Magic Mountain

Jefferson County, Colorado


The Magic Mountain site was identified in the late 1800s by miners, homesteaders, and archeologists—all attracted to the site by the bones and pottery eroding from the archaeological deposits. It is situated on the south edge of Golden, in the foothills between the Rocky Mountains and the High Plains, and it contains a nearly continuous record of Colorado’s Native occupants in deeply buried deposits as much as 9000 years old. By the 1920s the site was described as a “treasure-trove” and “cratered minefield” due to looting. The first professional excavations were conducted by brother-and-sister team Cynthia Irwin Williams and Henry Williams in 1959 and 1960, jointly sponsored by the Peabody Museum and the Denver Museum of Natural History (today the Denver Museum of Nature and Science). The excavations were the basis for Cynthia’s PhD from Harvard University, completed in 1963.


During the latter half of the twentieth century, Magic Mountain was threatened by development of a large theme park, Magic Mountain, and by Golden’s growth. In 1980 Magic Mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a testament to its potential to contribute to our understanding of regional history. In the 1990s half the site was owned by the City of Golden and the other half by private owners.


In 1994 and 1996, partnering with the City of Golden, Centennial Archaeology Inc. (CAI), recruited volunteers to study the city-owned part of the site. The project produced more than 80,000 artifacts, consisting of stone flakes, chipped and ground stone tools, and bone, as well as detailed excavation records. The CAI collections are housed at the DMNS.

By 2000 the site was wholly owned by Golden, and in August 2016, DMNS and PaleoCultural Research Group (PCRG) started new research employing drone photogrammetry, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), and magnetometry to understand what lies below the ground. The results of these surveys indicated that there are likely many intact cultural features.


In 2017 and 2018 DMNS and PCRG initiated large public-education programs. Excavation crew members consisted of volunteers, university graduate and undergraduate students, Native American teen interns, and students from the DMNS’s Teen Science Scholar program, a program that engages teens from underrepresented backgrounds in science. The Magic Mountain Project partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver and TeamWorks/Teens, Inc. to deliver programming and guided excavation experience. Additionally, over 3,000 people participated in free, volunteer-led tours.


The archaeological work conducted at Magic Mountain by CAI, PCRG, and DMNS over the past 30 years has been supported in part by History Colorado State Historical Fund.


Photos courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science