Colorado's canyon discovery

Creekside rambling and rock hopping southeast of Denver
James Boone and Lora J. Finnegan

There's always the anticipation of discovery on a visit to Castlewood Canyon State Park. Tucked within rolling short-grass prairies southeast of Denver, the gorge remains unseen until you top a hill and cross the bridge over Cherry Creek for your first glimpse into the canyon. In winter you'll find that the dramatic setting isn't the park's only surprise.

For one thing, it can be fairly warm inside the canyon, even in January. Soaring canyon walls ― 75 to 200 feet tall ― minimize the wind, and their beige-colored sandstone captures and reflects the sun's heat. Another surprise is how many birds and other animals winter here; you may spot mule deer, porcupines, and red foxes.

The best way to experience the 2,303-acre park ― a world of grassland, coniferous forest, shrubland, and riparian ecosystems ― is on more than 13 miles of trail. This time of year the trails are usually clear and dry, but there could be snow right after a storm (call ahead or check the park's website). For an easy stroll, try the paved 1 1/4-mile Canyon View Nature Trail on the upper rim. Trailside signs explain that the canyon is a cleft in the Rockies' caprock, eroded by Cherry Creek as it winds north to Denver.

For more of a workout, hike the moderately strenuous Inner Canyon Trail to Lake Gulch Trail for a 2-mile loop. Reaching the canyon's bottom, the path tracks the shimmering creek past Gambell oaks and willows and weaves between giant, rounded boulders, some of which erosion has rendered into fanciful sculptures. One visitor spotted a house-size frog ― rock art, of a sort, and Castlewood Canyon's best surprise.

After your park outing, stop in nearby Castle Rock for one of the massive burritos at Pegasus on the Square (313 Jerry St.; 303/688-6746). Or wander the topiary and garden supplies at Flutters Herb, Flower and Garden Shop (400 Third St.; 303/663-9314) ― warmed by a greenhouse roof, it's especially appealing on a January day.

Canyon roaming | Top WHERE: Castlewood Canyon State Park is 30 miles southeast of Denver. WHEN: 8-5 daily; visitor center opens at 9. COST: $5 per vehicle. CONTACT: www.parks.state.co.us or (303) 688-5242.