Tips for hiking to James Turrell’s new Skyspace exhibit near Manitou

I’m always in search of the next great hiking destination, so when I learned of Green Mountain Falls Skyspace, Colorado’s first public installation by renowned artist James Turrell, I didn’t hesitate to set my alarm for 2:30 on a recent warm summer morning.

Turrell is a National Medal of the Arts recipient who is known for his installation pieces that combine manmade and natural light to create experiential art.

There are 85 Skyspace installations worldwide, as well as a museum dedicated solely to this American artist’s work in Argentina. But he is perhaps best known for his ongoing project at the Roden Crater in Arizona, which has been underway since 1979 and may open in 2024.

Green Mountain Falls Skyspace — the first public artwork by Turrell in Colorado — was commissioned by the Historic Green Mountain Falls Foundation and was unveiled in mid-June at an art festival in the town of Green Mountain Falls, located near the base of Pikes Peak.

It is an 18-foot high, 676-square-foot building constructed of steel, concrete and stone quarried in Colorado, as well as local pine-beetle-kill wood. This is the first of Turrell’s Skyspaces to be built on a mountainside and one of just a handful with a retractable roof.

“Humanity has a need for wonder and connection, and skyspaces are a response to that,” said Green Box executive director Scott Levy. “You can only truly understand the impact of this art by visiting it yourself.” Colorado’s Skyspace has had visitors from more than 30 states and three countries in its first month.

The first step in visiting this experiential installation is to choose between making a reservation for the sunrise, sunset or closed-roof midday show, or just coming by during the day Thursday through Sunday (hours may change seasonally) when there is no show and the roof is open (depending on weather conditions, of course).

After making the 90-minute drive in the middle of the night from Denver to Green Mountain Falls for the sunrise show at the Skyspace, I was ready for the short hike with my appropriate footwear and a headlamp. There are two dirt and gravel paths that lead up to the Skyspace, and I opted for the steeper one: the Lower Turrell Trailhead (Red Butte Recreational Area East). It has a small parking lot and is only one-third of a mile long, but you gain 200 feet in that short hike.

The website recommends arriving 30-60 minutes before the scheduled show time, but that wasn’t necessary, in my opinion. The hike took less than 15 minutes, even at 8,000 feet. The other trail, the Joyland/Pittman Trailhead (Red Butte Recreational West), starts at the parking lot of the Joyland Church is longer and less steep, it is still just half a mile long. (Note that those needing assistance can make arrangements 48 hours in advance for an ATV ride.)

Arriving early means standing or sitting outside in the dark — and it was chilly at that time of the morning, despite the forecast of a 90-degree day. Visitors must remove their shoes before entering the Skyspace, so my recommendation is to wear or bring socks and to have a blanket or a puffy jacket. During the show, you lie on the stone floor or the wooden benches so these items can also be used as a cushion for the hour or so you might be there gazing up.

Once inside, the small space can accommodate two dozen people per show (there were about 15 of us there for this sunrise show). After everyone was settled, the LED lights hidden behind benches slowly came on and the Skyspace itself was opened.

This is not just a skylight: The opening in the roof, called an “oculus,” is cut to be nearly paper thin around the edges to create a unique visual effect when looking through it. The show will be different for each person due to the nature of the light perception and current conditions.

At first, I was expecting to watch the dark blue square-ish shape above us brighten and turn typical sunrise colors of pink, orange and yellow in a perfect frame of the sky, and for the interior lights to be part of my peripheral vision. Instead, I watched as the color in the “frame” become green, grey and other hues, which I found so perplexing that I had to go outside and look up at the full sky to re-orient myself.

It’s important to note that you need to arrive on time for the show, but once it has started, you can walk outside and then re-enter. When I stepped outside, two other women were also there after being unable to stop a fit of giggles and being shushed by others. This is considered a contemplative space and young children under 12 are discouraged from attending the longer shows (though they are welcome to visit during the day at non-show times).

Once the show was over and the lights turned off, we were allowed to sit in the room and gaze at the sky for as long as we desired, but I was eager to check Green Mountain Falls. Just over 10 miles west of downtown Colorado Springs, the town is basically one big trailhead as well as a thriving arts community. Although the 2020 census shows 646 people calling this place home, there are four hotels to choose from for those who want to make it a weekend getaway.

The hikes to Skyspace are short enough to invite one more local hike in a day. Try the 1.2-mile Mount Dewey trail that leads to a “Spiritual Platform” on a summit of 8,459 feet above sea level. From here you can go back the way you came or continue on with connector trails of either the Bratton Trail or the Horseshoe Trail.

If you have more time, try the 6.4-mile Catamount Falls Trail (the distance may be longer depending on where you park from the trailhead), which does lead to waterfalls and a reservoir. This is an out-and-back trail.

For the more advanced hiker, plan ahead and put in some miles on the American Discovery Trail to the east side of town, or the Ring the Peak Trail on the west side of town.

Or, plan to spend time in Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs or just drive through Garden of the Gods as you head back to Denver.

Quick tips for visiting Skyspace

  • Scout out the rest of Green Mountain Falls’ art, including a small Keith Haring Fitness Court next to the local swimming pool and tennis courts.
  • Take a short walk to the gazebo in the town’s small lake, which is the center of town.
  • Plan to have a meal at The Pantry, which is open for breakfast and lunch on the creekside patio (yes, a creek runs through it). Indoor seating is also available.
  • The cost is $5 for the sunrise and sunset shows when the oculus (roof) is open, and for the midday closed-roof shows, but the rest of the time when there is not a show it is free and no reservation is needed to just stop by and look up through the opening (weather permitting) with the blue sky perfectly framed.
  • Plan to arrive 15-30 minutes ahead of your scheduled showing. For example, when I went, sunrise that day was at 5:37 a.m. and the doors opened at 5:05 a.m.
  • The sunrise and sunset shows last about 45 minutes; the midday shows last about 20 minutes.
  • It is requested that no photos or videos “of any kind” are taken during the shows (sorry, Instagrammers!).
  • There is a bathroom and water bottle refill station, but they locked when the site is closed.
  • Keep in mind that the building is tucked into a west-facing hillside so the sunrise is subtle as the light overhead changes. During the sunrise show, we could hear the local birds chirping awake, which was an added bonus.

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