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.


For The Birds

Crown Hill Park and Wildlife Sanctuary

PHOTO CREDIT: VICTOR VON SALZA

PHOTO CREDIT: VICTOR VON SALZA

Just a few minutes from my home, Crown Hill Park and Wildlife Sanctuary is an oasis in the midst of the high and dry grassland of the Denver Basin. The 242-acre park has two distinct bodies of water surrounded by 10 miles of gravel and concrete pathways. Urban anglers fish for trout while walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and in-line skaters pass on the 1.2 mile loop that encircles Crown Hill Lake. Leashed dogs strain against their tethers with the hope of breaking free to explore the meadows on their own terms. Horseback riders depart from the park's corral to trot the gravel paths that trace the perimeter of the park. Bird lovers set out at the blinds around the pond in the enclosed wildlife sanctuary on a parcel of wetlands in the northwest corner of the park.

Tucked between the towns of Wheat Ridge and Lakewood, suburbs of Denver once composed solely of golden wheat fields and irrigated orchards, Crown Hill is one of the great parks under the care of Jefferson County Open Space. On a late-November weekday I find Crown Hill Park relatively quiet. But the park is always a quiet place, a sanctuary not just for its wildlife but for city dwellers too. The open space here affords unobstructed views to the foothills west of Denver and even a few of the snowcapped peaks hiding along the Continental Divide. I enter the gated trail into the wildlife preserve and though the sound of traffic on Kipling and 32nd still fills the air, the path below a canopy of trees feels secluded. Upon my approach, a red-tailed hawk glides on powerful wings from a trailside tree to one more distant. My pace and pulse slow. Here in the preserve, modest Kestrel Pond has frozen over, a thin veneer of ice muting the sounds of the crickets, frogs, and other shore-life that are more active in the warmer months. Peace prevails. Brown and dormant, slender cattail reeds ring the lake and reach heights that would block the view were it not for the elevated boardwalk at the east end of the pond. I exit the sanctuary and take the graveled trail around the main lake. Bright sunshine filtered only by empty space and our cosmically thin atmosphere warms the catfish swirling below the as-yet-unfrozen waters of Crown Hill Lake. On the far side a cacophony of honking crescendoes in the sky as hundreds of migrating Canada geese pass overhead to settle on the open water of the lake, a restful stop during their autumn flight. Their stay is brief and the spectacle fades as thousands of wings lift again to resume the long journey. I am astonished by the good fortune to be at the lake when this avian congregation makes its appearance. My own visit to Crown Hill Park and Wildlife Sanctuary concludes shortly after the geese depart and I leave assured that the park is living up to its role as a haven for the wild surrounded by an environment of the built and manufactured.

P&P Bonus

On your way over to Crown Hill Park, plan a stop at Dolce Sicilia, an Italian Bakery on the corner of 32nd Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard. Pick up a box of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth cookies or a couple fresh ricotta cannoli to snack on while exploring the park. Alternatively, a pizza or calzone for a post-walk lunch might be just what you need to replenish the energy spent out on the trails.

Go Do It

Crown Hill Park is located northwest of Denver. If you're coming from the city center, take 6th Avenue West to Kipling Blvd. Proceed north for 2.3 miles to 26th Avenue. Turn right, drive past the first lot on your left (unless you have a loaded horse trailer) to the next parking lot on the left. This will place you close to the main lake and easy access to all trails within the park. Details about rules, regulations, and other park information can be found here.

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.