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  • Writer's pictureBret & Amber Tueller

Castlewood Canyon State Park

With fall in the air, it is the perfect time to enjoy the colors and beautiful outdoors. Castlewood Canyon is the ideal place to do this! The local gem is a Colorado state park and offers a variety of activities. So many know it as a hiking destination. There is also a special horseback riding trail as well as multiple picnicking spots. With sweeping

scenes of the canyon and surrounding plains, it is an excellent spot for photography and peace and quiet. Another popular activity is rock climbing, with multiple available climbs along the 60-foot canyon walls. Wildlife viewing and birding are popular. The canyon is home to turkey vultures, canyon wrens, bluebirds, bobcats, black bears, elk, deer, and rattle snakes. The park also provides educational programs and venues for events. We shared here some beautiful photos from some of our readers. We hope these will inspire you to go enjoy the canyon for yourself!

The local gem for hikers, climbers, and photographers has a notorious history.

Evidence of early human activity can be seen in Castlewood Canyon. Findings from Native American winter camps and small group sites can be found that date back to the 1700s. Logging brought new settlers in the 1860s and they began to homestead in the area. Patrick and Margaret Lucas soon settled among them, hoping for irrigation water from the Castlewood Canyon Dam, which was built in 1890 across Cherry Creek, 40 miles southeast of Denver, Colorado. The masonry and rock-fill structure, built from local materials, was around 600 feet long with a height of 75 feet measured from the reservoir floor, 8 feet wide at the crest, and 50 feet wide at the base. The 5,300 acre-feet of storage was used for irrigating fertile Douglas County farmland, dotted with dairy farms, potato fields, and orchards.

The dam was controversial from the beginning. Just after construction, Castlewood Dam showed signs of settlement, with cracks and seepage visible on the face of the dam. Safety was questioned by downstream citizens and a committee of engineers determined that improvements to the dam were necessary. All the while, Denver Water Storage Company, owner of the dam, and the dam’s designers argued that the dam was safe. In 1897, a section of the dam washed out prompting multiple repairs. Following the repairs, leakage remained visible, but to a lesser degree. The back and forth continued between the citizens and owner, prompting the chief engineer to issue a foretelling letter.

“The Castlewood Dam will never, in the life of any person now living, or in generations come break to any extent that will do any great damage either to itself or others from the volume of water impounded, and never in all time to the city of Denver.” – A.M. Welles, Chief Engineer

Quick Facts

Location: Colorado, USA

Year Constructed: 1889-1890

Drainage Area: 175 sq. mi.

Height: 75 ft.

Primary Purpose: Irrigation

Date of Flood: August 3, 1933

Evacuation: Yes

Fatalities: 2

Property Damage: $1M (1933 dollars) ~$20M (2018 dollars)

One of the only known construction photos (1890) (above) Looking toward the right abutment. Stiff-legged derricks used to move large stone into position.

Photo source: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

Flood damage in Denver from Castlewood Dam break Photo source: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

At around 11:15 p.m. on the evening of August 2nd 1933, the reservoir level behind Castlewood was about 6 feet below the spillway crest. By midnight, the water level had risen to the crest of the dam, and only 15 minutes later, water was overtopping the dam crest by approximately one foot. It is estimated that approximately one hour later, around 1:20 a.m. on August 3rd, 1933, Castlewood Canyon dam was breached, there was a “terrific battering of cloudbursts,” sending a wave of water down the canyon towards Denver, 32 miles to the north.

The flood wave first passed through rural farmland and washed out county bridges. It reached the outskirts of Denver between 5 and 6 a.m. There were two flood waves reported, an initial wave probably caused by water spilling from and overtopping the dam, and then a larger, more destructive wave approaching 15 feet high. By 7 a.m., six hours after the breach, the flood wave made it to downtown Denver, flooding businesses and homes.

Hugh Pain, the dam tender, lived at the site with his wife and heard the roar of water going over the dam. He was the only known witness to the failure event. After first unsuccessfully trying to phone, Paine drove 12 miles to call the Denver Police and the local telephone operator. This would prove to be a key factor to saving lives during the flood. The warning was sent out over telephone line and radio. The telephone operator on duty that night was Nettie Driskill. Later regarded as a hero, Nettie called residents along Cherry Creek, issuing a detailed and concise warning, telling them to “hurry to higher ground.” It is estimated that around 5,000 people fled the lowlands in time to avoid the deadly rush of water.

The Denver Post quoted the Denver Board of Water Commissioners, "Approximately one and one-half billion gallons of water passed through Denver in six hours during and immediately after the flood. This water, heavily laden with dirt, deposited a residue of silt within Denver’s city limits which would weigh, at the very least, 20,000 tons.” Two people were killed in the flood: an 83-year-old man and 24-year-old woman. To clean up after the flood and mud, a team of 2,500 men worked. Men and women through the city used pumps, mops, and buckets to remove water from flooded streets, buildings, and basements. Destroyed bridges also needed to be rebuilt. Power and phone lines were downed and damaged. Ruins from the collapsed dam can still be seen along the trail.

Generations continued to live and farm on the land. An 1894 homestead site can still be seen today, with cement walls from a 1920s house on the property. In 1961, Lawrence P. Brown deeded 87 acres of the land, located north of the Castlewood Dam ruins, to the state, receiving a payment of $10. The area officially became Castlewood Canyon State Park in 1964 and expanded in the 1970s by purchasing more than 792 additional acres, making the park almost 900 acres. Trails, facilities, and educational sites began in the 1980s. In 2002, the remainder of the Lucas Homestead site was purchased to add to the acreage, along with other purchases.

The state park now spans 2,303 acres and is a unique and popular destination for recreation. It maintains over 13 miles of trail, ranging from less than a quarter mile to 4-mile-long trails, and they range in elevation from 6,300 to 6,600 feet.


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