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Urban Legends

Get out on five of the best trails in “Paris on the Platte.”

by Philip D. Armour

You don’t have to fight  traffic or leave the funky confines of Denver and its ’burbs to find outdoor adventure. Just follow this advice from the new book 111 Places in Denver That You Must Not Miss (Emons, 2022) in these playful excerpts—and soothe your outdoor fix close to home.

1. Ruby Hill Mountain Bike Park

Ruby Hill in south Denver was once used by Native Americans as a lookout for hunting buffalo. This rise above the South Platte River is easily Denver’s best view of the mountains. Gold-fevered miners in the mid-1800s discovered what they thought were rubies here, and even though the red-hued gems turned out to be common garnets, the name stuck.

Since 2016, when construction began for the Levitt Pavilion, this has also been the location of Ruby Hill Mountain Bike Park. Smooth and undulating, the pump track loops past the skills course, a clever jumble of rock causeways, ladder bridges, and banked turns for more technical riding. The dirt jumps have helpful transitions for practicing big air and experiencing gravity in surprising new ways. But the slopestyle course is the park’s crowning achievement. Not too difficult, this series of fabricated ramps and wall rides, berms, rollers, and table-top jumps are designed to up-level anyone’s riding skills.

2. Plains Conservation Center

Stand in the vast grasslands east of Denver and it’s easy to feel like a forlorn Nebraska homesteader. These dry rolling plains are in the rain shadow of the Rockies, which also makes the primary trail here, a 5-mile loop, silky-smooth and great for trail running. It’s a common brag that the sun shines 245 days a year in Denver, but the geography that accounts for this—midcontinent high-elevation unobstructed landscape—also makes it windy—like real windy. So layer up!

The center has purchased close to 9,000 acres around the state for plains-habitat conservation, and this 1,100-acre site has a maze of hiking trails across it. Bring binoculars to fully grasp the scope. It’s also fun to spy the fighter jets circling overhead on their way to and from Buckley Air Force Base, a mile or 2 north. The center houses a collection of historic farm equipment and village of Cheyenne-style teepees, plus an interpretive building staffed by a biologist, who gamely traffics student groups and visitors. 

3. Hudson Gardens

Hudson Gardens and Events Center in Littleton is a 30-acre paradise of delicate gardens, lily-filled ponds, and whimsical sculptures. Gentle trails wend past shaded ponds, and all seem to lead to Nixon’s Coffee House, where road bikes and cruisers lean against trees, winter or summer. Nixon’s edges the Mary Carter Greenway Trail (aka the Arapahoe Greenway), which runs 8 miles along the South Platte River from Chatfield State Park north to Englewood. It’s basically flat and connects to many other bike trails, so expect traffic (baby strollers, dogs, runners, etc.). The speed limit is 15 mph, so no interval training here. 

After sipping your macchiato at Nixon’s, follow your buzz to the buzz. The mellow hum of 25 beehives among the gardens (housing nearly 100,000 bees!) creates a soothing acoustic bath at one of the only community apiaries in Metro Denver. Cleanse your psyche here in true shinrin-yoku style, the trending Japanese practice of forest bathing. 

4. Confluence Park  

In some ways, Confluence Park is the spiritual heart of Denver. First opened in 1975, this is where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek join before meandering east to engorge the Missouri River. This abundance of water is why a scrappy supply town was built here in the first place. After discovering gold, white settlers muscled out the local Arapahoe, cherry-picking this confluence on the dusty plains. Thoughtless building in the floodplain led to a series of deadly floods over the next 100 years, before a $20-million restoration in the early 1970s cleaned up the old cars, appliances, and toxic waste.

Today, the city’s fantastic bike trail system radiates from here, including the 36-mile-long South Platte River Trail. Confluence Park—a jumble of cement steps, benches, and walking bridges—is a welcoming place to hang out and enjoy riparian splendors amid the urban bustle. Dog walkers and strolling lovers abound, though it can get sketchy at night. In spring and early summer, snowmelt increases the river flow, and kayakers nimbly surf the rapids. 

5. Rocky Mountain Arsenal 

A former chemical weapons manufacturing facility, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is a sterling example of environmental remediation done right. For 50 years (from 1942 to 1992), U.S. Army personnel worked here to cook up increasingly horrific ways to kill people by perfecting a deadly suite of war chemicals: sarin, mustard gas, napalm, white phosphorous, chlorine gas, and lewisite. Yet, incredibly, this 16,000-acre refuge is essentially wildland today, laced with 23 marked trails, including the 16-mile perimeter trail. 

Just 8 miles from downtown, the Refuge is now a lovely parkland. More than 330 species of animals roam about—including bison, raptors, black-footed ferrets, coyotes, deer, and white pelicans. It’s a strange juxtaposition to enjoy the peace and wildlife knowing that chemicals now banned by international treaties were produced here. The federal government, U.S. military,  State of Colorado, and the petrochemical industry collaborated to pay for cleanup. Most of the old buildings have been removed and the soil remediated. Native plants flourish. 

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