Denver 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, the famed designer of New York's Central Park, was hired to design the park system, which was later completed in 1914 by his son Rick.
Here are some of the most popular Denver Mountain 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
Genesee Park is Denver's first mountain park and 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.
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 adrenaline headquarters for a series of recreation adventures, including river rafting on Clear Creek, ziplining off cliffs or horseback riding to old gold mines.