It’s a Mines right-of-passage, it’s also trespassing. Yes, the famous hike to the top of Castle Rock that so many Mines students, Golden residents, and tourists alike enjoy takes one onto private property. As surprised as I was to realize that I had been a frequent trespasser, it was more surprising that the Castle Rock itself, the symbol of Golden, along with much of the other land on South Table, is privately owned. Would that not leave this place of great natural and cultural significance vulnerable to exploitation? Yes in fact, read on.
I am a city kid and not a native Coloradan. Before I came to Mines I never lived walking distance from a hiking trail so having access now is special to me. It is exciting that I can walk out my front door, down a few streets, then over and up a few more and just like that I can find myself on a dusty hillside home to cactus, lichen, and the occasional rattlesnake. It is a special and beautiful thing to me and I often take advantage. No surprise then that I was excited this summer when I noticed new trail construction happening on South Table. I found a presentation online about the trail projects underway which happened to include a short segment about the history of the park. That is when I discovered how much of it was still privately owned.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Before 1977 when Jefferson County open space purchased their first land on the Mesa it was like any other land in the Denver Metro Area. If suburban sprawl had eaten up the grasslands and hillsides throughout the rest of the area, why would it spare the Mesa? In fact, in the early 1900s a lively cafe and dance hall was constructed on Castle Rock. After a successful start however, business became slow and prohibition in the 1920s only made things worse. That’s when the spot became a popular gathering place for members of the Klu Klux Klan. And then one day in 1927 a fire started in the dance hall and nobody bothered to try to put it out. Supposedly the volunteer fire department stood and watched it burn and Golden residents were happy to have it (and the Klan) off of their mountain.
Between then and 1977, South Table was considered for many uses including the United Nations Headquarters, NORAD, and an international airport, but little was actually constructed in that time. Some roads were built for a law enforcement training facility, some land was occupied by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab, and some of the hillsides on the eastern side were encroached upon by apartments. It was at this time that Jeffco Openspace began its long term plan of purchasing the land on the Mesa top. It was slow going as they had limited funds and owners weren’t always looking to sell but gradually through buying land and conservation easements by the late 90s, the agency was able to acquire much of the Mountain. Of the land left, the vast majority was owned by the Coors Company and pro-development Mines graduate Leo Bradley. According to an article in Westword from March 1998, he along with Peter Coors of the Coors family proposed a variety of development schemes for the mountain over the years including a 14 story apartment building in 1972, a large gravel mine in the 80s, and in 1998, a 5,000 employee Nike office campus.
These plans met fierce resistance from many Golden residents including Judy Denison and Don Parker who founded nonprofit Save The Mesas aiming to push the city government towards rejecting development proposals and the county towards buying the land. Many city officials, intrigued by possible increased tax revenue from the project, were annoyed at the residents’ unwavering opposition to the projects. Tensions ran high at city meetings and on the street. Arguments broke out in the Safeway parking lot. In the end Nike looked to build elsewhere and Coors sold their South Table land to the county in 2004.
Today, after several acquisitions by Open Space from utility companies, Bradley’s land under the ownership of the Bear Creek Development Corporation, including Castle Rock, remain the only major private sections of the Mesa. Pending the resolution of a lawsuit regarding access to the land, it is certainly conceivable that Jeffco Open Space, with a five year allocation of $40 million for land acquisition, could have an opportunity to purchase the land. On the other hand, so long as it stays in private hands, Golden’s greatest natural treasure will be in some peril. •