Not many major cities can boast about having two bison herds, a national wildlife refuge, a dinosaur dig, a world-class outdoor amphitheater, and an expansive botanic gardens – all within the metro area.
Add a river where you can go whitewater rafting amid skyscrapers, more than 850 miles of hiking and biking trails, about 200 urban and nearby mountain parks, and you have a city tailored for those who love to be outdoors.
That city, not surprisingly, would be Denver.
At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Denver, a bison herd grazes placidly, oblivious to the city skyline in the background. This fenced, 15,000-acre site, once storage for weapons, also is home to coyotes, mule and white-tail deer, and about 300 species of birds, including hawks, and nesting bald eagles in season.
It’s the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country.
Tours are available by appointment (and that’s the only way to visit the bison). Fishing is allowed in the refuge’s lakes and there are eight miles of hiking trails. Stop at the visitor’s center for exhibits, maps and services.
If you miss the bison here, check them out on the western edge of the city as they graze the hillsides by Interstate 70 near the town of Golden. There’s an overlook where you can pull off and gawk.
Dinosaur Ridge, also near Golden, is one of the world’s most famous dino digs and has yielded some of the world’s best fossil finds.
In 1877, Arthur Lakes, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, discovered some of the first and finest specimens of such Jurassic giants as the Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. Then, in 1937, during the construction of the West Alameda Parkway, preserved Iguanodon tracks were found and the site became part of the park.
The park offers hiking and interpretation, as well as programs for the public – including a mini dig for kids.
Red Rocks You’ve seen it on TV – concerts at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, on the western edge of Denver. One of the world’s most famous outdoor concert venues, it has hosted everyone from Jeannette McDonald to the Beatles to Sting.
This stunning 868-acre Denver city park, framed by red sandstone that is part of the famous Morrison Formation, also offers hiking and biking trails, plus picnic areas and other park-like activities.
Red Rocks is a geological phenomenon, containing the only naturally occurring amphitheater in the world. From the sandstone stage to the 300-foot monoliths that cradle the sound, it has perfect acoustics.
Just east of downtown Denver, the Denver Botanic Gardens
can take you to the desert, with flowering cacti, or to the tropics, with lush plants not found anywhere near Cherry Creek. Check out the Children’s Garden, the totally landscaped “green” roof of the new parking structure – a place where children can walk, run, climb, crawl and play while learning about plants and nature.
Denver’s answer to New York’s Central Park is City Park, which encompasses the Denver Zoo and Denver Museum of Nature & Science and lots of open space.
If you’ve never caught a glimpse of a Rocky Mountain goat or bighorn sheep, here’s your chance. They and other indigenous wildlife, such as bears and wolves, are on view at the zoo.
Or, if the day turns rainy (it does happen once in a while), see them indoors – the product of some excellent taxidermy – at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. It’s famous for detailed and lifelike dioramas depicting animals from around the state – and around the world.
The 314-acre park also has lots of walking paths, ponds and other appealing landscaping that makes it a place to picnic or just stroll and look at the city’s most spectacular view, especially at sunset!
The cool thing about all these pursuits is that you won’t feel like you’re in a city at all while you’re there. Then you drive about two blocks and … bam, you’re back!
IF YOU GO
For information on these and many other Denver attractions, visit www.denver.org.
Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).
Colorado Traveler airs Sundays before the Splendid Table and Wednesdays at 11:55 am.
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