Castlewood State Park

castlewoodsunflower084The Aster family dominates summer in a unique Colorado geography

All plant families have their champions. The rose family arrives perfumed, dressed in scarlet colors. The mint family includes basil and thyme–great additions to world cuisine. But for sheer success, the daisy or aster family takes center stage. Once called Compositae, that vast collection has been enfolded by botanists into the Asteraceae family. Not only does it include asters, daisies and sunflowers, but also lettuces, dandelions, thistles, marigolds, gazanias, artichokes and a host of others. Most botanists will look at the Asteraceae family as one of nature’s most successful flowering families and born to be a hit in the wild or domestic garden. Outside the tropics, they dominate; some loved and others loathed.

Wild Asteraceae may not appear as showy as the garden sunflower, but many share a unique characteristic. The head of the flower is made up of tiny florets clustered in the center. Two kinds of flowers, the disk and ray appear as a single flower. On a daisy head, the clustered disk is really hundreds of single flowers grouped together. The ray, or petal, is also a single flower. This explains why many coneflowers may have no petals at all. Their cone is the clustered disk florets only. The ray flower has disappeared. Some, like chicory or dandelion, have ligulate flowers, or rays only, with a tiny fringe at the edge. To our eyes, they look much like their brethren daisies unless we study them closely.

castlewoodwinecups074One theory for this successful botanical architecture is that the family enticed pollinators by concentrating their tiny flowers together. Perhaps the brighter color appealed to the bees and butterflies passing by and those daisies were assured of thorough pollination. There’s a midway plant, the many-headed grounsel attempting to appear large and showy. The tiny flowers cluster together as if they are planning to look a bit more impressive on a single stalk.

However they developed this singular characteristic, you’ll see the signs of the brash and bountiful family in thistles and chrysanthemums, zinnias and calendulas, yarrows and chicory. In the wild gardens of Colorado, daisies abound from the prairies to timberline. The old-man-of-the-mountain, a pumped up bright yellow daisy atop Mount Evans belongs in the same family as the prairie coneflower. Both cheerful yellow faces dominate their landscape but each survives in remarkably different environments. This alpine sunflower also demonstrates a trait common with sunflowers: heliotropism. On any summer day on Mt. Evans, or other Colorado alpine environments, you’ll see the sunflower face east as if facing the sun, a trait that fascinated the ancient Aztecs, too. Devotees of sun worship have always found a kindred spirit in sunflowers.

This vast family blankets our mountains, adapts to our home gardens and defines the prairies. At any time of year, there is a dominant wildflower in the Asteraceae family that spreads rampantly alongside paths. A few are not obvious. The white or rosy pussytoes, a ground cover that grows in dry areas of scree and pebbles, may look nothing like a daisy, but it belongs in the same family. Clustered pink or white florets that appear similar to a kitten’s paw conform to the same organization as a sunflower—these small flowers that have clumped together have a bit more clout when grouped. Spotted gayfeather, too, with its spike of lavender florets looks nothing like a daisy but belongs in this family.

castlewoodriver128Others are obvious. The black-eyed Susans, common annual sunflowers, blanket flowers, oxeye daisy, mule-ears, heart-leaved arnica, goldenrod, leafy aster, these bright yellow daisies in midsummer are followed by autumn purple asters covering hillsides and roadways. With their coarse stems and rough leaves, many are lumped together as weeds. A couple–Canada thistle and diffuse knapweed–are invasive thugs. Like the dandelion, they hug the roadsides of disturbed soil, where their aggressive qualities prevail. But unlike the dandelion, which is entirely edible, Canada thistle and diffuse knapweed cause only misery for most creatures that try to eat them.

Such a vast family has provided food and medicine since ancient times. They’ve been cultivated for agriculture and ornamental gardens. Chamomile for soothing stomachs, sunflower seeds for oil, lettuces for salads. The Asteraceae family dominates much of the world’s temperate zones. So while you may miss the brief flowering season of wild orchids, be comforted by knowing that some member of the daisy family is blooming from spring to late fall.

A selection of wild regional Asteraceae:

Pearly everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea
Littleleaf pussytoes Antennaria parvifolia
Rosy pussytoes Antennaria rosea
Pasture sagebrush Artemisia frigida
Chocolate flower Berlandiera lyrata
Rabbitbrush or Chamisa Chrysothamnus nauseosus
Plains coreopsis Coreopsis tinctoria
Trailing fleabane Erigeron flagellaris
Showy fleabane Erigeron speciosus
Gaillardia Gaillardia aristata
Little sunflower Helianthella quinquenervis
Maximilian’s sunflower Helianthus maximilianii
Showy goldeneye Heliomeris multiflora
Old-man-of-the-mountain Hymenoxys grandiflora
Hoary tansyaster Machaeranthera canescens
Blackfoot daisy Melampodium leucanthum
Yellow coneflower Ratibida columnifera
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
Basin butterweed Senecio multilobatus
Smooth goldenrod Solidago missouriensis
Showy goldenrod Solidago speciosa
Spotted gayfeather Liatrus punctata
Stemless townsend daisy Townsendia exscapa
Prairie zinnia Zinnia grandiflora

Destination Hike: Castlewood State Park in autumn–Where Prairie And Mountains Collide

castlewoodvista161When autumn arrives in Colorado, leaf lookers hasten to the mountains to catch the glow of red and gold provided by aspen trees. In contrast, at the Black Forest southeast of Denver, autumn brings a quiet beauty of its own, far more subtle but just as beguiling. Castlewood Canyon State Park is the destination to catch the last of summer for a prairie terrain. Here is where the Asteraceae family reigns.

Sunflowers arch over high summer grasses exposing a wide-open sky as storms roll in from the west. Wild roses have exchanged summer blossoms for autumn red hips. Chokecherries ripen into purple clusters. Yellow prairie coneflowers mix with Indian blanket flowers, scarlet gilia, orange globe mallow, spotted gayfeather and clusters of prairie winecups. A breeze ripples waves in a sea of golden grasses. But it’s the sunflowers that stand tall, as high as the grasses, facing east.

castlewoodchokecherries068It’s not known how the Black Forest got its name. Perhaps it reminded an immigrant of the Black Forest in Germany. Or, perhaps the ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs appear black against the prairie background when viewed from a distance. The name has stuck, designating a plateau of flat mountains that dates to ancient times when floods carved canyons and seas covered thousands of acres. A huge explosion by Mount Princeton blew out volcanic ash and lava, which, at over 2,000 degrees and traveling 160 miles per hour, covered Castlewood. That was 36.7 million years ago.

The remnants are visible today. Rocks that make up the canyon are called Castle Rock conglomerate, a mix of sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks pressed together. Huge rocks and boulders are studded with other rocks like raisins stuffed into dough. The beautiful Castle Rock rhyolite stone that was quarried for Victorian homes like the Molly Brown House juts out distinctly with sharp angles and facets. Swirls and dips in the softer stone create the look of a beach, as if small creatures could be living in tide pools.

castlewoodtidepools063But this Colorado beach changed from salt to fresh water millions of years ago and now it’s nearly the only place on the Front Range where pines grow without being planted. The scenery also varies dramatically from the Rockies. These mountains are flat on top, pockmarked by the cross beds that geologists from around the world arrive to study. Much of this area remains a mystery to scientists. “No one knows how those long cracks in the rocks were made,” an interpretative ranger says, as we walk along the canyon’s rim. “The cross beds were formed from a floodplain, while the canyon was formed by flashfloods,” he adds. Now the pockets of fresh water are the birthing rooms for the tiny chorus frogs. “They’re so noisy,” he says, “for such small creatures,” perhaps to make the most of their short life span.

Castlewood is home to bears, lions, coyotes, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, a couple of bobcats, skunks, deer, porcupines and birds. Blue bird enthusiasts have constructed special wood homes that stand starkly in the landscape atop posts. Indigo bunting and blue-gray gnatcatchers in the scrubland are complemented by American kestrels and red-tailed hawks, which patrol the prairie. Western tanagers and broad-tailed hummingbirds lodge in the park while yellow warblers and American dippers choose the river’s edges.

A Western female tanager provides a flash of bright yellow in a ponderosa pine and even a great horned owl can be glimpsed on occasion. “Find a dead skunk and there’s a great horned owl nearby,” the ranger says with a grimace, “they’re the only thing that will eat a skunk.”

castlewoodpockedwall003Standing on a plateau with an elevation of 6,613 feet, you’ll recognize that several ecosystems blend gradually within the 2,303 acres of park. Sculpted mountains are home to firs and pines. Flat grasslands mix short grass prairie with cacti and wildflowers. The river at the base of the canyon is thick with willows. And the scrubland at the canyon’s rim is lined with mountain mahogany and gambel oak. The gambel oak looks like a shrub at the rim with multiple trunks spread to catch water. At the canyon bottom, the oaks become trees with one large trunk.

To the south Pikes Peak appears in a cloudy sky. Long’s Peak marks the north, with Mount Evans evident, too. The plateau provides a view nearly to Kansas. When storms sweep in, the drama of lightning and thunderclouds unfolds. Once during a lightning storm the ranger shared a cave with a coyote that turned out to be shy, like most of the animals in the park. “Even the rattlesnakes are shy here,” he says, as are their more commonly found look-alikes, the bull snakes.

castlewoodpockedwall003Bull snakes are non-poisonous, but not without defenses. Nature provided them with a brilliant camouflage. With nearly the same coloration as rattlesnakes, the bull snake comes equipped with stripes that look similar to the rattles of rattlesnakes. Predators won’t take a chance trying to distinguish the two. But bull snakes are gentle souls with humans, if not rodents. They’re nearly always on a dinner quest for field mice.

In a canyon of mild elevation where the rocks are filled with small caves, it’s no surprise that wildlife would find shelter. Pack rats, bats, cliff swallows, canyon wrens and bobcats find the caves appealing. There’s also evidence that ancient humans found shelter in these caves, too. A few stone artifacts have turned up and the remains of a buffalo kill with heaps of buffalo bones found a few miles east of the park lend credence to their presence. Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be one of the early barbecue pits that date from 5,000 years ago. They were not tribes as we might think of them but family groups that banded together, perhaps cooking together.

Poison ivy, turning red in the autumn light, signals its irksome presence. The acorns of the gambel oaks have been eaten, with shells strewn upon the ground. And decimated chokecherries indicate that bears have eaten their fill. With shorter days and colder mornings, flocks of bird mass overhead.

Soon, herds of elk will move through the park toward the north. The chorus and leopard frogs will burrow in mud to hibernate through the cold. Rocks reclaim the landscape as grasses and wildflowers wither. But in autumn there’s noise and busyness as the birds feast on the sunflower seeds until winter brings a hushed silence.

Castlewood attracts a wide diversity of birds, early summer is best.

American goldfinch Downy woodpecker Rufous hummingbird
Belted kingfisher Great horned owl Say’s phoebe
Black-capped chickadee Hairy woodpecker Steller’s jay
Black-headed grosbeak Lazuli bunting Virginia’s warbler
Blue jay Lesser goldfinch Warbling vireo
Blue-gray gnatcatcher Mountain bluebird Western bluebird
Broad-tailed hummingbird Mountain chickadee Western wood-pewee
Brown creeper Northern flicker White-breasted nuthatch
Canyon wren Pine siskin White-throated swift
Common nighthawk Plumbeous vireo Wildon’s warbler
Common poorwill Pygmy nuthatch Yellow warbler
Common raven Red-breasted nuthatch Yellow-rumped warbler

Trail Information

Castlewood Canyon State Park

Directions: From Castle Rock, take I25 exit 182 (Wilcox Street) south. Turn east on the Colorado 86 (5th Street) and continue for 6 miles to Franktown. Turn south on Colorado 83 (South Parker Road) and continue for 5 miles to the State Park entrance.

Features: Numerous trails of varying difficulty. Pets permitted, on leash. My favorites:

  • Canyon View Nature Trail: Easy 1.2 mile stroll with numerous overlooks of Cherry Creek canyon. Wheelchair accessible. Trailhead is at 39.3299N, 104.7373W.
  • Inner Canyon Lake Gulch Loop: Easy 2 mile loop along Cherry Creek’s inner canyon with a mesa-top return via Lake Gulch. Trailhead is at 39.3299N, 104.7492W.
  • Creek Bottom Trail: Moderate. 1.7 miles one-way. Follows Cherry Creek from the Lucas Homestead to the Cherry Creek dam ruins. Trailhead is at 39.3599N, 104.7684W.

More Info: Castlewood Canyon State Park, 2989 South State Hwy 83, Franktown, CO 80116, 303-688-5242,