Castlewood Canyon
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
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    Distance: 5.9 miles (loop)

    Walking time:  3 1/2 hours

    : 690 ft. loss/gain
       Lake Gulch Trailhead (start): 6,610 ft
       Castlewood Canyon Dam: 6,350 ft.

    Trail: Excellent, well marked trail

    Season: Year round. There may occasionally be some snow on the trail during the winter months.

    Vicinity: South of Denver

    Castlewood CanyonCastlewood Canyon


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    Thundering like a mountain on the move, the wall of water surged through Parker, tumbled down Cherry Creek toward suburban Denver. Logs, tree-trunks, tons of debris were swept along as the billion-gallon deluge widened out to more than a mile. Cherry Creek was a battering-ram of water, boiling over its embankments. At 7 oíclock it burst into Denver, ripped out six bridges in swift succession. Just ahead of it were police cars and fire engines, sirens a-scream, racing the residents to safety. A stampede of 5,000, many clad in night cloths, fled from the lowlands.
    Time Magazine, August 14, 1933

    This riveting article describes the wall of water that surged into Denver after the failure of the Castlewood Dam seventy-five years ago. Built in 1890, Castlewood Dam had been in service for 43 years when it ruptured. Two people were killed, but it would likely have been thousands had it not been for the actions of an alert telephone operator named Nettie Driscoll who was on duty that night 20 miles downstream. She was informed of the failure at about 2:00 a.m. by the dam caretaker, and managed to relay a warning to the Denver police before fleeing for her own life.

    Today about a third of the old dam still stands in Castlewood Canyon State Park on the west bank of Cherry Creek. This trail passes just below it. The canyon seems so tranquil now, but gazing up at the dam it isnít difficult to imagine the horror that existed on that fateful summer morning. The eastern half of the dam, some 300 feet of rock and concrete, were almost completely swept away.

    The Lake Gulch Trail winds very gently downward from the Canyon Point parking area for 0.9 mile before coming to a junction beside Cherry Creek. Initially the trail is about a hundred feet higher than the surrounding countryside, and the scene below is one of pastoral farmland. The meadow below is Lake Gulch; it used to be part of the lake behind the Castlewood Dam.

    When you reach the junction on the north side of Cherry Creek turn left, and within five minutes the ruins of Castlewood Dam will come into view in the bottom of the creek bed. Notice the lack of trees along this part of the hike. This area was underwater from 1890 until the dam broke in 1933. Soon you will come to another junction where the second loop trail begins. You can go around the loop in either direction, but I suggest you turn right and walk on the Rim Rock Trail first.

    Shortly after leaving the bottom of Cherry Creek the trail passes near the east shore ruins of the dam. The break must have occurred on the east side, since only a small piece of the dam remains on this side of the creek. When you reach the rim you will pass several fine vantage points for photographing the old dam. Try to be in this area in the morning when the sun is in the east.

    Another point of interest on the Rim Rock Trail is a large dead tree that stands prominently on the edge of Castlewood Canyon, near the southern end of the trail. This tree seems to be a favorite hangout for a flock of turkey vultures that live in the area, and two or three of the ungainly birds can almost always be seen perched over the rim on its branches. There are also a large number of hawks in the area that love to soar over the eastern side the canyon.

    The Rim Rock Trail follows the rim of the Castlewood Canyon for 1.5 miles before dropping back inside the canyon. Then, just after crossing Cherry Creek, it arrives at the northern junction with the Creek Bottom Trail. Turn left at the junction and continue along the creek back to the dam ruins. As you may have noticed, the forest on the top of the rim consists almost exclusively of juniper and Ponderosa pine, but in the shaded canyon there is also a lot Douglas fir. None of the trees in the canyon are very old though; the flood of 1933 must have destroyed all of the vegetation immediately below the dam.

    1.1 miles after passing a picturesque waterfall the trail once again arrives at the dam ruins. Looking up at the remains of the structure one canít help but be impressed by the work of the nineteenth century engineers. But there were some disastrous shortcomings in their design. Unlike modern dams, the Castlewood Dam was not arched, but rather built straight across the canyon; no excavation was done in the bottom of the streambed under the damís foundation; and the dam did not have an interior water barrier to prevent it from leaking.

    After leaving the dam the trail crosses back to the east side of Cherry Creek and soon passes the southern end of the Rim Rock Trail. 0.2 mile later it arrives at the Inner Canyon Trail where you should turn left for the final 1.2 miles back to the parking lot. The Inner Canyon Trail continues along a particularly scenic section of Cherry Creek before climbing out of Castlewood Canyon just south of the trailhead.


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