NATURE NARRATIVES: On the Niobrara Ridge

By Melissa Walker
       The bright, white Niobrara Ridge is one of the rock ramparts that seem to guard the eastern approach to Pikes Peak. The Ridge can be seen from almost anywhere in Colorado Springs and is a prominent feature in two of the city's most spectacular places - Garden of the Gods Park and Red Rock Canyon Open Space.

At Garden of the Gods Park, the Niobrara Ridge is in the foreground, with Kissing Camels and Pikes Peak beyond.
Melissa Walker photo

       Recently, on an unseasonably warm afternoon, I began hiking east from the Garden's south parking lot toward Rock Ledge Ranch. Then, I turned southward to traverse the Niobrara Ridge trail, “prospecting” for some of the Park's many natural treasures. Along the way, I narrowed my attention from the expansive views of the Park and Pikes Peak, to birds foraging in the piñon and juniper trees, to rocky remnants of ancient life.
       Scattered throughout the Niobrara's fractured white limestone are fossils of marine animals. Upon close inspection of the white rocks, I discovered circular shapes of ammonite fossils, their rough outlines catching the sun's rays and casting curved shadows. Am-monites were similar to today's chambered nautilus and had coiled or straight shells to protect their soft bodies. The ammonite fossils and white limestone of the Niobrara Ridge reveal a time in Earth's history when a vast seaway covered one-third of the North American continent, including all of Colorado.

A piñon nut near the center of a resin-covered pinecone.
Melissa Walker photo

       Widening my focus from the rocks, I was immediately rewarded by the twisted shapes of the one-seed juniper trees. Their roots push between the fractured rocks of the Niobrara Ridge and somehow find enough moisture to survive. The tiny blue berries of the junipers are actually miniature pinecones, and are a favorite food of the gray townsend solitaire, a year-round bird of the foothills.

An ammonite fossil and the author's hand.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Intermixed with the juniper trees are fragrant piñon pines. Both the piñons and the junipers are drought-tolerant tree species that grow primarily in the American Southwest. After checking several piñon pinecones, I found a few nuts hidden within the cones. In Colorado Springs, these evergreen trees are at the northern edge of their growing range, so the piñon nuts are usually very small and dry, unlike the plump nuts found in piñons growing further south.
       The quiet of the afternoon was broken by birds gleaning insects from the piñon-juniper woodland. Blue-gray gnatcatchers, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos were in small, separate flocks, softly chirping as they flew from tree to tree. Soon, the natural treasures of the Niobrara Ridge will increase as migrating birds return and spring wildflowers bloom. And, I will return to look for them.
       (For a trail map of the Garden of the Gods Park, visit the following webpage: http://www.springsgov.com/units/parksrec/maps/pdfmaps/gogs-pg1.pdf.

Walker, a long-time area naturalist, posts regular entries in her online blog at naturenarratives.com. She has given her permission to reprint selected pieces in the Westside Pioneer.