Not long ago I put a gate in my fence where formerly there had been only garden. I needed a stepping stone, and remembered some spare pieces I had lying around on the other side of the house. I went there, and found the perfect thing: a beautiful little slab of Colorado sandstone. As I hoisted it, I admired its uniform texture, and especially its gorgeous salmon-rose color. It had probably been quarried near the town of Lyons, only 15 miles away.
As I carried it in my bare hands to its new home at my gate, a surge of emotion flowed over me that caught me by surprise. It’s true that every rock has a story – a very, very old story – but this one hit me hard. It was probably because I’d been doing so much hiking along the Front Range. There I was, carrying a fossilized piece of the ancestral Front Range.
In my hands I held a piece of compressed sand dune that had been laid down during the middle Permian period, about 250 to 260 million years ago — long before dinosaurs. Back then Colorado, like almost all the current world’s landmass, was part of a huge continent called Pangea. Like many regions, it had a desert climate. During this period, a shallow sea covered the American Midwest. Here on its western edge, sand pushed up along the shore met with dunes of fine-grained quartz being blown down from the mountains – not the Rockies but the Ancestral Rockies, a different range that began a few dozen miles west of the current range.
Many of the rocks formed during the Permian period are stained red by iron oxides, a result of intense heating by the sun on surfaces having no vegetation. Thus, well-mixed among the windblown quartz were flecks of iron oxide. All told, this colorful sand piled up to depths of around 200 feet.
Times changed, things got wetter, and the Earth shifted into the Triassic Period. The pink sand became compacted beneath mud and silts washed down from the eroding mountain range. Additional deposits occurred during the subsequent Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, as the inland sea shrank and grew and the ancestral mountains finished eroding away.
The beauty would have remained hidden, 650 feet deep, had not a new uplift begun about 60 million years ago. As the New Rockies rose, what was flat land became raised like a drawbridge. In some places it was turned on its end. Continuing erosion removed the shale and limestone covering to expose the vibrant rose-colored treasure, called the Lyons Formation.
For a very short period, between the onset of white settlement in the 1870s and the onset of concrete and steel around 1910, this stone was prized as a building material. During this time, a Mr. Edward S. Lyon from Connecticut purchased 160 acres studded with salmon stone outcrops, and platted the earliest version of the town of Lyons. Ed didn’t stay long, but quarrying in Lyons continues to this day, and now Ed has a whole layer of Earth named after him! No longer the building blocks of mansions, banks, government buildings, and the University of Colorado, Lyons Formation sandstone continues to be prized as a decorative building treatment, and it makes great signs, patios, walkways…stepping stones.
As I carried my piece of stone, I imagined what it might contain: prints of ancient amphibians that once scurried across it, maybe even fossilized raindrops. I set the stone in its new place, added three smaller pieces leading to it, and felt satisfied. They looked peaceful, restored to their horizontal position.
I stepped back, and my mind ran through some favorite hikes that had taken me to extreme examples of another version: 200-foot thick layers, up-thrust into jarring angles. You see it all up and down the Front Range, and can feel the power of the story. Many hikes will take you into it; here are three that appear the upcoming book, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range:
In Roxborough State Park, southwest of the Denver metro, you can get up close and personal with the Lyons Formation. Or you can climb the older formation just west of it, called Carpenter Peak, and view a whole swoop.
This is iconic Colorado, especially right now in spring: blue sky, green hills, and RED ROCKS. This hike in Matthews/Winters Park delivers stunning views of the formation that is home to a world-famous music amphitheater.
Just outside of Lyons, this long walk takes you to views of graceful hogback ridges, where the Lyons layer is embedded in them.
Of course, you don’t have to get out of your car to get bowled over (although I think it’s more fun that way). Just drive down from the mountains on I-70 or US 285, and pay attention to the incredible story being told as the highway cuts through the Lyons layer just outside of Denver.