Colorado’s Surprising Eastern Plains

Text and photos by Jack Olson

Paint Mines Interpretive Park on Colorado's Eastern Plains
Gaunt yet colorful terrain in Paint Mines Interpretive Park on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. © Jack Olson

Colorado has the highest average elevation of any state in the country, even including Alaska. Colorado is all mountains. Right? Wrong! About a third of the state is prairie; some regions are near 3,000 feet elevation. 

One of the most surprising and unique areas of Colorado is Paint Mines Interpretive Park, named for the colorful bands of clay that were used by early American Indians to make paint. Fifty-five million years ago this area was a region of tropical forests. Now, animals including coyotes, hawks, rabbits, and falcons call it home.

As much as 9,000 years ago indigenous people lived in this area and used red, yellow, and white clay, created from oxidized iron compounds, for pigments, pottery, and bricks. There are about four miles of trails throughout the hoodoos, spires, and ravines, plus a parking area, restroom, and interpretive signs.

Paint Mines Interpretive Park on Colorado's Eastern Plains
Ochre colors in Paint Mines Interpretive Park. © Jack Olson

Hikers are instructed to stay on the trails and not climb on the geological formations. Pets, horses, and bicycles are prohibited. The park is open daily dawn to dusk, with free admission. To get there take U.S. 24 east from Colorado Springs about 30 miles to Calhan, turn south onto Yoder Road/Calhan Highway, then east onto Paint Mines Road and watch for the designated parking area. More information is available in the parks section of the El Paso County website (, phone 719-520-7529.

When I’ve visited Paint Mines in the past, my friends and I were the only people to be seen. I like to explore and had heard about this colorful area. Now, Paint Mines has been somewhat publicized, but I don’t think you will find the 750 acres crowded.

St. Mary’s Holy Dorition Orthodox Church
St. Mary’s Holy Dorition Orthodox Church on the plains east of Colorado Springs, in Calhan, CO. © Jack Olson

Additionally, in the town of Calhan, you will find St. Mary’s Holy Dormition Orthodox Church. An active church community, this is the only such denomination in Colorado. Just north of the active church is the previous church structure and cemetery. Look for the distinctive crosses atop the churches – traditional Russian Orthodox crosses, with three horizontal crossbeams, the lowest one slanted.