Southern Spin

South Denver Bike Loop

I recently gave the running legs a break with a road bike ride through southwest Denver linking together several bike trails for a diverse 30-mile loop. Across the street from the Regal Cinema at River Point I turned right onto the Bear Creek Trail (BCT) and set off along the narrow twisting concrete towards the western foothills. Before making the right turn I noticed ahead the bridge that I'd come back across to finish the ride. Rusted barbed wire and and industrial metal fencing along the trail contrasted with the grasses and overhanging trees along Bear Creek's gently flowing waters. Several clatter-board bridges span the creek in this early section with relatively tight turns. Broken Tee Golf Course's rolling fairways lined the left side of the trail. The first tricky route finding happened at about 1.5 miles where the route intersects South Lowell Blvd. Pausing to look for oncoming traffic I  turned left (south) onto Lowell to pass over a bridge with an immediate right after this bridge to continue on the BCT. To the left I passed the well-kept athletic fields outside Mullen High School and entered into Bear Creek Park over another bridge. The route ducked under US Hwy 285, then Sheridan Blvd, and passed into the Bear Creek Greenbelt under another overpass at Wadsworth Blvd where the prairie dogs living trailside greeted me upon my arrival. On the far side of the Greenbelt (5.3 miles) I stopped at the Stone House in Lakewood Park, a uniquely constructed 19th-century home listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I followed a metal-blue dragonfly back to the trail where it resumed its westward direction by passing under Estes Street. Knowing about another tricky bit of route finding on the approach to Kipling Street I was sure to stay left at the junction, crossing over a creek bridge and then taking a right at the next junction to pass under the road grade elevated above. Not long after a right at a T-junction followed by a left to continue heading west got me around Kipling Parkway. Winding on behind condos and then curving right along the edge of the Fox Hollow Golf course, the most challenging route finding was done.

At the crossing of Fox Hollow Lane (7.3 miles) the path continued to the left paralleling the two-lane road to the Fox Hollow Golf Course. I slowed near the clubhouse of this public golf course to avoid any collisions with golf carts heading from to the tees. Here the trail picked up a wide road shoulder and began a gradual climb up towards the Mount Carbon Dam. Small, energetic birds flitted in and out of the sheltered area around the dam's outflow and the broad treeless earthen mass of the dam created a surreal landscape along this section of the ride. The biggest, steepest climb of the route proceeded by winding between the fairways and greens of the Homestead Golf Course to the top of the 250 foot climb. After huffing and puffing to the top I was rewarded with long views out to the foothills, back to the skyscrapers of downtown Denver, and upon Bear Creek Reservoir below. There are restrooms here as well as complimentary water. Back to the trail junction at mile 9.8 I held on for a windy and speedy serpentine descent into the open prairie of Bear Creek Lake Park. An unmarked junction at 11.3 miles signals a left turn that had me climbing again to cross over route 285 and out of the park to the C-470 Trail. The sidewalk alongside Home Depot on Eldridge Street led across Quincy Avenue and past power lines and prairie dogs.

Now on the C-470 bikeway I was sandwiched between Eldridge Street and the busy Hwy C-470 climbing steadily to Tipsy's, a Walmart-sized liquor outlet and a road crossing at Bowles Ave. The trail here begins descending and zooming along like the traffic on adjacent C-470. I searched for hawks above the hogbacks on the other side of the freeway here, but hardly had time to look up as I whizzed along on the smooth concrete. I was fortunate to catch the light at Kipling Avenue where the rest of the route continued as uninterrupted bike path all the way to the finish. Cresting a hill, the summer heat tempted me to stop for a refreshing break at Deer Creek Pool, a public facility of the City of Littleton with direct access from the trail. Big views across Chatfield Lake, filled with boaters on the day I passed by, offered more temptation to pedal a few extra miles for  a visit to the swim beach. Instead, I soldiered on with my sub 2-hour goal in mind. The trail ducked away from C-470 to pass through the tunnel below Wadsworth Blvd. Another short climb and a descent to a left-turning pigtail kept me on track for the tunnel under C-470 (if you hit asphalt instead of concrete you've overshot this turn). that brought me into Chatfield State Park. Staying left, the trail passed heavy concrete flood control structures engineered to prevent South Platte River flooding and I enjoyed the straight away descent beside the river to a Y-junction shaded by cottonwood trees. Again staying left onto the Mary Carter Greenway I pedaled under a bridge and scooted a round-about entering the busiest segment of this road ride.

Threading between Eaglewatch and Redtail Lake, the trail became very scenic for the next couple of miles passing through South Platte Park and by the Carson Nature Center. The lakes offer opportunities to birdwatch, fish and relax not far from the bustle of downtown Denver. I was especially cautious and mindful in this area considering all the other trail users including joggers, runners, many cyclists, and even families with baby strollers. There is a 15mph speed limit on the trail and roundabouts to slow competitive riders. There has been at least one fatal accident between two cyclists on this section of trail so be careful when in this area. A couple miles up the trail I saw the large barn at the Hudson Gardens and Event Center. I highly recommend stopping off at the trailside Nixon's Coffe House here for a pit stop. Fresh smoothies or a light lunch make a great compliment to this day touring the outskirts of Denver. Hudson Gardens is free to visit and features beekeeping, herb gardens, rose gardens, Victoria Water lillies, vegetable gardens, aquatic plants, a water garden, and my favorite garden: the conifer grove. But the best part of the place, not far at all from the bikeway is the Garden Railroad, an outdoor model train set running through a landscaped slope of tunnels, landforms, and native plants.  From Hudson Gardens I crossed over to the west side of the river as soon as  I could find a bridge and spun out a few more quick miles back to the starting point enjoying the downhill grade and keeping an eye out for paddlers and stand-up-paddle borders at the Union Chutes and another eye out for errant golf balls as I passed back through the Broken Tee Golf course in the final mile of the ride and over one last bridge back to the movie theatre. This ride really is an outstanding tour on a summer day with plenty of unique options to enrich the experience along the way.

Your Turn

The South Denver Bike Loop is challenging based only on its distance which can be broken up by many diversions along the way to permit rest and leisure. Plan at least a half-day if you want to stop at the Stone House, Deer Creek Pool, and Hudson Gardens. Check the websites for hours of operation. The trip over to the Chatfield Swim Beach would be an extra 3 to 4 miles there-and-back. If riding this route with no side trips or stops expect to take between two to three hours on a road bike. Bear Creek Lake Park also has wildlife, trails, and a swim beach to explore on this loop. Of course, you can finish your ride recovery with a visit to the cinema at which the ride begins and ends. It has air-conditioning after all.

P&P Extra

Replenish your carbohydrates with breakfast at Lucille's Creole Cafe. The Eggs Sardou (creamed spinach, gulf shrimp, and hollandaise) will instantly transport you to the French Quarter and the buttermilk biscuits with house-made jam will fill you up for the rest of the day. Eat it guilt-free after pedaling about 28 miles to get there! If you want to include this on your loop, stay on the bike path that keeps to the east side of the South Platte River after leaving Hudson Gardens until you reach the restaurant at Bowles Ave. You can still cross back over to the west side after leaving Lucile's. It is located at 2852 West Bowles Ave, Littleton, CO 80120. 303-797-1190


Where the Buffalo Roam

Hiking Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

In March 2007, while many Denver-ites celebrated their Irish-ness, guzzling green beer, the heavy hooves of 16 bison churned into the dirt ten miles east of the city center. These were the first bison to set foot here in over a century. Their return was made possible by the efforts of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Shell Oil Company as part of a US Army chemical manufacturing site restoration now called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (RMANWR). On maps of Denver, the Refuge fills a surprisingly large block of green color northeast of downtown. Twenty minutes or less from almost anywhere in the city, the RMANWR allows hikers like me to sample the great outdoors with a quick escape, and to feel even more connected to the wild by viewing the small herd of bison that has prospered here since their St. Patrick's Day arrival.

I started my visit to the Refuge at the Pat Schroeder Visitor Center just inside the southwest entrance. The newly constructed building has the requisite gift shop, auditorium, and museum, familiar to most visitor centers. The exhibits in the museum revealed a surprisingly rich history to me, from its earliest paleoindian inhabitants, to the subsequent evolution that includes time  as a homestead for immigrant farmers and ranchers in the 1860s, a US Army chemical weapons manufacturing facility in the World War II era,  one of the worst EPA environmental disaster sites in the 1970s, and a diverse restoration effort in the 1990s to become one of today's largest urban National Wildlife Refuges. The visitor center also has a little desk staffed by volunteers that told me where I might best see the bison. After getting the update at the visitor center I took time for the short scenic drive into the bison pen. Just after passing through the gate in the 10-foot high wire fence I saw a collection of mule deer grazing in the fresh springtime forage, their namesake ears having no doubt heard me coming long before I spotted them. At the next turn and within twenty yards of the road I came upon the herd of about 30 visible bison. Shaggy of fur, sharp of horns, and with a nonchalant demeanor, the beasts leisurely browsed through the prairie. From the safety of the car I could snap a few photos and observe the behavior of these large inhabitants of the plains and symbols of the West. It's good to have them back after a long absence.

Turning off a side road from the wildlife loop I stopped at the "contact station", a name as utilitarian as its design, where a parking lot served as a trailhead to multiple different trail loops. My own hiking route led down a freshly-burned embankment to the cattail-ringed shores of Lake Mary. After circling the lake, the Prairie Trail meandered through a large water diversion culvert, under some high-tension electrical wires, and up to higher ground, a grassy expanse that served as a home for curious and communicative prairie dogs.

Tall clouds piled up above in the western sky while smaller clouds of mosquitos swarmed around my head, though I seemed to remain generally bite-free. Perhaps it was the easterly prairie breeze that kept the mosquitos at bay. The same breeze held two distant raptors aloft, circling, their keen eyes certainly seeing me more clearly than I could see their forms high overhead.The prints of deer hooves in the soft dirt led along the same trail that I followed.  Oddly-shaped and mysterious concrete forms lay sporadically off this section of the trail, a remnant of some unknown past use here; now one more secret of the Refuge. Perhaps they marked the course of an old ranch road or maybe parts of the structure of a cold-war bunker.

After about one mile, A short wooden-and-rope bridge spanned an irrigation ditch and then the trail crossed pavement to a segment that became more abandoned roadway then single-track dirt trail. This stretch of the hike traversed intermittent groves of shaded sumac tree yet to leaf in for the season. The butterflies seemed to like these thickets as I began seeing them in great numbers here. One, a small white butterfly flitted left and right before me with what appeared to be great effort. A larger black butterfly paused for a brief rest on the ground ahead of me before continuing on it's afternoon travels. The trail passed a square meadow surrounded by neatly placed cottonwood trees that, on past visits to the refuge had sheltered herds of deer, though on today's visit none were to be seen. A red-breasted robin flew from the ground to a  a nearby tree as I approached. Perhaps more than any other bird, the robin symbolizes spring for me, and its presence assured me that winter was quickly ending here on the Colorado plains. The whole trail  through the refuge in fact was resplendent with bird life. No silence on the plains here with all the lively bird calls filling the air with cheerful melody.

Here the landscape rose and fell like a swelling sea, undulating with swales and hummocks carpeted by tall grasses rustling in the air. Ducking again into sumac shrubs the snapping sound of fleeing grasshopper wings smacked in the air as they leapt away from my passing. I was approaching a wetland, the farthest point of today's hike, and the croaking of frogs began to enter my awareness. At a deep puddle off came my shoes and socks followed by an ankle-deep wade to access the bird blind set in the marshy soil beside the ponds. Through the openings in the wooden wall of the blind I spotted American coots, their white faces and dark bodies bobbing on the surface of the pond. Mallards, and other ducks also criss-crossed the pond. A white-tailed deer bounded away from the shore. This idyllic scene alone was worth the effort it took to reach this place. And on the outskirts of a community of two-and-a-half million people, I had it all to myself.

On the way back along the trail, I was reminded of my proximity to the largest city between Chicago and Las Vegas. Emergency sirens wailed, the roar of airline engines screamed overhead, high-tension wires criss-crossed the view, and I could spy manufacturing centers and warehouses through the trees to the south. Still, my immediate surroundings felt wild. I turned right down a segment of trail that had been closed since recent floods, a quarter-mile stretch along an old road. The terrain was easy to traverse by foot and I was uncertain about why the trail had been closed to public use. Dry leaves crunched underfoot, and an unsual red-orange grasshopper sprang along in front of me for a few minutes as if showing me the best way through this section. The trail again crossed a road and picked back up along the shore of Lake Ladora. Above the water a red-winged blackbird chased a companion through the air. Across one arm of the lake, the trail used a floating bridge above the lake.

The wind shifted and now the western clouds heaped up and darkened in a way that threatened to unleash a torrent of rain. In the distance virga, a phenomenon that occurs when falling rain dries up before it reaches the ground, hanging like a natural curtain. The looming clouds raised concerns that I might finish this hike with a soaking. In the distance an old farmhouse and windmill stood as another reminder of bygone eras at the Refuge. The air absolutely filled with trills, tweets, whistles, chirps, and twitters from it's winged residents as I looped Lake Ladora back to the trailhead. Back at the contact station, I dove into the car just as raindrops began splattering from above. The short drive through the rain back past the visitor center and to the Refuge's exit returned me almost immediately to the surroundings of the urban landscape. The transition jarringly contrasted the natural landscape that I left behind in the Refuge. There wasn't disappointment with the change however. Rather, I felt thankful to have a place so close to home to be immersed in the kind of wildness that comes with big skies and bird song. And roaming buffalo.

Your Turn

The RMANWR is open from sunrise to sunset 7 days a week (closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day) but the visitor center is only open from Wednesday to Sunday from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. As a National Wildlife Refuge, Rocky Mountain Arsenal limits some activities including, biking, running, pets, and hunting. Fishing is allowed on Lake Ladora and Lake Mary and requires a Colorado fishing license and an additional RMANWR permit  ($3.00 at the contact station). Occasional tours are offered by park staff. More information is available by calling (303)289-0930.

P&P Extra: 

On adjacent land that was once also a part of the US Army site, the community of Commerce City built a sports stadium that is now home to the Colorado Rapids professional soccer team. The site has also hosted rugby and lacrosse events and occasional music concerts. If planned well, you could follow your visit to the refuge with rooting for the home team during an exciting Rapids home game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and have an "only-in-Colorado" experience.

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.