Winds of Change

High Line Canal Trail

Rose-colored and crisp, the coming dawn threw long the shadows of naked cottonwood trees beside the trail. Early on a Sunday morning only a few others had begun chasing their breath along the Highline Canal Trail and I started quickly to stave off the cold. I had a long run to get done, the last one in preparation for an upcoming road race, and I chose on this morning a favorite trail for long slow training runs. A blustery wind stirred brown and gold leaves around my feet upon setting off from the trailhead, portending that the wind would be with and against me frequently during the workout ahead.

Photo Credit:  John Fielder

Photo Credit: John Fielder

The High Liine Canal Trail is, in my estimation, one of the finest urban paths in the world as it follows its circuitous, sidewinding, 71-mile course from Waterton Canyon in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the thirsty grasses of the Great Plains east of Denver. The trail runs beside the canal itself, once a vital water source for early agriculture in the high desert landscape that surrounded the pioneer city. An engineering marvel upon its completion in 1883, the story of the canal's history serves as a fascinating case study of the development of The American West complete with ambitious tycoons, corrupt politicians, water wars (when farmers took up arms to patrol the head gates), and grand plans laid, achieved, and ruined. The High Line Canal serves few customers today. Its companion trail, however, provides a half-million runners, dog walkers, birders, photographers, cyclists, and equestrians with an outstanding place to recreate and recharge every year. 

It is the perfect terrain for running fitness with a nearly flat grade (dropping only two feet each mile over its total length). Athletes can run or bike for miles without having to stop for traffic as the trail slips below grade to pass under a few major roadways or crosses quieter neighborhood streets at grade. My favorite segment runs between the Goodson Recreation Center on South University and the Denver First Church of the Nazarene on Hampden Avenue. Here it is composed of a wide gravel path lined with ancient, thickly-barked cottonwood trees that grew out of the parched dirt when the water started flowing. The trail winds through open space, retired farm fields now reverted to bulrush wetlands and quaint pastures with sweeping mountain views. Beyond the marshes and meadows, homes of the affluent line the route.  On today's run each time I turned to face the mountains, a wintry wind born out of the icy peaks in the distance delivered a head-on buffeting that required vigorous effort to hold pace. But as the trail bent back on itself, that same breeze offered a helpful tailwind to supplement my own work. These changing winds offered a metaphor for the landscape, one that has seen frequent change in the last century from dry prairie, to verdant farmland, to suburban development. Rusting farm machinery and abandoned wooden outbuildings stand forlornly in places as testament to this change. Abundant birdlife chirp their perspectives as you pass. It is a wonderful gift that civic stewards supported protection of the High Line Canal Trail and the area around it, safeguarding a sliver of wilderness in the midst of a major metropolis. Through it's preservation, the High Line Canal Trail tells a unique story of the region, one that like today's chilly winds, changes at each turn.

P&P Bonus

Denver Water, the public utility that manages water for the Denver area, publishes a mile-by-mile guide to the High Line Canal Trail rich with history and details about what you will encounter along your journey. Pick up a copy before you head out for a hike, bike, or run. You can find out where to get your hands on it here.

Go Do It

There are dozens of places to access the High Line Canal trail. One good place to start a run is at the Denver First Church on Hampden. Take I-25 south from Denver to exit 201 US 285/Hampden. Drive approximately 1.5 miles west on Hampden to Denver First Church on the south side of the street You can't miss this large cylindrical edifice. South Monroe Street just west of the church has designated parking alongside it. You can use the church parking lot as well though they ask you to park in the far southwest corner during Sunday services. The trailhead is just around to the right off Covington Drive. Follow the asphalt sidewalk over the bridge and take a left onto the trail.