History of Clear Creek Canyon
Geology of the Canyon
From its headwaters near Loveland Pass to the mouth of the canyon Clear Creek drops more than a mile. The canyon is carved by the fast-flowing waters of Clear Creek in a complex array of ancient metamorphic and igneous rocks, chiefly gneiss, schist, and granite, the oldest of which are as much as 1.8 billion years old! These rocks are extremely resistant to erosion, but during the last 5 to 10 million years relentless down-cutting by the stream has produced the magnificent gorge and opened sweeping views over rolling plateaus, monumental rock cliffs and promontories, waterfalls, and creeks. Backed by the vistas of the snow-clad Continental Divide to the west and Denver’s city lights to the east, this world-class landform provides an unparalleled scenic resource.
The canyon walls are largely unspoiled and the magnificent grandeur of the canyon’s lower reaches rivals that of the Royal Gorge or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Parts of the Lookout Mountain Road and the areas around the Buffalo Bill Museum and the Lookout Mountain Nature Center stand nearly two thousand feet above the canyon floor and afford spectacular views where the visitor can appreciate the canyon’s beauty and ponder its geologic history.
Native Americans and Clear Creek
There is evidence that Clear Creek Canyon was settled by native groups for some time prior to the arrival of miners and European settlers to the area. The benches which parallel Clear Creek Canyon and the foothills and the valleys beyond were the hunting grounds and travel routes for Arapahoe and Ute Indians. Several prehistoric sites are recorded in the area. Tales are told of Native American religious rites on Centennial Cone, a well known landmark, and of sacred underground crystal caverns. A travois trail long-used by the Arapaho people in their travels from the plains to the mountains and back can clearly be seen crossing several hills in the Centennial Cone property. Utes lived in the area as late as the 1870s.
Mining and Railroads
Clear Creek Canyon links the first territorial capital, Golden, with the oldest mining areas in the state, Black Hawk, Central City, Georgetown, and Idaho Springs. The route of the first railroad to penetrate the Rockies lies here too.
By September of 1871, men were at work blasting grading for the rail bed. By December 1872, the Colorado Central Railroad, the first narrow gauge railroad to penetrate the Rockies, was completed to Black Hawk. Six years later, the line was completed to Central City.
For over 50 years, a ride on the railroad up Clear Creek Canyon was the most popular one-day excursion in Colorado. The most famous of the stations along the route was at Beaver Brook. On a cliff overlooking the track was a dancing and picnicking pavilion, reached by a long staircase. It was a favorite night-out for Denverites.
The railroad was removed after World War II as construction began on Highway 6. While most of the railroad bed was covered over by the road alignment, at the bends in the creek where tunnels were constructed, the railroad bed remains largely intact.
Saving Clear Creek Canyon has been going on for over a century! In addition to the Conservancy, Jefferson County’s nationally recognized Open Space Program and Denver Mountain Parks have made it a top priority. Nearly 10,000 acres (15 square miles) are already preserved in open space, in an excellent example of public-private partnerships. This means that over 50% of the Canyon ecosystem is currently under preservation.
It all began back in 1912, when the City and County of Denver “looked to the hills” and acquired their first and largest mountain park – Genesee Park. This was quickly followed by Buffalo Bill’s Grave (Lookout Mountain Park) in 1917 and the Beaver Brook Trail in 1919.
Northwoodside Inc., nonprofit land trust created by Carla and Pat Coleman, was founded in 1967. In 1986, Northwoodside donated its holdings to CCLC and became it’s original land benefactor. Today, CCLC holds conservation easements on 2,000 acres of land and owns more than 650 acres.
CCLC has worked in conjunction with Jefferson County Open Space, Denver Mountain Parks, Clear Creek County Open Space, Gilpin County, and others to expand the vision of conservation in Clear Creek. As we look to the future, CCLC has supported efforts for completion of the Clear Creek County Greenway and is always looking to expand conservation easement holdings in the area.