Birds of Prey

Barr Lake State Park

A surprise overnight snowstorm layered Denver in a four-inch coating of wet, heavy snow last night, but driving east led me and my running partner, Taylor, into the prairie where less snow had accumulated and trails, though not dry, were in fine shape for a midwinter morning run. Barr Lake State Park has become a winter-time go-to destination for an escape from urban Denver and running  on concrete and pavement. The plan today was to loop around the namesake lake of the park with the hope to get a glimpse of the park's most famed residents: the bald eagles. 

We pulled into the snow-covered parking lot under gray clouds reminiscent of the long overcast winters that typified my Wisconsin upbringing. Hats pulled down, gloves pulled up, and we stepped into the icy air and braced for our 10 plus-mile run on the Perimeter Trail.  (Note: The lake can be run as an 8.8 mile route, though we extended the run with some adventures on the side paths that depart from the main trail at regular intervals.) Heading clockwise on the gravel road we approached a boardwalk extending into the lake. I asked if Taylor would be up for some exploring during the run and he was willing to oblige. So we tromped out to the end of the dock for a view across the expanse of ice and open water at the full span of our route. It was going to be a long run... but the breeze was mild and we warmed up quickly with our exertion. After about a mile we passed the Nature Center, closed at this early time of day, and opted for the single track shore line path (Niedrach Trail) that dips down to waters edge. I'd hoped the boardwalk would be open but fencing and plywood blocked the way, likely a safety decision by the park as the narrow bridges could be slippery during this season. Back to the wide gravel service road that serves as the main loop trail we continued meandering around the south side of Barr Lake between the lake itself and the Denver & Hudson Irrigation Canal.

As we continued around the lake and some of the low-lying wetlands surrounding it, we took every opportunity to poke down the side trails that wind deep into the marshes and cottonwood groves that ring the lake. One highlight included the gazebo out at the far end of a long boardwalk that offered views into the protected rookeries in the lake. Bald eagles filled the trees across the lake and were easily spotted through the binoculars installed in the gazebo. Other birds like double-crested cormorant and great blue heron live in this area of the lake. A piercing overhead screech, drew our attention skyward as a perturbed hawk flew to a distant tree upon our approach. The birdlife was on full display at this time of year and this time of day. Waterfowl honked and quaked raucously, gulls and shorebirds spun in the air above the lake, and passerines flitted into deeper shrubbery as we continued our run along the western side of the lake. The trail popped up to a right-of-way along the railroad tracks before ducking back towards the lake and skirting a quiet neighborhood set off to the left. It was along this stretch that we found ourselves nearly nose-to-beak with some of the bald eagles that call the lake home. On a dead snag not far from shore an eagle posed on a branch. I reached for my phone to snap a quick pic and was lucky to steal one just as the bird took flight! 

The eagles have a long history at Barr Lake State Park. Certainly they have taken advantage of the reservoir since it's beginning over a century ago, but in 1986, years after the lake was designated a state park and cleaned up from pollution introduced during the 50s and 60s, a pair of eagles decided it would be their permanent home and began building a nest, one that remains today, after nearly 30 years! After a few years they were successful in hatching and fledging their young and the population has consistently grown in the last decades to include dozens of eaglets and mature birds. At this time of year the eagles are completing their nests while courting mates  in preparation for February egg laying and incubation. To see what eaglets survive will require a return to the park in May and June when the new eagles are getting ready to leave the nest.

At the northwest corner of the lake, we stopped to explore the Bruderlin House, originally built by Swiss immigrants in 1889, and then restored about 15 years ago by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory to serve as their headquarters. A number of interpretive signs around the landscaped yard invited us to consider various aspects of the bird behavior seen and heard during our visit. At this point we had two paths to choose from. The low road along the bottom of the dam that creates the lake, or the high road across the top of the dam. We opted to split the difference by running the low road to the main outlet canal of the lake then charging up the stairs on the face of the dam to the top. From the dam we could see across the length of the lake and review the route we had traversed and the sights we'd seen. After leaving the dam we quickly concluded the loop and the run. We agreed that were it not for the diversity and activity of the wildlife, the run would have been entirely average, but it's amazing what a few birds of prey can do! This trip to Barr Lake stands out as one of the less forgettable wildlife experiences I'm likely to have.

Your turn

From Denver: From I-25 and Speer Blvd travel north on I-25 to the junction with I-76 heading northeast from Denver. Follow I-76 for 17 miles to the Bromley Lane exit in Brighton. Turn right (East) to follow Bromley Lane (becomes 152nd Street) where signs will begin to direct you to the State Park. After 0.8 miles turn right (South) on Piccadilly Road to the park entrance, on your right after 2 miles. Park entrance fees ($7) re collected at the entrance station and follow the signs to the boat ramp parking lot where the run begins. The park is also popular with anglers, equestrians, birdwatchers, families, hikers, and archers. I recommend visiting in the mornings and evenings when temperatures are most comfortable year round and wildlife is most active.

P&P Extra

This week Colorado is hosting the Alpine Skiing World Championships at Beaver Creek Ski Resort, and though no bald eagles are likely to be spotted, they will be plenty of airborne animals as ski racers average 60 miles an hour to win the down hill ski race. The BIRDS OF PREY racecourse is legendary for its difficulty and  spectacular crashes as it flies over jumps named after peregrines, goshawks, screech owls, golden eagles, harriers, and red tails. Though it is unusual for the event to serve as the World Championship, it does host an annual World Cup event that has become a Colorado tradition.

Under the Dome

The Colorado State Capitol

In 1890 a 20-ton block of Colorado white granite settled into place on the corner of Lincoln and Pennsylvania streets, the site that would soon become the home of the Colorado State Capitol. Four years later, the legislature finally moved in to occupy the grand building modeled, by architect Elijah Myers, upon the federal capitol building in Washington, DC. The building has since stood proudly, bearing witness to the history and daily life of the state's past 120 years.

I hopped on the bus outside my house for an afternoon of civic contemplation and exploration in Colorado's center of government. About a dozen or so others (including Finns and Peruvians!) joined the tour group for a quick 20-minute circuit through the historic building.  We started in the West Wing, home of the governor's office, where current brewer-turned-governor John Hickenlooper conducts the business of Colorado. Contentious issues under recent debate have focused on gun control (in the wake of the Aurora theatre shooting) and natural gas and energy exploration in the state, especially the practice of fracking. From Governor's wing we entered into the 18-story tall central dome of the capitol. On the first floor, eight historic mural panels by one of my favorite Western painters, Allen Tupper True, line the circular room, each one depicting an important aspect of the relationship between humans and water in the west.

The bottom of the rotunda is a great vantage point from which to see the materials used to engineer the state capitol, many of which tell unique Colorado stories. The floors, fashioned from Yule marble, was mined from the aptly named town of Marble, Colorado, and is the same stone selected to construct the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Ornamented pillars and fixtures throughout the building use brass to add some luster to the decor. Rose onyx wainscoting lines the corridors and was mined outside Pueblo in the south of the state. It is so rare that all of the known deposit was used up in the construction of the capitol. The upper portion of the capitol, including the girdings of the dome high overhead, uses iron. The dome itself, composed primarily of copper, is plated in gold leaf - about $120,000 dollars of the stuff with a tissue paper-thinness of 1/800 of an inch!  Re-gilded in 2013 using just 4 pounds and 11 ounces to cover the entire surface, the locally-mined gold traveled to Utah and Italy for expert purification and milling before returning to grace the dome. 

Our group ascended the grand staircase to the second floor where we peeked inside the Old Supreme Court, a room of warm crimson walls and dark wood. No longer a judicial space, the room is now dedicated to various legislative committee hearings that are always open to the public. We next viewed the floor of the House of Representatives but did not enter as passage is restricted only to sitting members. Proceedings here can be publicly viewed, however, from the galleries above. In the rotunda space on the 2nd floor of the capitol is the Hall of Presidents where original portraiture of our country's top elected executives ring the room.  Each image was painted by the same artist until his death in 2003, when the torch passed to another artist.

A narrow stairwell climbs from there to Mr. Brown's Attic, site of the Capitol Museum with wall displays presenting the chronology, history, and cultural identity of the state capitol building. The attic is named for Henry Cordes Brown a prominent Colorado businessman of the time who donated the property on which the capitol was built. He also built the nearby Brown Palace Hotel, another Denver landmark. My favorite aspect of the modest museum is the John Glendenin painting, "The Confluence" that shows the initial settlement of Denver at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River.  But the highlight of the tour, if one is of stout enough heart and muscle, is the 99-stair climb through the insides of the capitol tower to the observation deck in the dome. Standing on the catwalk ringing the inside the dome, I surveyed 16 stained glass likenesses of influential Coloradans in the Colorado Hall of Fame, an odd place for this tribute considering the effort required to view the display. Above the ring, tall windows display the state of Colorado outside. Views stretch west to the highest 14ers of the Front Range and East across broad plains. It also gives a one-of-a-kind view of the nearby downtown Denver skyline.

The tour leader left our group to enjoy the views on our own and to find our way safely back to the main halls of the capitol. I spent some time wandering the corridors again to snap pictures and admire the architecture. At the bottom of one of the stairwells, I found a door unintentionally propped open that led into the sub-basement of the capitol building. Stepping cautiously into the old stone halls I knew I shouldn't be in this area of the capitol and imagined the guard stations and closed circuit cameras in the building all sounding the alarm that an intruder had breached the defenses. But no one came running. I walked tentatively into the low-ceilinged hall and recalled a recent ghost story shared by local historian Phil Goodstein during a recent Halloween evening walk in Downtown Denver. Legend has it that Felipe and Vivian Espinosa, a pair of outlaw brothers, terrorized Coloradans in frontier San Luis Valley back in the 1860s, murdering dozens of pioneers. Then-governor John Evans was so angry with the brothers that he placed a bounty on their heads- which were summarily obtained bv a bounty hunter. The heads were presented to Governor Evans, pickled in alcohol, and stored in the sub-basement where they eventually vanished. Employees working after-hours now report seeing the floating heads in the steam tunnels below the capitol. Others describe hearing the sound of echoing hoofbeats galloping up and down the rotunda stairs as the headless ghosts of the Espinosa brothers search for their decapitated heads.

I moved slowly down the underground hall, growing anxious that I might get lost and suddenly find myself face to head with one of the Espinosas! Thankfully I quickly found a doorway that exited to a recessed alcove on the east side of the capitol building. Outside now, I wandered back around to the west side where the official mile-high marker is placed on one of the capitol steps. Finishing my tour of the building here I felt that the experience had provided me with a richer sense of place and a better understanding of the old and new history of Denver and Colorado. There is already a fascinating collection of stories and surprises to be found at the state capitol. And without a doubt, new stories and surprises will be found in the years to come under that shining golden dome.

Your Turn

The Colorado State Capitol tours are free of charge and the building is open from 7:30 AM until 5:00 PM on weekdays. Tours happen each hour on the hour between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM. The building is closed on weekends and legal holidays. For more detailed contact information and other aspects of the tours, click here. Parking can be difficult to come by near the capitol as it is either reserved for legislators or metered for a limited time. Consider parking on the west side of the 16th street mall area and taking the free 16th Street MallRide to the Civic Center area and the Colorado State Capitol. Other points of interest in the area include the Central Library, the Denver Art Museum, The US Mint, and the Molly Brown House.

P&P Extra

After the tour, browse for more local history at Capitol Hill Books on the corner of Colfax and Grant, a local institution with a broad selection of used books about Denver and Colorado. Thumb through your new purchase at the Shish Kabob Grill , located kitty-corner to the bookshop, while munching a gyro sandwich and guzzling a Mexican Coca-cola.

Chasing Sunset

Highline Canal Bike Ride

I've taken a break from running to allow some healing to take place and to transition my focus to a training plan for the American Birkiebiener, a 50k nordic ski event I'll be participating in this February. This has given me a chance to mix things up from my typical routine of running. Today that meant swapping my two shoes for two wheels and going for a late afternoon bike ride. Denver is generously dissected by ribbons of smooth concrete, asphalt, and graded gravel trails perfectly suited for exploring by bike. My ride today would feature two of the more popular trails: the Cheery Creek and Highline Canal Trails.

The ride starts at Confluence Park by REI near downtown Denver. Biking across the South Platte River bridge signals the start of a 39 mile ride that only just scratches the surface of the hundreds of miles of bike paths maintained in the Denver Metro area. Cherry Creek trail follows along it's namesake for 12 miles passing by many Denver landmarks on the way out to Cherry Creek Reservoir. At the beginning the trail, constructed below grade, is walled by a flood control channel around creek. This is the most popular segment of trail in Denver, filled with cyclists, runners, walkers, and commuters through much of the day. At night the bridges of the streets overhead serve as shelter to some of the city's homeless. Pedaling along, the glass, concrete and steel buildings of downtown Denver float by above. The leaves of the trees lining the creek, at their color's peak, splashed the walls and parks along the trail with fiery reds, and yellows. After a few miles the trail comes up to street level and parallels Speer Blvd to Denver's swankiest shopping district at Cherry Creek. The trail sticks to sidewalks to scoot around the mall and then continues southeast past small parks and along a more natural segment of the creek shaded with large trees and lined by reeds and riparian plant life. The Four Mile historic Park just to the left of the trail captures life in frontier Denver including the oldest standing structure in Denver.

After about 10 miles the Cherry Creek Trail intersects with the winding Highline Canal trail and travelers have the option to take the Highline Northeast through Aurora or Southwest towards Littleton. This ride turns right to continue onto Highline Canal West and the surface changes form  smooth concrete to rougher aging asphalt through this area. 

The Highline Canal Trail meanders across the city in long lazy bends and curves. It makes for a very pleasant ride. From the junction with Cherry Creek Trail, the Highline loops around James Bible Park and Eisenhower Parks (bathroom facilities) to Colorado Blvd where it turns south, crosses Hampden Avenue at the light, and then a hard right on Jefferson  where the trail rejoins the canal with gravel under your wheels instead of the asphalt and concrete. For this reason, you may choose a mountain bike with more rugged tires, though a road bike can complete this whole ride. This section, my favorite part of the trail, with its large cottonwoods, wide gravel tread, and horse farms set alongside affluent homes provides a picturesque escape from the more urban surroundings of Denver. Especially scenic are the vistas from Blackmer Commons and the Marjorie Perry Nature Preserve, where open wetlands offer dramatic views of the Front Range in the distance, with perhaps a fresh coat of early season snow.

Goodson Recreation Center at DeKovend Park, offers a brief respite to snack, visit the restroom (open to the public) and to figure out if, at my current pace, I could continue the ride as planned and make it to the train station with a little daylight left and with the trains still running. From a quick check at the maps, it appeared that about 30 more minutes of riding would get me to my final stop for the ride, the Littleton/Mineral Light Rail stop. The least pleasant trail segment for me comes in the next stretch where the trail crosses Broadway, a wide busy boulevard three times in quick succession with inevitably lengthy stops waiting for a chance to cross the road. Definitely a dangerous area, I make sure to cross with the lights. At Horseshoe Park I cut across the Lee Gulch Trail which looks worth exploring on a future trip. Just a few more slow trail bends and the trail finally meets Mineral Avenue. Taking a right onto the concrete path that goes downhill along Mineral avenue I ride right up to the Rail stop. My  EcoPass for the Regional Transportation Department provides unlimited rides on most bus and rail routes in the area so I was able to just hop on the train for the easy 30 minute return trip back to Denver's Downtown. Wide bike lanes along 15th street make for a safe route to Wewatta and then a jog left there will return you to the Cherry Creek Trail close to REI to complete the Loop.

Your Turn

REI is easy to get to from anywhere in the city. Most parking in the area is pay-to-park. You can park at REI for up to 5 hours for $5.00. RTD Light Rail fees will cost $4.00 without a pass to get from Littleton/Mineral Ave Station to the Theatre District/Convention Ctr Station.. If you'd like to skip the transit, this ride can be completed by bike, by connecting to the South Platte River bike trail near the station for an additional 15 miles to return to REI.

P&P Extra

One of the advantages to starting this ride at REI is that you can stop in to get whatever equipment you might need (spare tire, energy gels, etc) from the completely stocked megastore. It occupies the building that used to serve as the powerhouse for the Denver Tramway Company that ran streetcars and trolleys around Denver from 1886 to 1950. Outside, you can take a short ride on one of those old trolleys along the South Platte River.

Water and Wind

Running Cub Lake

The trail to Cub Lake starts on a gentle path that traces a wide ridge of rock with long views across the open expanse of Moraine Park. Two large herds of elk lazily fattening up on forbs and grasses for the winter months ahead served as a reminder that this was a special place: Rocky Mountain National Park. Founded in 1915, the coming year will mark 100 years for one of our country's natural crown jewels and I won't take it for granted that I can visit this place on a weekday afternoon in October and find sixty degree weather and empty trails.

From Moraine Park, the trail climbs steadily through beaver meadows to an area burned by fire just a couple short years ago; a fire made notable by the fact that it took place in December, well outside the typical fire season, and the fact that I happened to have been in Estes Park at the time and was evacuated by the Sheriff's office early one morning due to the danger. Among the blackened conifer trunks, aspen trees stood bare, having already shed their golden coats for the season, dropping them to the soil where they lay today, decomposing into the earth and filling the air with the aroma of Autumn. The leaves ruffled underfoot, water gurgled in hollows under glacial rocks and the wind sighed. This segment of trail wound gracefully up to Cub Lake, so natural in its path that it seemingly did not require effort on behalf of human hands, a true credit to those who actually did endure the sweaty toil of making this footpath.

The trail reached over a rise to a meadow at the east end of Cub Lake and the wind, carrying a high mountain rawness as it so often does here, slashed against me and had me wondering if starting this run in only a t-shirt and shorts may have been too optimistic. But I ran into the wind. Cub Lake glimmered gold behind the trees, a colorful beatitude to the warm sun above, while a Steller's Jay flitted from branch to branch in the living trees left unharmed by the recent beetle kill and fire. Above, Stones Mountain glared down from the heart of the park, dark and gray under clouds it had drawn up around it's broad frosty shoulders. Running the burn through this area under the darkening skies and surrounded by the skeletal trees and the bone-white rock felt spooky, perhaps as much from the coming of Halloween, as from the trail conditions themselves. Summoning the courage to descend through this segment of trail  brought me to The Pool, a swollen stretch of the Big Thompson River crossed by a rebuilt heavy bridge so new that the sawdust still filled the nooks and crannies of the planks. I paused here to admire the mountain scenery, but only briefly as Stones Mountain had continued piling up it's cloudy cap and tiny sprinkles of rain tickled my backside the whole way down the buffed trail that followed the course of the Big Thompson River. I passed under arched Rocks and on to the Fern Lake Trailhead where less than a mile of easy running on the road returned me to the Cub Lake Trailhead and gave me the unique satisfaction of a tidy loop run rather than an out-and-back. A run like today's makes clear the inadequacy of the written word to justly describe a day in the wild. So I hope you will go. And see. And run into the wind.

Your Turn

To get to the Cub Lake Trailhead, go north on I-25 to exit 243. Travel west on Hwy 66 through Lyons to US 36 into Estes Park and following signs to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park currently has a $20 entrance fee which can be paid at the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station or annual passes can be purchased for $80. Once inside the park take the left turn at Bear Lake Rd and a right onto Moraine Park Rd after 1.25 miles. Follow Moraine Park Rd for .5 miles, then take a left onto Fern Lake to the trailhead on the left after 1.25 miles.

Peak and Plain Extra

An adventure in a place as rugged as Rocky Mountain National Park should be celebrated at a place that is equally as rugged. The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern is just outside the Beaver Meadows entrance and serves up a tasty char-broiled buffalo burger, sweet potato fries, and cold beer on tap. During the fall, try Isolation Ale, a seasonal winter warmer from Odell Brewing company just down the road in Fort Collins.

After the Rain

City Parks Ride

An afternoon storm blew out of the mountains yesterday, and helped determine the extent of my recreation, cutting short my anticipated ride but not at the sacrifice of great scenery and fresh air. There is a fine urban ride that links the three premiere parks of Denver together that w in great shape after the rain, bright with well-tended flower beds, open lawns, and mature trees to enjoy throughout the ride.

I set off south on my road bike going along the paved carriageway that loops around Washington park, passing over irrigation canals, beside reflecting lakes and ponds, under leafy canopies, and around ball courts and picnic areas that compose a park so classically designed that it has been recognized as one of "America's Great Public Spaces". The rain had seemed to clear out some of the usual runners, roller skaters, dog walkers, and cyclists that fill the park at all times, leaving the wide roadway relatively open. The wet asphalt shined the rubber of my skinny tires but still felt grippy and secure while pedaling. At the North end of the park, I turned out of the entrance onto Marion Street where a bike lane afforded me plenty of elbow room once I left the more controlled setting of the park. The road bends around the high hedges and brick walls of the Denver Country Club along smooth concrete and continues to Speer Boulevard. From there, I crossed Speer to enter the Country Club Historic Neighborhood and with a right on 3rd a left on Gilpin, a quick right onto 4th and finally one more left on to Williams I entered the heart of this vintage area of landscaped medians and large homes in the Mediterranean style and the American Foursquare style of architecture (a favorite of mine). Dried leaves under my tires signaled that the first day of Autumn had just passed a few days before and the branches would soon be bare.

Williams Street led right into Cheesman Park, and I followed the park road counter-clockwise past the distinctive pavilion and the fence line of the Denver Botanic Gardens to the west of the park. Leaving the park on Franklin and crossing busy Colfax to 16th guided me in to East High School and City Park. East's clock tower, modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia glowed in the setting sun as I turned north below to follow the Esplanade into the third park of the journey. Built during the City Beautiful era of landscape architecture at the turn of the 20th century, City Park is a worthwhile stop for both visitors to, and residents of Denver. Surrounded by the Denver Zoo, the Museum of Nature and Science, and a variety of shops and restaurants, a whole day can be easily absorbed by the distractions included in the park and its neighborhood. I stopped to admire the view across Lake Ferril, the fountain a shimmering spray of gold. With the sun quickly sliding behind the Rockies I quickly completed the loop through City Park and retraced my route back through Cheesman Park to Washington Park before dark to close out a wonderful Colorado weekend. Three great parks and an hour of effort.

Your Turn

Washington Park is easy to find by taking Speer Blvd to Downing and driving South. Turn into the Park at Exposition to start this ride. Any of the Parks can be enjoyed singly on foot as well. This ride is best at a leisurely pace where riders can stop to enjoy the views and parklands along the way.

PNP Extra

Let Chipotle and Qdoba battle it out for "most popular" of the Mission-style Burrito joints while the locals quietly enjoy the menu at fun, casual burrito joint Illegal Pete's. After the ride, refuel at their South Broadway location. I recommend the "Big Potato" burrito; it fills you up perfectly with crisped potatoes, a primavera vegetable medley and a selection of house-made salsas to dial in just the right heat!