, a landscape architectural firm contracted to create a master plan for the Paint Mines. 

DHM Design held its kickoff meeting with El Paso County in early February, where the team reviewed overall project goals, a schedule and the next steps for the first phase of the project, which is data collection and analysis. 

The thorough master planning process will include tasks such as reviewing existing literature, learning the site, interviewing stakeholders, collecting feedback from public meetings and more.  

“It’s going to be a really fun process and we encourage the public to get involved when we have the public meetings,” Williams said. “Sometimes, all it takes is one person’s suggestion to help change the nature of the recommendations.” Williams said Falcon and Peyton residents make up a large number of the park’s visitors. 

A close-up of a rock formation

“As the plan goes, the team will take all of that information and put it together and that’s when they will finally come out with the recommendations and the final master plan. Then, implementation comes after the master plan,” Williams said. 

The specific improvements that will develop out of the master plan are unknown at this time, but Williams said that it’s safe to assume some of the first recommendations that will be implemented will have to do with crowd control. 

The county is turning to other high-traffic parks with similar fragility to the Paint Mines, such as Yellowstone National Park, Badlands National Park, the Everglades, and even some parks in densely populated Japan to be their guiding example. “We look at some of the things they’ve done — things as simple as fencing to boardwalks to combinations of boardwalks and fencing to designated overlooks,” Williams said. “We’re looking to those parks to see what they’ve done and what has been successful.”

DHM Design has a variety of these types of locations in their portfolio. Bill Neumann, DHM Design president and managing principal, said, “DHM has worked on numerous projects focused on sensitive natural areas that have seen a marked increase in popularity and visitation in recent years. We have found the key to a successful project similar to this is to align planning efforts with client goals and community feedback.” 

Other improvement ideas the county would like to see include revamped parking and improved site security through the possible use of security gates at each entrance. 

Three snow covered rock formations in the desert

Williams said, “We’re looking at things that are not only for visitor comfort and enjoyment, but also for crowd control and balancing the two so folks don’t feel restricted; and, at the same time, they aren’t harming anything without knowing it.” 

Site conservation and preservation are the county’s top goals, so they have already taken action to implement the groundwork for some urgent and necessary improvements.

Financial support from organizations like Lyda Hill Philanthropies, the El Pomar Foundation and Next Era Energy Resources have allowed the county to complete updates to the park, such as fencing installations, signage, revegetation and improvements to reroute major trails and cut off trails where people navigated to the formations in ways that were never intended. Two on-site volunteers have also been added for the warmer months in an effort to educate visitors about the park’s significance and the rules of staying on the trail and leaving no trace.   

“Just implementing those measures themselves, we’ve already seen improvements and we know the master plan is going to help us move forward to that next level to preserve and conserve the site for generations,” Williams said.

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