By Jessica Gibbs / NewsBreak Denver
June 13, 2022
John McKinney can be found on the 3,400-acre Cherokee Ranch every Saturday. Behind him will be a single-file line of hikers, sometimes a group of 10, other times up to 30, who’ve come to take a guided hike of the ranch.
McKinney, a geologist and petrified wood expert, started a June 11 geological excursion with a 15- minute lecture on the geological bedrock in the Sedalia area.
“We’re dealing with stuff that’s 40 to 50 million years old,” McKinney said, calling that relatively young as far as geology is concerned. “Everything from the time of the dinosaurs is considered young.”
He makes the geology hike palatable for people who may not be interested in the topic, he said, while also catering to hikers who want to understand how the ground beneath them came to be.
McKinney has the answers. Millions of years ago, a volcanic eruption near Buena Vista spewed hot ash as far as Sedalia, creating the rhyolite so common in the area. Massive water forces contributed to other rock formations, such as The Rock in Castle Rock.
“Which is what geology does, you guys,” McKinney said. “It tells stories of the past in the rocks.”
Joe Gehringer could listen to McKinney all day, he said. The trek was the Castle Rock man’s third guided hike at Cherokee Ranch, and he’s signed up for five more. He completed the four-hour backcountry hike offered at the Cherokee Ranch and Castle. McKinney jokes with him that he deserves a “buy three hikes, get one free” discount.
An avid reader, Gehringer said it’s one thing to read about history but another to see the sites up close.
“I figure it’s nice to know the history in your own backyard,” he said.
Fans of geology, history, architecture, or anyone looking for a reason to get outside can get their fix with a guided hike through the sweeping backyard of the Cherokee Ranch and Castle.
Guides are ready to take people through the archeological sites, geological wonders, a petrified forest and atop Cherokee Mountain at the historic property tucked in Douglas County backcountry near Sedalia.
Modeled after a 15th century castle, the ranch’s home was built from rhyolite and petrified wood by a homesteading family who moved to the area in the 1920s. In 1954, the family sold the property to Tweet Kimball.
Kimball purchased an adjacent homestead and combined them for her cattle ranching operation. The ranch spans 3,400 acres. In 1996, she helped place the property under a conservation easement in partnership with the county.
The Cherokee Ranch and Castle Foundation now operates the property, part of Douglas County’s open space programming. To balance protecting its natural habitats and making it available to the public, the property can be accessed through ticketed events, Executive Director James Holmes said.
Holmes said the hikes date back to when Kimball ran the ranch, although not in the official way the treks are offered now. She often hosted small groups and private parties to make the ranch’s history available to community members and business associates.
The foundation has offered some version of its guided hiking excursions for more than 10 years. The hikes are popular, staff said, and registration usually fills up. Capacity is typically 20 to 30 people.
Among the offerings is a hike up Cherokee Mountain, also available as a moonrise hike, a geology hike, a backcountry hike and a petrified wood hike.
Holmes says he loves each for different reasons. The Cherokee Mountain hike is rooted in history and encompasses stunning views, he said. When people drive to the Castle, they don’t always realize how high they climb in elevation until they get there and look down.
‘Not too strenuous’
The Cherokee Mountain hike is not too strenuous, less than two miles roundtrip, and lets people walk up to the top to look down on Kimball’s eye-catching home.
“You can see both the Castle and downtown Denver,” Holmes said.
The hikes take people through historical sites, such as former hunting grounds for the Ute Tribe, where hand tools were excavated in the 1970s. More recently, the foundation held a burial ceremony with the tribe for the partial remains of a young man also discovered in the 1970s.
The petrified wood hike is simply unique, Holmes said.
Holmes said the ranch grounds boast between 20 and 30 petrified logs, about 25 to 30 feet in length. Some are partially buried and could be larger, he said. Kimball, her sons and her ranch manager knew of the site but it did not become public knowledge until McKinney discovered it.
Created millions of years ago, a river likely washed the trunks into a sand bed on what would become Cherokee Ranch, and they petrified over time. The site feels other-worldly, Holmes said.
“They used some of the petrified wood in the construction of the Castle, but for the most part it remains all as it was,” he said.
Jeannine Colley helps lead the moonrise hikes.
“We end up on top of Cherokee Mountain just a little before sunset as the sky is coloring and it's beautiful and spectacular,” Colley said.
Guides explain what plants grow along the trail, point out wildlife sightings, talk about the history of Douglas County, the ranch land and Kimball’s home. Between two and three guides accompany hikers, so there is ample time for guests to interact with them, Colley said.
“The views are absolutely incredible. From the top of Cherokee Mountain, you can see 600 miles up and down the Front Range from that valley. And we may be able to see elk in the meadows below,” Colley said. “It’s truly a feeling of being on top of the world when you are up there. It’s magical.”