Denver's Unique Park System Offers City and Mountain Park Experiences
Denver's park system is unique. Within city limits, Denver offers more than 200 traditional and historic parks, many of them connected by bike paths that are part of the city's network of 85-miles of paved, off-street bike trails.
But Denver also has 14,000 acres of parks in the nearby foothills of the Rocky Mountains - an immense mountain park system that covers an area almost the size of Manhattan.
It took an Act of Congress to create this "city" park system. In 1914, the U.S. Congress passed an act that allowed the City of Denver to acquire scenic land outside of city limits to protect and preserve it for future generations. Today, Denver maintains parks that are 60 miles from city limits and include famous attractions like Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Buffalo Bill's Grave on top of Lookout Mountain, Winter Park Ski Resort, a buffalo and elk herd and Summit Lake, the highest city park in the nation.
The original goal of the mountain park system was to make Denver a rival to Switzerland for mountain tourism. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the famed designer of New York's Central park, was hired to design the park system, which was completed in 1914.
Here are 10 of Denver's most popular parks:
RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE & PARK
Thanks to a fortuitously placed "bounce" rock behind the stage, Red Rocks is the only completely natural amphitheatre in the world. The 9,000-seat arena is carved out of massive 300-foot high red sandstone monuments, creating one of the most spectacular concert venues on the planet. Native Americans thought it a magical place, and early pioneers staged concerts here in the 19th Century. The Red Rocks we know today with its curving wood benches and red sandstone stairs was designed by local Denver architect Burnham Hoyt and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1941. The Beatles had the honor of being the first rock group to ever perform at Red Rocks; their 1964 Denver concert was the only one in America that didn't sell out, with just 6,000 of 9,000 tickets purchased for the then unheard of price of $6.60.
The "Rocks" have since played host to some of the most famous names in music, including U2, who filmed their classic "Under a Blood Red Sky" here, and Mumford and Sons, whose newest video was also filmed "on the Rocks." A museum covers the rock ‘n roll history of Red Rocks and the groups that have played here. There are also exhibits on the geological history of the 70 million year old rocks, which once formed the beach of an ancestral sea covering Colorado and Kansas.
The park is free, except when there is a scheduled performance. There are miles of hiking trails, two gift shops and a restaurant with an outdoor patio overlooking the rocks. Guided tours for a small fee include a stop in the "green room," which is actually a "red room" carved literally out of the rock walls.
After the Park: The pretty town of Morrison is adjacent to Red Rocks. Fast rushing Bear Creek flows parallel to the main street, which is lined with restaurants, bars and shops. The Blue Cow Eatery is a local favorite for breakfast, while the Morrison Inn is the place for margaritas, chips and Mexican dishes.
BUFFALO BILL'S GRAVE & MUSEUM
Buffalo Bill Cody was America's first super star - a 19th Century Elvis - who from 1883 to 1913 toured the globe, performing "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" in a thousand cities in a dozen nations. At its height, the show made more than a million dollars a year in profit, played before the crowned heads of Europe, and employed 640 cowboys, Indians, vaqueros and rough riders. It is estimated that 25 million words were written about Cody during his lifetime, covering his exploits as a Pony Express rider, cavalry scout, Medal of Honor winner and buffalo hunter.
When he died in Denver in 1917, his funeral became the largest in Colorado history. At his request, he was buried on top of Lookout Mountain, a 7,375 foot high peak just west of the city with commanding views of both the plains to the east and the snowcapped Rocky Mountains to the west. Today, Denver owns 110 acres of park at the top of the mountain and operates a wonderful museum near the grave site with exhibits covering Buffalo Bill's exciting life. There are hiking trails in the area, a massive Western gift shop, and a huge viewing deck with panoramic views.
Getting there is half the fun. From Golden, the twisting and turning Lariat Loop Trail is one of the most scenic (and hair raising) drives in Colorado. Keep your eyes on the road, which often has sheer drop off cliffs and can be filled with bike riders. Biking to the top of Lookout Mountain is a popular and challenging ride. But do stop at occasional pull-offs to enjoy the view and watch hang gliders, who often soar overhead. This is one of the top hang gliding areas in Colorado. Many viewpoints look down directly on Coors Brewery - the largest single brewing site on earth.
After the Park: At the base of Lookout Mountain is the Old West town of Golden. Colorado's first capital city is now a recreation center for biking, hiking, rock climbing and kayaking. Clear Creek flows right through town and is filled with tubers and kayakers, while the main street is lined with historic buildings that now housing restaurants, art galleries and outdoor cafes. In town, Golden City Brewery has a pretty beer garden, while the Buffalo Rose has bands playing on weekends on their outdoor patio.
GENESEE PARK & BUFFALO HERD OVERLOOK
Denver's first mountain park is also its largest with 2,413 acres. Genesee is reported to be a Native American term meaning "shining valley." The main part of the park is 20 miles west of Denver on I-70, at exit 254. Here there are gorgeous views of snowcapped peaks in the distance. One of Denver's two buffalo herds can often be seen here (the herd has their own tunnel under I-70 so they can be found on either side of the highway). The buffalo were originally descendants of the last wild herd of bison in North America, which was located at Yellowstone National Park. Today, there are 33 adult buffalo and 23 calves. The herd has two huge bulls, Tiny and Edson.
If the buffalo are not visible at exit 254, try continuing west on I-70 to Exit 253 (Chief Hosa). Turn left (south) to cross the highway, then left again to travel east until you reach the pasture fence. To the south of I-70, a park road goes to the top of Genesee Mountain, offering a 360-degree views from the 8,284-foot summit.
After the Park: Continue on I-70 west to Exit 252 and take the Evergreen Parkway 8 miles to the historic mountain village of Evergreen. Nestled along Bear Creek, at the base of Evergreen Lake, this rustic and scenic little town has shops, galleries and restaurants, as well as the famous Little Bear Saloon, known as one of the rowdiest bars in the state. South Park co-creator Trey Parker graduated from Evergreen High School.
ECHO LAKE and MOUNT EVANS
Located 47 miles from Denver at an elevation of 10,600 feet, Echo Lake is one of prettiest subalpine lakes in Colorado. The 24-acre lake was formed by a glacial moraine and is surrounded by forests of Englemann Spruce, fir and Lumber Pine, all with wonderful views of towering snowcapped Mount Evans in the distance. There are tables and grills and an historic 1937 stone picnic shelter. The lake is stocked and offers excellent fishing. An easy ¾ mile hiking trail circles the lake, while more challenging trails set off from here to Chicago Lakes and into the Mount Evans Wilderness Area.
Echo Lake is the beginning of the 14-mile Mount Evans Scenic Byway, which leads to the 14,264-foot high summit of Mount Evans. This is the highest paved road in North America, 154 feet higher than Pikes Peak. Drive to the top and your car will be higher than any other automobile on the continent.
The scenic byway was built by the City of Denver in 1927 as a tourist attraction. Today, access to the road is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and requires a modest fee. Due to snow, the road to the summit is generally only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, though road closures vary year-to-year. Along the way, you can see herds of Rocky Mountain goats and big horn sheep.
Colorado has 54 peaks that soar to 14,000 feet and above, known locally as ‘Fourteeners. Summiting a Fourteener is a true Colorado experience, but remember, there is 50% less protection from the sun at this altitude, so sunscreen is a must. Also bring plenty of water. At 14,000 feet, the atmosphere has 43% less oxygen than at sea level, making any activity strenuous. Lightning storms are common on summer afternoons and as a general rule, it is best to be off the summit by noon.
The actual summit of Mount Evans is a short hike from the parking lot. From the top, you can see most of the major mountain peaks in central Colorado - all the way from Wyoming in the north to Pikes Peak in the south.
After the Park: The rustic Echo Lake Lodge is located at the start of the Mount Evans Scenic Byway. This unusual octagonal log cabin was built in 1926 and features a restaurant with picture windows overlooking the lake. Hamburgers, Rocky Mountain Trout and homemade pies are the specialties. There is also a massive gift shop filled with Mount Evans souvenirs. A great souvenir is a copy of the official metal marker put on the summit of the peak by the U.S. Geological Survey, a great reminder that you have summited a fourteener.
From Echo Lake, drive up the Mount Evans Scenic Byway to 12,836 feet above sea level, high above timberline, where you come to the highest city park in the nation - Summit Lake. This is one of the most accessible high alpine lakes in Colorado and a likely area to look for Rocky Mountain goats. At this altitude, you can expect to see snow and ice along the lakeshore all year long. A short trail leads to a panoramic viewpoint where you peer down 1,000-foot cliffs into the desolate Chicago Lakes Basin below. It is also one of the few places accessible by car south of the Arctic Circle where it's possible to walk on trails across tundra.
An excellent introduction to hiking across tundra is on the nearby M. Walter Pesman Nature Trail, maintained by the Denver Botanic Gardens. Alpine forget-me-nots, moss champion, fairy primrose, purple fringe, and chiming bells are just some of the colorful wildflowers lining the trail. In this harsh climate, spring doesn't arrive until mid-July and wildflowers last for only a few summer weeks.
Ironically, the high altitude and long winters are perfect conditions for bristlecone pines, some of the oldest living things on earth. The nature trail passes through a grove of sculptured and grizzled bristlecones. Many of the trees here are 1,500 years old.
Free wildflower hikes are offered by the Denver Botanic Gardens on select Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during June - August. All hikes begin promptly at 9 a.m. Check here for information.
After the Park: Head back down Hwy. 103 to the historic mining town of Idaho Springs. The quaint Old West main street is lined with shops, galleries and restaurants. Be sure to check out local favorites such as Tommyknockers Brewery, the Buffalo Bar (with its many stuffed buffalo heads on the walls) and local pizza legend Beau Jo's. Idaho Springs is also an adrenalin headquarters for a series of recreation adventures, including river rafting on Clear Creek, ziplining off cliffs or horseback riding to old gold mines.
Located 3 miles southeast of downtown, Wash Park is consistently voted as Denver's "favorite" park - the place the city loves to bike, jog, walk dogs, stroll around lakes, play volleyball, and hold picnics. This green and pleasant oasis of 165 acres was designed in 1899 and resembles a classic English city park with lawns, shade trees and lots of benches. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous designer of New York's Central Park, was a consultant on the design of the park. In February 2013, the American Planning Association named it one of "10 great public spaces in America that set cities apart."
There are two gorgeous lakes, a lily pond, a meandering canal, ten tennis courts, a lawn bowling court, and two colorful formal flower gardens, one of which is a replica of Martha Washington's garden at Mount Vernon.
You can rent a paddle boat to glide across Smith Lake, or put the whole family in a rented canopy bike buggy where four people pedal at the same time. Circling the outside of the park is a two-mile long, crushed-gravel jogging path with pretty views of the lakes and the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
A local parks group has produced an 80-page spiral bound guide that details all 76 varieties of trees that can be found in the park.
The former home of local poet Eugene Field is also here, next to a statue of his most famous creations: Wynken, Blynken and Nod. The house was saved from destruction and moved to the park by another Denver legend, "Unsinkable" Molly Brown.
Wash Park is the perfect place to watch a sunset, enjoy a quiet walk in a flower garden, go for a run, or ride a B-cycle, Denver's fun bike sharing program which has 500 shiny red bikes available at 83 stations.
After the Park: It's a short 10 minute walk from Wash Park to Old South Gaylord, the 1100 block of South Gaylord Street. The turn-of-the-century buildings at this one time trolley stop have been transformed into a hip entertainment district with two dozen outdoor cafes and one-of-a-kind shops. Have a beer at local pubs like Reivers or The Tavern at Wash Park; enjoy fresh seafood at Max and Grill or dine on an outdoor patio at the Washington Park Grille.
With 330 acres, City Park is Denver's largest green space. It was designed in 1882 to resemble New York's Central Park with two lakes, formal flower gardens, fountains, statues, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, an 18-hole golf course and miles of bike trails. City Park is also home to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), the fourth largest museum of its kind in the nation, and the Denver Zoo (the country's fourth most popular zoo based on paid attendance).
The classic postcard view of downtown Denver is taken from here, on the west side of the DMNS, where there is a sweeping vista of lakes, trees, skyscrapers and snowcapped peaks. A crushed gravel path called "The Mile High Trail" circles through the center of City Park, following the contour line that is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. When you walk or jog along this trail, you are exactly one mile high. You can rent paddle boats at the boat pavilion and sail across Ferril Lake with the ducks and geese, or pick up a B-cycle and pedal on shaded trails.
On summer evenings, the park offers free dancing water shows on an Electric Prismatic Fountain that was originally designed in 1908. The hour long shows have colored lights, music and huge fountains of dancing waters.
There is also a dramatic memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that was created by local Denver artist Ed Dwight. The memorial features statues of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth and has bas-relief panels that highlight the history of African Americans - from slavery to the marches of the 1960s.
After the Park: Running from City Park to downtown along 17th Street is an area known to locals as "Restaurant Row." Stop at the Vine Street Pub for a handcrafted beer from one of Denver's largest brewpubs, or swing by Ace for a game of ping pong in their gigantic indoor/outdoor Ping Pong Hall. Just two blocks from City Park at Elizabeth Street is another outlet of the famous Tattered Cover Bookstore - this one built in an old theatre.
CIVIC CENTER PARK
Civic Center Park is one of the premier examples of the City Beautiful era of art and architecture that flourished in the early 20th century. In recognition of this, the park was designated a National Historic Landmark in October 2012.
The 12-acre urban oasis in the heart of downtown Denver is surrounded by architecturally significant museums and public buildings. Flanking the park are the state's two most important government centers: to the west, the neo-classical Denver & City County Building with its distinct clock tower, and to the east, the Colorado State Capitol building with its gold-plated dome. It is against state law to build any structure that would block the view of the mountains from the dome of the Capitol.
On the southern edge of the park is the Denver Public Library, designed by Michael Graves of London, and the original fortress-like Denver Art Museum, designed by Gio Ponti of Milan, Italy. Daniel Libeskind's new titanium angular Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum can be seen a block away.
Many of the city's largest celebrations are staged in Civic Center Park, including Cinco de Mayo (the largest in the nation), the People's Fair, Independence Eve fireworks, PrideFest, Taste of Colorado and the USA Pro Challenge bicycle race.
Every Tuesday and Thursday from June to September, the park hosts Civic Center Eats, a combination farmer's market and food truck roundup with more than a dozen food trucks. On summer evenings, there are bike-in movies and every Wednesday night, Denver Cruiser Ride stops in the park with thousands of cruiser bike riders (many in costumes) circling around the Greek Amphitheatre.
The McNichols Building in the park was built in 1909 as a Carnegie Library; it was recently restored to its original beauty and is used for special events and art exhibitions.
Civic Center Park has lovely flower gardens, a large fountain, and Old West statues of Indians and cowboys on bucking broncos. The view of downtown from the Greek Amphitheatre with the flower gardens in the foreground is another postcard shot of Denver's skyline.
After the Park: It's one block to the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian promenade lined with 200 trees and 42 outdoor cafes. There's a wonderful restaurant in the Denver Art Museum and also in the History Colorado Center, two blocks away at 12th and Broadway. Or visit Pints, an authentic English pub at 13th and Bannock that has one of the nation's largest selections of single malt Scotch.
CONFLUENCE and COMMONS PARKS
Confluence Park is located at the junction of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Denver started here in 1858 when some prospectors discovered gold and created an overnight tent city along the banks of the river. Two of Denver's most popular bike and pedestrian paths converge in the park -- the 11.2 mile long Cherry Creek Bike Path and the 15.8 mile long South Platte River Trail.
A man-made, white water kayak chute runs down the center of the park; you can rent kayaks, tubes or bikes at the nearby Confluence Kayaks. Sitting on the edge of the park is REI, a massive 100,000 square foot outdoor sports emporium filled with backpacking, climbing, hiking, skiing and camping equipment. The center of the store is a gigantic 45-foot high climbing rock. REI is a great place to outfit for mountain excursions. You can rent snowshoes, cross country skis, tents, backpacks or sleeping bags here, and the staff is knowledgeable about local hiking and camping spots. Confluence Park is also the starting point for the Platte River Trolley, an open air historic trolley car that runs for several miles on tracks along the river to the Downtown Aquarium and Sports Authority Field.
Adjacent to Confluence is Denver's newest park - Commons Park - a large open space mixing green lawns with native grasses. This is where to find Denver relaxing on a summer afternoon with riverside picnics and Frisbee games. The park serves as the "backyard" for the many condo and apartment units that have been built in the South Platte River valley.
After the Park: The Denver Beer Company is located a block from Commons Park on Platte Street. One of 22 breweries in Denver, it is built in a former garage so the walls literally "roll up" on summer days, making the entire bar open air. There are outside picnic tables and food trucks. The popular, dog-friendly, neighborhood gathering spot is filled with people stopping by for a beer after a run or bike ride. Check out the chalk board to see what fresh craft beers are on tap.
CHEESMAN PARK and THE DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS
Standing on the beautiful rolling lawns and tree-shaded running paths of Cheesman Park, it's hard to imagine its ghoulish past. The park was original one of Denver's earliest cemeteries, dating back to 1858. When city leaders decided to turn the area into a park, some 5,000 bodies had to be interred and moved to another cemetery. An unscrupulous contractor was hired for the job in 1893 with the agreement he would be paid $1.90 every time he dug up a body, placed it in a new coffin and moved it. The contractor hit upon the macabre idea of hacking the bodies into smaller pieces and placing them in child-size coffins to triple his payments. It was many months before he was exposed and replaced.
Today, Cheesman is a tranquil place, known for its beautiful views of the mountains and for the large classical white marble Pavilion sitting above a reflecting pool and surrounded by colorful flower beds. The open lawns in the center of the park are rimmed by groves of trees along the edges, through which weave a number of bike and jogging paths.
The east side of the park is home to the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of the top botanic gardens in the nation. On just 24 acres in the middle of the city, there are more than 33,000 plants in 45 different individual gardens. Ingenious paths connect the gardens and wind past a series of ponds, reflecting pools and fountains. The Japanese Garden, Shofu-en -- the Garden of Wind and Pines - has an authentic Tea House, shipped across the Pacific from Japan and reassembled by skilled Japanese artisans. The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory is one of the top ten major conservatories in the country, while the rock alpine gardens showcase the largest collection of high altitude wildflowers in North America. The Botanic Gardens is also home to a very popular summer concert series, showcasing nationally known singers and musicians. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine and relax at a sunset concert in this spectacular setting.
After the Park: It's just a short drive or walk from the park to Cherry Creek, an elegant neighborhood that offers Denver's best shopping on tree-lined streets or in the beautiful and upscale Cherry Creek Shopping Center. Home to more than 300 galleries, department stores, one-of-a-kind shops, boutiques and cafes, Cherry Creek is "the" place to stroll, sip and window shop.