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30 days to explore 30 parks in and around Denver

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Parks are at once places of great nostalgia and new discoveries. I set out to visit 30 different parks in 30 days, and the odyssey took me from Aurora to Westminster to Lakewood to Dillon. Mostly I explored my hometown of Denver, where I learned that the parks system, at 138 years old, is made up of 154.9 square miles of urban forest alone. Who knew?

Along the way, I encountered everything from “Harry Potter”-inspired Quidditch to a rare albino red-tailed hawk to a guy I grew up with in the old neighborhood.

Not a bad way to spend your days.


Where: Ralston Road and Grandview Avenue, Arvada

This pristine pocket park where I used to practice football is anchored by a semi-circular pavilion on the north side and the McIlvoy family home on the south, built in 1880. It would become Arvada’s first library and is now home to the Arvada Historical Society — with a lawn currently sporting a pinwheel garden. Believe it or not, when I visited, a crew from football star Terry Bradshaw’s cable TV show, “Business Day,” was at McIlvoy shooting for an upcoming segment touting economic revival in the city of Arvada.


Where: Mariposa Street and West 13th Avenue, three blocks from the Santa Fe Arts District in Denver

This was a return for me to the park where I used to take the Head Start pre-schoolers I tutored to play. There is a lot of public housing nearby, and a school for at-risk youth. The poverty rate in the neighborhood is 37 percent, all of which scares off many an outsider. Their loss. Lincoln Park has a rec center, basketball court, lighted football and softball fields, horseshoe pit, tennis court and an outdoor pool with the coolest slide this side of Water World. Trendy “mixed-income housing” will soon transform the park’s reputation and demographic.


Where: West 35th Avenue and Fenton Street, Wheat Ridge

This one was another sentimental pick, because I wanted to revisit my hazy teenage memories of playing softball and causing mayhem after we’d get off work at the old Elitch Gardens. But what did I find? Quidditch! Yes, there was a gang of “Harry Potter” witches and wizards riding their flying broomsticks with one hand, while trying to toss a quaffle (OK, it was a volleyball) through any of three vertical hoop-shaped goals with the other. Yes, the fictional game that J.K.Rowling invented for her series of children’s novels is fictional no more. Young Charles Burden, coach of the new Colorado Capybaras (those are 4-foot rats), says there are more than 500 mostly college teams playing Quidditch nationwide. The semi-contact sport is a combination of rugby, dodgeball and capture the flag.


Where: West 25th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, Denver

Sloan’s Lake, or Sloans, or Sloan — whatever — is the rare urban park that offers spectacular views on two sides: The downtown skyline over water from the west, and mountain sunsets over water from the east. A recently completed $3 million improvement plan included the construction of a pedestrian marina that extends about 100 feet over the water. The major event of the year is the July 28-29 Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.


Where: West 20th Avenue and Little Raven Street, Denver

SkatePark is the only park in Denver where you’ll find a welcome sign that says, “You must be under control at all times,” and recommends the wearing of a helmet and knee pads. Denver SkatePark is considered one of the biggest and best free parks of its kind in the nation. It’s rolling with bowls, moguls, vertical ramps, half-pipes, a street course and all manner of other ways to defy gravity and smash your bones into concrete. The park is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, but when they say the park closes at 11, they mean it like a prison. It’s lights-off at the stroke of the hour, which didn’t end well that night for one kid in mid-jump.


Where: East Virginia Avenue and South Downing Street, Denver

Wash Park is where average-looking people go to feel really, really bad about themselves. I mean, everywhere you look, everyone looks perfect. This is where the beautiful people go to run, bike, forehand and hoop. Why, even the joggers pushing baby strollers are busily working down their postpartum 2 percent body fat. Wash Park is also where, as I discovered, college students have discovered a way to chill out in above-water hammocks.


Where: West 11th Avenue and Speer Boulevard

Chances are you’ve driven down Speer Boulevard a hundred times without even noticing Sunken Gardens, because it’s, well, sunken. This park is basically shaped like two Bermuda Triangles placed next to one another, neither giving away much hint of this park’s glorious past. Eighty years ago, Sunken Gardens was home to a raised concrete pool aside an elegant pavilion with wrought-iron benches and manifold, manicured flower gardens. Last year, the park was called out in the media as a haven for heroin dealers who had been pushed out of Civic Center. No signs of the black tar today. Now it’s an urban oasis that draws huge crowds for the eye-catching Yoga Rocks the Park mass workouts (next session: July 22).


Where: Speer Boulevard and Corona Street, Denver

It’s been said that a century ago, Denver Mayor Robert Speer believed that no one within Denver’s city limits should live more than a mile from a city park, which may explain why Denver is rife with “pocket parks,” little block-sized patches of green that dot our city. This one is named for the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet military. More than 2,500 Hungarians died in the first 18 days of the uprising, which didn’t really end until 1991.


Where: East Iliff Avenue and South Kittredge Way, Aurora

Walking the Cherry Creek Spillway Trail, constructed as flood mitigation for nearby homes, can seem like a winding and largely barren trek right out of “Prairie Dog Home Companion.” There are hundreds more of the frightened little rodents than actual people using the trail, which spiders off in places, making your cellphone GPS a useful accessory. It’s a lonely, arid walk that suddenly opens up to Horseshoe Park proper, a bona fide piece of greenery with a playground and two baseball fields.


Where: North of 20th Street at Little Raven Street, Denver

I had to check out the City of Cuernavaca Park because my mother lived in Denver’s sister city in Mexico for 15 years, teaching Spanish to local schoolgirls by having them perform in quintessential American plays like “Our Town.” In English, “Cuernavaca” means “near the woods.” The lush park that bears its name is a circular park that you can loop by twice crossing short bridges over the majestic South Platte. There’s a baseball field, an elegant covered pavilion, great views of downtown and lots of green grass, which serves as a heck of a front door for the Flour Mill Lofts. After the Gold Rush faded, flour mills flourished in the Platte River Valley, thanks in large part to the transcontinental railroad that still chugs along the eastern edge of the park.


Where: West of Wadsworth Boulevard at West 48th Avenue, Wheat Ridge

Johnson Park is an unlikely nature respite, given its proximity to both Interstate 70 and Arvada’s urban-renewal retail sprawl directly north. But if you didn’t hear the cars, you’d think you were in the mountains, following the Clear Creek Trail that continues for 8 miles, all the way up to Golden. Along the way, you’ll pass a small tombstone announcing the death of 23-year-old Peter Andrew Durbin, a local kayaker who drowned in the churning water below a nearby spillway in 1977. If you take this walk, take this tip: If you are the antisocial type, avert your eyes. People here tend to be abnormally polite. Consider yourself warned.


Where: Federal Boulevard and West 12th Avenue, Denver

There’s a buzz in the air, in a couple of ways, at this distinctly hilly Paco Sanchez Park. First, it literally hums from the sound of endless power towers that line the walking path. And then there’s that better kind of buzz, the kind that comes with hope and change. This park, with its peaks, valleys and majestic views of the downtown skyline, will soon host a stop on the nearly complete westbound light-rail line. The park is named after the activist who launched Denver’s first Spanish-language radio station in 1954.


Where: West Florida Avenue and South Pecos Street, Denver

Red Rocks has its (insane) stair climbers, and Ruby Hill Park has its (insane) hill climbers. Really. Denverites know Ruby Hill as a winter nirvana for sledders, boarders and tubers. The city encourages the fun because, for many young minorities in this area that’s 63 percent Latino, the Ruby Hill Rail Yard (operated by Winter Park) is their first and only exposure to snow sports. But in the summer, groups of hard-core cardio runners jaunt down the famously steep hill toward the Platte River Bike Path. Go for it, if you are so “inclined” (sorry). Just be careful, because what goes down … must eventually chug back up.


Where: Kipling Street and West 32nd Avenue between Lakewood and Wheat Ridge

Don’t think of walking Crown Hill Park, located next to one of the state’s largest cemeteries, as a death march. You know the place: The west metro skyline has always started and ended with the huge Crown Hill Cemetery tower, behind which sits an expansive wildlife sanctuary and equine park. In all, the park covers 168 acres once owned by a well-known area pioneer named Henry Lee.


Where: West 72nd Avenue and Holland Street, Arvada

There’s a whole lot of learning going on at the truth-in-advertising Majestic View Park and Nature Center in Arvada. On any given weekday, dozens of youngsters are being schooled by retirees waxing philosophic and entomologic on spiders, mule deer, bears, snakes and much more. The 80 hilly acres of wetlands include insect, cattail and butterfly gardens, several horses and even promises of nearby coyotes. The indoor Nature Center offers environmental displays, rainforest wildlife exhibits and cool stuffed animals (and not the Hasbro kind).


Where: South Quebec Street and Dry Creek Road, Highlands Ranch

On a gloomy spring Saturday, I had rivers of cattail wetlands and open-space grasslands all to myself while exploring some of Willow Spring’s 158 acres. And that’s only a sliver of the massive South Suburban trail system that basically extends from the Cherry Creek Reservoir all the way to Chatfield State Park. I took the paved Little Dry Creek Trail, which begins as a traditional school park, but soon you’re off on a lonely mystery tour that begins with brush that’s taller than you are and soon affords both flatlands and bluffs that provide nice views of the (sort-of) Irish-looking open space below.


Where: West 94th Avenue at the Hyland Hills Golf Course, Westminster

My walking partner introduced me to this charming piece of landscape with the tantalizing words, “This is the scene of a lot of my children’s crimes when they were young.” (And you can’t blame them for remembering their childhood haunt as “Carroll’s Butt.”) The centerpiece of the park is a quaint blue picnic gazebo that extends halfway over the water. The park is populated by river otters that swim like torpedoes, crawdads, turtles and red-winged blackbirds. Youthful hooligans of old seem to have been replaced by cute little kids on bikes wearing big helmets that swallow their entire heads. “We didn’t wear helmets!” said my guide. “We didn’t even know about helmets!”


Where: West Sixth Avenue and Federal Boulevard, Denver

Barnum is basically one park sliced into three by highways. East Barnum Park is pretty much two baseball fields, while North Barnum Park is home to the super-cool new Trestle Bike Skills Course — another great partnership between Denver Parks and Rec and the Winter Park ski resort. It’s made up of three constructed hills and a series of dirt jumps. The main Barnum Park has both severe sloping that creates perhaps the best views of the downtown skyline of any Denver park. At the base is a reservoir fed by the Weir Gulch that attracts an astonishing variety of birds to its inner island.


Where: Where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek converge, close to the front door of the REI outdoor equipment store on Platte Street, Denver

Less a singular park than a spectacular point of reference, the rapids are a haven for urban tubers, kayakers and water-frolicking dogs. Walkers, cyclists and joggers can choose either side of the park and go their own way for miles. For history buffs, Confluence is where William Greenberry Russell discovered gold in 1858. Otherwise Colorado’s capital city might be Leadville, as was originally planned.


Where: Sheridan Boulevard and West 104th Avenue

Who needs nearby Water World when you have an indoor pool with such cool water slides (and doesn’t cost $40 to get into!)? Westminster’s sloping green jewel is 205 acres of open space that includes wetlands, four soccer fields, four baseball fields, a pond, 18 holes of disc golf and a skate park that’s not for the timid (or vertigo-challenged). There’s a wide array of wildlife, which I only know because friends Craig and Lauretta Lundquist were there to identify the massive herons, snapping turtles and even a rarely seen albino red-tailed hawk who has lived at this park for years after having been hit by a ball at a nearby golf course.


Where: East 17th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, Denver

With 330 acres, five bodies of water, the Denver Zoo, the Museum of Nature & Science and an old-timey boathouse, City Park is easily the biggest and baddest of all Denver parks. Modeled in 1882 after New York’s Central Park, Denver’s crown jewel looks in places like a scene right out of National Geographic … and in others, like a foreboding scene right out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Everywhere you look, there’s another crazy contest being played here. On Wednesday nights, it’s home to the silly and wildly popular Denver Kickball Social, a “cup-in-hand-required” adult recreational league — and you can bet that those cups are not filled with lake water. Here, playing ball is all about having a kick, not a kick in the teeth.


Where: East Third Avenue and Cherry Street, Denver

Despite its tongue-twisting name, to natives, this will always be “Sundial Park” for the famous round stone that tells accurate time because it is perfectly parallel to the equator. I overheard some visitors mocking the accuracy of the stone because its centerpiece (called a gnomon) was casting its shadow on 2 when it was, in fact, the strike of 3. When I chimed in that the sundial does not observe daylight savings time, I was met with blank stares as if to say, “Well, why not?”


Where: West 46th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, Denver

It sounds like a park that should be, you know, somewhere up in the Rocky Mountains, but instead this is five lovely city blocks in northwest Denver. It’s something of a little sister to the much larger Berkeley Park, which is eight blocks to the west but is still a mess from an ongoing, $3.25 million drainage improvement project. It’s a peaceful place whose look and feel changes dramatically with the seasons, most evidently when fog and steam rises from the wintertime ice.


Where: Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Central Park Boulevard, Denver

Who knew Denver even had a Central Park? Not me, until the recent opening of the new Central Park Boulevard exit off I-70 just east of Quebec Street. At 80 acres, this 2007 addition to the Denver parks lineup is one of its largest. Everything oozes of new, from the youthful trees to the gargantuan playground to the sparkling recreation center to the man-made bodies of water to the surrounding Stapleton housing development it primarily serves. The severely horizontal shape allows for six connected soccer fields and some wild old dudes who fly massive parachute-style kites powered by an 80-pound buggy. (It’s called kiteboarding — and it’s awesome. Even if one guy lost his grip in the whipping winds, and the rope nearly took my head off.)


Where: Dillon Marina

While not technically a Denver metro park, Dillon Res does supply about 20 percent of Denver’s water. The city claimed what was then a small finger lake as a high-country water reserve in 1961. The dam was built and the lake enlarged to roughly the size of Arvada. The original town of Dillon was flooded over, and residents were forced to move (for the fourth time in town history). The marina offers a little bit of everything — recreational sports, beach-like activities and an outdoor amphitheater.


Where:East 88th Avenue and Riverdale Road

I have no idea what goes on along East 88th Avenue between Colorado Boulevard and Interstate 76, but the road is lined with enough barbed wire and no-trespassing signs to convince me that if I ever found myself in the unfortunate situation of having to dump a body … well, let’s just say there are spots along the way here that might not be happened upon by another human for dozens of years. Once you do find your way in, the space opens to a wonderful world of green, aqua- and real-life deers. This quiet gem is 144 acres of fishing, horseback riding, hiking, picnic areas and links to the regional South Platte River Trail system.


Where: 15th and Little Raven streets, Denver

This really is the best of all possible parks. It has lush, rolling hills; winding trails; fancy bridges; aspens; public art; a winding stone staircase; million-dollar lofts to gawk at; a spectacular waterfront … and, as odd as it is to say of a bustling downtown park lined with trendy shops — Riverfront also offers opportunities to disappear into utter seclusion. This area, once an immigrant magnet called The Bottoms, is a perfect urban respite for hand-holders, readers, dog-walkers, students and lovers.


Where: Cherry Street and Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard, Denver

It’s amazing what a half a million bucks can do. That’s what the city pumped into this underused pocket park in a lower-income area just south of Park Hill Golf Course, and look what happened: Usage is up 500 percent since the 2010 overhaul, according to a Denver parks and rec survey. It’s named for one of Denver’s many sister cities — this one in northern Ethiopia. That’s considered the cradle of humanity, home to a 3.2 million-year-old hominid named Lucy, the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba. And in return they … well, now they have a street named “Denver,” so I’d say we got the better end of that deal.


Where: Brooks Drive and Carr Street, Arvada

North Jeffco Park, the park of my youth, is closed until spring 2013 for drainage improvements that will protect 90 nearby homes from flooding. To accomplish this, every structure in the park (now called Hoskinson) has been, or will be, torn down. Over time, we long-timers who grew up searching for crawdads in Ralston Creek have watched the ice-skating rink and the swimming pool close down. Now the the picnic pavilion and playground have been bulldozed. And soon, the tennis courts and what remains of the indoor rec center will be leveled. But what most galls many is the untold number of massive, majestic trees that have been cut down in the park. The city identified 40 trees, including many memorial trees, for relocation to either the southwest corner of the park, or to nearby Wolff Park (at Carr Street and Ralston Road). But any trees it deemed unlikely to survive transplantation were simply cut down. How many is anyone’s guess. But the place looks like an arboreal graveyard. The good news is that the area east of Carr Street (now known as Memorial Park), is thriving as an 18-hole “Disc Golf Course” (we just called it Frisbee golf.) It’s named after Johnny Roberts, a man whose lifelong custom of hugging everyone he met earned him the nickname “Squeezer Geezer.”

DAY 30: Not yet named park

Where: East 13th Avenue and Xenia Street, Denver

Dust yourself off: It seems only fitting to wind up with a visit to a park so new it doesn’t even have a name yet. This pocket park on the edge of Denver’s border with Aurora opens June 23 in a lower-income neighborhood where a vacant lot once stood. The park, whose new playground is presently wrapped in caution tape, was designed with input from more than 1,000 neighbors from at least eight different countries, including Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan and Nepal. The city of Denver is hoping for a United Nations-like turnout by the new immigrants and refugees who will most utilize their new park and garden. A contest was held to name the park, and the winner was supposed to be announced May 28, but hasn’t yet. Whoever that winner is gets to cut the ribbon at the opening celebration.

The above entries have been condensed. To read the full blog, go to

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson June 5, 2012

    Lions Park in Golden is one of my favorites; just went there yesterday. The playground is great, big shade trees surrounding, and fantastic bike path along Clear Creek. Also love watching the kayakers at the whitewater park across the street.

  • comment avatar kagey June 5, 2012

    It’s always good to have spray park handy once the summer really heats up – Great Plains Park, Aurora, has a nice shade pavilion, a smaller set of play ground equipment, a larger set of playground equipment, restrooms, and of course, the spray park.

    It’s just east of Tower Rd off Iliff (actually right after Iliff bends up and become Jewell).

  • comment avatar Andrea June 5, 2012

    Centennial Central Park and Westlands Park.

  • comment avatar Anna June 5, 2012

    Great list! Webster Lake at 120th and Grant is great year round too! Paddle boats were just put out this week, and it really is a beautiful, fun park 🙂

  • comment avatar Bridgett June 5, 2012

    Took my kiddos to Majestic View Nature Center in Arvada, and the playground has recently been rebuilt. It is really nice. There is a sign on the equipment recommended ages 5 – 12. It was a little hard for my 2 year old to get around I had to help him on most things.

  • comment avatar Scott June 5, 2012

    I enjoyed reading the 30 Parks in 30 Days article in today’s Denver Post Out West section — but I was amazed to discover that the Evergreen Park & Recreation District didn’t make the list! I expected to find the beautiful Evergreen Lake Park near the top. I invite John to take a trip just half an hour or so west of Denver and discover a true gem.

    The shimmering blue 40-acre Evergreen Lake, with majestic mountains and a grassy golf course (often populated by elk) at one end and historic downtown Evergreen at the other, is a four-season oasis for residents and visitors alike. In the summer we offer boating, trout fishing, picnicking, strolling or running on the 1.3-mile dirt path around the lake, bird watching and more. On Wednesday evenings, summer concerts fill the air with festive music and the spirit of community. The historic wooden boathouse also features an inviting nature center for families.

    The Evergreen Lake House, with the rustic log cabin charm of a mountain getaway, is the crown jewel of our community, hosting events year-round from meetings to weddings. During the winter, the west end of the lake is transformed into an 8-acre ice skating center named one of the west’s Top 10 Ice Skating Rinks by Sunset Magazine, which wrote, “This 40-acre lake in the foothills west of Denver is the kind other mountain towns would kill for.” This year’s first winter festival attracted hundreds of enthusiasts.

    Come experience Evergreen Lake for yourself, and see why it belongs on everyone’s list of top parks in metro Denver!

    Scott Robson, Executive Director
    Evergreen Park & Recreation District