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Common Misconceptions (and Cool Facts) About Colorado

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Common Misconceptions (and Cool Facts) About Colorado

Every state has its own set of unusual misconceptions that visitors develop over time. Like how everyone perceives Californians as surfers and Valley Girls or forgets that Wyoming and Montana have more than three people between the two of them. We’re countering some of the most common Colorado misconceptions we’ve heard over the years — and sharing some cool facts that sound too weird to be true. 

Misconception #1: Deer & Elk Are the Same Animal

We’ve heard it all. Deer are just small elk. Deer turn into elk at higher elevation. Elk are male deer and all other deer are lady deer. Honestly, we get it. Deer and elk have a similar shape. Both have antlers and like running in front of cars at dusk. Both are usually some shade of brown. Further complicating the issue is the fact that elk are deer. What? As the World Deer explains it, “All elk are deer, but not all deer are elk.” Anyone else having flashbacks to writing proofs in math class? 

So, to clarify, elk belong to the deer family, but they are their own species. If you really want to blow your own mind, just know that reindeer and moose are also deer and all the other deer you generically lump into one category each have their own distinct names.

Once you see an elk in person, you’ll likely never confuse one with a deer again. Here are some key differences between a mule deer (common in Colorado) and an elk:

  • An elk can reach a towering 5 feet and clear 1,000 pounds. Most deer peak at 4 feet and won’t get past 300-400 pounds. They just look more delicate, even the beefier bucks.
  • Elk have big, sweeping antlers that reach several feet in length. Deer have spikier antlers that are somewhat shorter. The latter can still grow impressive racks, though, so you’ll want to rely on other features to hone in your decision if you are unsure.
  • Deer are sleeker in coat, while elk are super shaggy. Think of it like a pit bull versus a German Shepard. Elk have a bit of a mane that makes them look more rugged, while deer have smooth fur along their necks.
  • Elk are loud, with a weird, creepy whistling bugle call that can make camping a bit terrifying if you don’t know what you’re hearing. Deer might squeak a bit, but they tend to be quieter. They won’t be hollering at the hillsides during mating season, but they will be fiesty. Steer clear of both for the best results.

Misconception #2: Our Seasons Are Straightforward & Predictable

It doesn’t snow 24/7/365 in Colorado. If it did, us locals would all have an easier time planning out our lives because we would at least know what to expect each day. Instead, Coloradans are treated to a year-round weather roller coaster with only the barest of adherence to the rules of seasons. It’s chaos here, essentially.

For example, you can easily find mild days for a long bike ride all winter. You may not even need long sleeves to enjoy it. There are some years where families barbecue outdoors on Christmas Day. In fact, minus the hideous cold snap that begins around February, you can spend a great deal of time outside throughout winter and only need a light jacket or sweater.

Our spring can swing wildly from bomb cyclone snowstorms to wicked-hot sunshine in the same week. In 2022, an unexpected snowstorm hit late in May, crushing trees covered with new spring growth and generally ticking off the entirety of the Pikes Peak region. Folks were out in t-shirts clearing the damage within days. In some parts of the state, blizzards can continue well into June. The higher the elevation, the more unpredictable the weather and the less faithful it is to any semblance of a “season.”

Summer brings three things Coloradans hate: hail, tornadoes and fire. Hail can reach enormous sizes in the Pikes Peak region. The entire Broadmoor area and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo were deluged with golf ball-sized hail in 2018, destroying property and creating general havoc for weeks afterward. Tornados are less common than hail, but they are still a possibility — even on Pikes Peak! The last foul list item is fire. Fire isn’t a “weather,” but it is more destructive because of it. The hot, dry conditions make our forests into ready tinder just waiting for a careless cigarette or aggressive lightning strike to ignite it.

Fall in Colorado is a weird combination of hot, lingering summer days, frosty mornings and sudden snowstorms. Some years the kiddos trick-or-treat in snow suits. Others, they roam in their costumes without a care. You can’t even really predict the famous changing of the aspen leaves because it might come earlier or later than predicted based on factors we will never understand. That knowledge is for the trees and they aren’t talking.

Misconception #3: Colorado Springs is Just a Gateway to the Mountains

We certainly concede that the mountains are a big draw for people visiting the Pikes Peak region; but, there’s way more to do than hike and camp here. The city of Colorado Springs is home to a ton of awesome attractions that won’t require you to hoof it up a fourteener of sleep in a tent. 

Let’s start with all the cool museums we have right here in the city, like the Space Foundation Discovery Center, the Olympic Museum, the Money Museum, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Ghost Town Museum. And then there’s the interactive attractions, like Cave of the Winds, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings or the Mollie Kathleen Mine. This isn’t to say that we don’t have any outdoor adventure opportunities. For example, why climb mountains when you can raft between them instead? Zipline around Manitou instead of walking? Bike down Pikes Peak instead of driving?

Then there are the trains that climb the peak and tour the backcountry mining sites, the massive suspension bridge crossing the crashing Arkansas River, the tiny roadside museum packed with crazy bugs … you get the idea. There’s simply a lot — and we do mean a lot — of cool things to do here that won’t require a mountaineering course or a love of peeing outside. 

The mountains are magic, there’s no question about that. But it’s definitely a misconception to believe that’s all there is. This city is rocking with history, culture and community and there’s always something new to discover along the way.

Misconception #4: Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods are National Parks

pikes peak with garden of the gods in the foreground

With plentiful national, state and regional parks, not to mention public parks and open space, it’s easy to get mixed up about which organization is in charge of an outdoor space. The two places that inspire the most confusion in the Pikes Peak region are Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak. They are not national parks. In fact, the next closest national park near Colorado Springs is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. However, these two locations have their own special designations that make them unique landmarks.

Garden of the Gods: Garden of the Gods is not a national park. It is, however and National Natural Landmark. It’s fairly obvious as to why. The graceful red formations have drawn visitors to the Pikes Peak region for well over a century and it frequently wins awards for top visitor attraction across multiple travel publications.

The park itself belongs to the City of Colorado Springs. But it’s not as simple as maintaining the average public park. There are 1,300+ acres of untamed land spread out on the west side of Colorado Springs, including the formations, roads, hiking and biking trails and Academy Riding Stables.

You won’t find any shops or buildings in the Garden of the Gods. The closest you’ll come to any sort of store or restaurant is the Garden of the Gods Trading Post located on the Manitou side of the Garden. This is because land for the park was gifted to the city with special conditions. The first is that no structures can be built in the park that are not designed or intended to support the maintenance of the park. 

The second condition that accompanied the land was the requirement that entrance to the park always be free. The city cannot charge admission to the park. These provisions have remained since 1909, when the family of Charles Elliott Perkins donated the land to the city. It’s worth mentioning that Rock Ledge Ranch, owned by Perkins’ friend and famous Springs philanthropist William J. Palmer, was also donated to the city. 

Pikes Peak has a slightly more complicated ownership structure. Let’s start at the top with the U.S. Forest Service. The peak is located in Pike National Forest and they manage the mountain wilderness. The land was deeded to the Forest Service by Spencer Penrose. That’s why you’ll see forest rangers giving talks or gently guiding visitors away from curious marmots and cranky bighorn sheep. 

The next layer of responsibility falls on the City of Colorado Springs. It is the city’s job to maintain the Pikes Peak Highway, the century-old route to the summit. The city plows, monitors traffic, cleans rockslides and maintains the Summit House and all its amenities. 

Like Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak does have a national designation. The summit is a National Historic Landmark. Well, every bit of the summit over 14,000 feet is. Kind of makes the age-old concern about the true height of the peak (14,115) a little more understandable. We want every cubic foot of awesomeness properly accounted for.

Believe It or Not: Weird Truths About the Pikes Peak Region

Now that you know all the misconceptions about the Pikes Peak region, let’s follow up with a heap of wacky truths that are almost too weird to believe.

Colorado Springs Gets Thundersnow and Rainshine

There are few things weirder than listening to thunder boom and lightning crack as … snowflakes? … drift gently to the earth. However, it happens. The altitude and the towering mountains create a weather smoothie that results in some pretty strange atmospheric flavors. You’ll see it rain and snow at the same time, hail and rain, hail and snow and sometimes all three in the same storm, complete with thunder and lightning.

It’s even stranger to see it snowing or raining as the sun still shines bright. You may be minding your own business hiking in the summer heat when an errant and grumpy passing cloud decides to take out its bad day on you. Or, a storm can live on one side of a field as sun and heat dominate the other. 

We Celebrate the Day a Dead Woman’s Body Sailed Down a Mountain

Emma Crawford Coffin Race 2017

Manitou Springs is known for its quirky charm, fun attractions and family-friendly atmosphere. It’s also known for one of the more unusual entertainment events in the state — the Emma Crawford Coffin Races.

Each year, right before Halloween, citizens and visitors gather for an epic race through downtown Manitou Springs. The drivers? A ragtag collective of costumed pallbearers. The vehicle? A functional (hopefully) rolling coffin. The guest of honor? Whichever member of the crew is aerodynamic enough not to slow down the coffin but hot enough to rock a lady zombie or skeleton costume.

Participants race down the street propelling their coffin and duly elected Emma along the way. Attendees line the streets to cheer them on and then everyone parties together when the last coffin crosses the finish line.

The inspiration for this event is a little more macabre. Emma Crawford, for whom this race is named, was not some sort of race car driver or coffin aficionado. Instead, she was a sassy woman who had the misfortune to have her dream grave (under a tree on Red Mountain) unceremoniously dug up and dumped nearby to make way for a new saloon. The rude grave robbers barely bothered to resume Emma’s coffin in its new final(ish) resting place. One day, a deluge of water from a rainstorm unceremoniously ejected Emma and her coffin from the shoddy grave, sending her disinterred corpse on a bit of a ride right into town. She was found by a couple kids who quickly alerted adults to the new city guest. Emma was eventually buried properly, but Manitoids so loved her tale that they immortalized it with the annual coffin races.

The AdAmAn Club Pushes Boundaries and Creates History

Fireworks off Pikes Peak by John Skiba
Photo by John Skiba

Colorado Springs celebrates the new year with a lot of fanfare and a wicked fireworks show set off from the summit of Pikes Peak. That’s cool enough on its own, but the way the fireworks are set off is even cooler. Each year, a crew of 30ish individuals and their craziest friends make a winter hike up the peak via Barr Trail to set off the fireworks by midnight on December 31.

They are called the AdAmAn Club and their tradition began over 100 years ago in 1922. The Springs lore goes that a rowdy crew of gentlemen known affectionately as the “Frozen Five” decided to hike Pikes Peak in the winter. Depending on the version (and we picked the fun one), the men either stole railroad flares and then broke into the Summit House before launching a giant and defiant braggadocious bonfire (fun), or made a chill, planned and sponsored trek to launch fireworks (ok, still fun but way less outlaw). 

In the 100 years that followed, the crew has changed as members passed away or moved. Each year, the organization adds a man (or woman) on to the entourage, with the new member getting to lead the crew on the next summit. Summiting is a difficult endeavor in the winter. The hikers must break trails through deep snow, camp overnight at Barr Camp and endure extreme colds, blizzards and high winds. But when every Colorado Springs resident turns west at midnight to witness the fruits of their labor, they know it’s worth the effort. 

We Race Cars Up Pikes Peak

Race car on Pikes Peak Highway

Early Pikes Peak region residents were obviously addicted to adrenaline, so it makes sense that they were the creators of one of the most outrageous car races running in modern times. 

Spencer Penrose wanted to bring more visitors to Colorado Springs. His idea was to finish shoring up the road to the Pikes Peak summit and then stage an extreme motor race to the summit. Most motor vehicles were still in their infancy when Penrose first launched the race in 1916. The winning car that year wasn’t even on the market. 

The older the race becomes, the more dangerous it gets. There are no guardrails on some of the course’s most terrifying turns. Have you ever been a passenger on the highway gripping the door in terror in those wide-open switchbacks while crawling at 25 miles per hour? Now imagine making that same trip and hitting triple digit speeds. That’s what racers from all over the world come to Pikes Peak to attempt each year. Some zany folks even drive motorcycles in the race.

The Race to the Clouds is heavily attended by residents, race fans and visitors each year. It’s even dangerous to be a spectator, with advisories to keep stationary objects between viewers and the course to help halt flying debris. In short, the Venn Diagram for crazy fans and crazy drivers is a circle.

We hope we’ve helped clear up some of these classic misconceptions about the state of Colorado and the Pikes Peak region. We also hope you have discovered new trivia about Colorado Springs you can gleefully share at awkward moments.

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