Denver’s mountain parks

By Jeff Miller


Denver Parks
© AAA Colorado / Carrie Patrick

Everyone knows that in our frantic modern world, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get away from it all. Who has the time to escape?

It might be hard to believe, but 100 years ago people were asking the same question about urban stress and how it might be alleviated. Pioneer conservationists such as John Muir spawned a populist movement that helped create America’s national parks system. Muir wrote: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity, and that mountain parks are ... fountains of life.”

Denver took those words to heart. In 1910 a local businessman proposed to the Denver Chamber of Commerce a series of mountain parks, linked by a network of roads, all within a day’s drive of Denver. The idea gained overwhelming support. The city hired Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., whose famous father had designed New York City’s Central Park, to design the system. On horseback and on foot he wandered the hills and valleys west of town, planning a series of interconnecting roads to various locations that Denver would buy and develop into parks.

The first parcel of land, Genesee Park, was bought in 1913. By 1925, all roads in Olmstead’s plan were complete. The toughest to build was the road to the top of Mount Evans, which took three years to complete in the mid-1920s. The altitude not only took its toll on the workers, it also limited the effectiveness of their steam shovels and jack-hammers. Only after gas-driven shovels and compressed-air jack-hammers were introduced did work proceed.

By the 1930s, the system was so popular that a handy map offered “eight wonderful scenic trips through Denver’s Famous Mountain Parks,” detailing drives of varying lengths. The shortest was only 35 miles, while the longest was 143 miles—the Denver Mountain Parks Circle Drive, covering high-profile scenic locations like Lookout Mountain, Mount Evans Scenic Byway and Red Rocks Park in addition to little-known scenic gems such as Stapleton Park and Dedisse Park, mountain lakes and streams, pine forests and aspen groves.

Today, the Denver Mountain Parks system is on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes 46 named and unnamed mountain parks and wilderness areas that cover 14,141 acres across four counties. Most of its best features can still be seen by following the 1930s-era Circle Drive route.

Seeing it all in a day

Drivers should be forewarned, however—following the exact route can be challenging. Today’s superhighways have relegated the original roads to secondary status. The route is no longer marked, some roads have no signs, and a few sections are on dirt roads (though safe for any car). With numerous scenic stops, this drive can take a long, but rewarding, day.

Starting from Denver, go west on Highway 6 to Lookout Mountain Road (a.k.a. 19th Street, Lariat Trail Road, or Route 68), where two stone pillars announce “Entrance to Denver Mountain Parks.” Two other pillars used to stand outside Morrison, marking the end of the drive, but were swept away in heavy flooding during the 1930s.

Beyond the entrance pillars, the cutbacks, sharp turns and steep inclines give travelers an inkling of the effort it took to build Lookout Mountain Road. It winds upward through quiet stands of pines and aspens, offering views of Golden, the foothills and distant plains. Atop the 7,375-foot peak is a sweeping overlook, Buffalo Bill’s grave, a restaurant, gift shop and museum.

Just below the peak is Lookout Park, with a stone shelter, picnic tables and fireplaces. Running beside the park, the drive continues along Lookout Mountain Road to U. S. Highway 40. Turn right, heading for Bergen Park and Evergreen, and in about a mile is an overpass junction with Interstate 70 (Exit 254, Genesee Park). At this crossroads is a good panoramic view of the snow-coned Rocky Mountains, as well as the north pasture for the Genesee Park buffalo and elk herds.

Buffalo and elk were initially brought from Yellowstone in 1914. Today, both herds are rotated between Genesee’s north and south pastures. More buffalo reside in Daniels Park, which is south of downtown Denver and also part of the DMP system.

At the I-70 junction, the route crosses the highway, follows the Genesee Park sign past the south pasture, and climbs up to major facilities (including a softball field and elaborate shelter) near the top of 8,274-foot Genesee Mountain. From the peak, a 360-degree view proves the park’s name: Genesee is an Iroquois word for “beautiful valley.”

Heading to Chief Hosa Lodge

The route then backtracks about a half mile before taking a sharp right onto a dirt road, signposted “Genesee Park Picnic Area.” As you wander this road through the park, it suddenly forks with no signpost in sight. Take either fork: they both lead to Chief Hosa Lodge and Campground. The campground is the only such facility in the mountain parks. The picturesque stone lodge, built in 1919, was named for an Arapaho chief (also known as Little Raven) who had seven wives, 11 children and more than 30 horses. During its first summer of operation, 2,000 campers paid $1 per night for sites with lights and water.

From the lodge, the route crosses I-70 again, leading to a dirt road T-junction. Turn right here. This road becomes Stapleton Drive and leads through Stapleton Park. Picnic facilities are scattered along the route, which loops through the park and gives startling views of deep valleys and craggy mountain peaks.

Stapleton Park also has two hiking trails. The Nature Trail (formerly the Braille Trail), was started by the Boy Scouts in the 1950s. A waist-high guide wire runs in a 1.5-mile loop and leads to interpretative signs written in English and Braille. The Chavez Trail, named for long-time mountain parks employee Robert Chavez, is a 1.5-mile hike to Beaver Brook.

Following Stapleton Drive back to I-70, the route heads west to the next exit (Exit 252, Route 74/68), and on to the town of Bergen Park. Just before the town, on the right side of the road, Fillius Park has a shelter house, fireplaces and picnic tables. In town, at the major fork in the road, is a large open space (also called Bergen Park) with similar facilities.

Taking the right fork, the drive follows Route 68/103 across alpine valleys and evergreen-covered slopes to Echo Lake and Mt. Evans—two of the system’s most spectacular properties.

The deep mountain lake, surrounded by the scent and serenity of towering pines, held great spiritual significance to the Arapaho people. Legends say the mists of Echo Lake are the beginnings of the Milky Way. Today, visitors can picnic along the shores, fish the dark-blue waters, hike various alpine trails or eat at Echo Lake Lodge, which opened in 1926.

Others will want to continue up Route 5 to Summit Lake Park and the top of Mount Evans, 14,260 feet above sea level. This nationally designated scenic byway is the highest paved automobile road in the nation, and is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Stunning Views

The view from the top is simply spectacular. Lesser peaks crowd around like excited children waiting for candy. The sky envelopes everything in a surreal bright blue. The air is crisp and invigorating. Here is where clouds must be made.

From this magnificent peak, the circle drive backtracks to the Bergen Park fork and takes a right onto Route 74. Just before Evergreen, on the right side, is Dedisse Park, which offers an unusual combination: secluded picnic areas nest in a pine forest overlooking Evergreen Lake, while down below is a popular 18-hole golf course—all are part of Denver Mountain Parks.

Back on Route 74, the drive continues through Evergreen on its downhill run through Bear Creek Canyon to Morrison. Along the way are three parks, all with picnic facilities: O’Fallon Park (with a marked hiking trail), Corwina Park and Little Park (at the end of Miller Lane in Idledale).

In these parks, as in many of the other mountain parks, are reservation sites (fees apply) popular for weddings, company picnics, and family reunions.

The final stop of the circle drive is Red Rocks Park, just before Morrison. One of the state’s most geologically beautiful areas, Red Rocks was aptly named—giant burnt-orange sandstone plates thrust up at various angles from the grassy foothills. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp constructed Red Rocks Amphitheater, which now hosts a variety of musical concerts under the open sky. Also in the park are geological formations with interpretative signs, a scenic overlook, Red Rocks Trading Post, and the Visitors Center with its restaurant, gift shop and park information.

From Red Rocks, there are numerous ways back to Denver: Route 26, I-70, or backtrack through Morrison to C-470 East.

No matter which route is taken home, the scenic visions of a full day spent in Denver’s mountain parks won’t be forgotten.

Jeff Miller (jbmwriter.com) is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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