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But all of that will change, at the earliest, in 2014, when the city, in conjunction with the Greenway Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, plans to turn the fly-over park into a stay-overnight park. Tiny red flags poked into the grass mark the potential sites of features that will transform the park into an urban campground for kids. Behind the project is the idea that not all of Denver's youth have park passes or easy access to the mountains, but they, too, should learn to pitch a tent.

The concept isn't new: Before Greenway championed the charge, the Boy Scouts applied for an exception to the city's 11 p.m. park curfew that would allow them to experience the great outdoors past their bedtime. The exemption was approved, but the scouts moved out of their headquarters in the park before they ever got a chance to camp there. Greenway has since taken over the group's lease from the city — and its goals.

The words "urban camping" have a bit of a stigma to them right now, however, and not because of cookouts and campfire stories. The city is currently considering an "urban camping" ban targeting a different demographic: the homeless. A vote on the ban is set for May 14. But that won't affect Johnson-Habitat.

The South Platte separates the Taxi development from the rest of River North (shown); the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte, where Suncor Energy is seeking to contain a benzene plume. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
Anthony Camera
The South Platte separates the Taxi development from the rest of River North (shown); the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte, where Suncor Energy is seeking to contain a benzene plume. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
The South Platte separates the Taxi development from the rest of River North; the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte (shown), where Suncor Energy is seeking to contain a benzene plume. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
Anthony Camera
The South Platte separates the Taxi development from the rest of River North; the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte (shown), where Suncor Energy is seeking to contain a benzene plume. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

"This is never going to be a spot where you can just apply for a permit and do whatever you want," Clark says. Only children and their families — about thirty small groups at a time — will be allowed to light fires, cook s'mores, flip rocks, search for crawfish, tell scary stories, go mountain-biking, paddle canoes, climb rocks, catch frogs, put the frogs back and slowly, gradually, grow into adults. Earlier this year, organizers applied for an $8 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado that, if approved and matched by federal donors, will funnel nearly $3.2 million to Johnson-Habitat. (Between $250,000 and $350,000 will benefit the urban camping project directly, says Gordon Robertson, director of park planning, design and construction for Denver Parks and Recreation.)

"We want a place where an urban kid, a kid living right in the city, can walk or ride their bike to get here and then connect to the river that runs through the heart of the city," Clark says. "Everyone deserves that experience."

Although not all of the preliminary plans will prove possible, organizers are brainstorming ways to revitalize the park with an amphitheater, training center, fire pit, rock wall, zipline system, pond and ropes course. Soon, a rope bridge will connect the two halves of the one-acre space to each other across the Platte for the first time, giving previously useless space next to the on-ramp a purpose. But the key word here is "urban" camping; these children will fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of cars passing by.

The area where geese are now bugling (and pooping) will in two years follow the model of its sibling, Ruby Hill Park, where families ski and sled in a snowscape created annually with help from both Mother Nature and mankind. Those kids don't have to go to Aspen, and these kids won't have to trek to Estes.

It's a good deal, unless Johnson-Habitat happens to be your preferred pissing ground. In that case, you have roughly two years until a security guard shines a flashlight on you.

"We'll have bathrooms for that," jokes Clark. "This river has better uses." Kelsey Whipple

Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

******

Lakewood Gulch

Decatur Street and West Howard Place

Five years ago, on a mid-May evening when the sky quickly darkened with thunderclouds, the swollen river took two-year-old Jose Matthew Jauregui Jr.

His mother, Elsha Guel, was pushing him in his stroller along Lakewood Gulch, a normally trickling tributary in Sun Valley that feeds into the South Platte River. The path next to the gulch was paved, but it wasn't pretty: Weeds choked the tiny strip of green space on one side; on the other, a thigh-high concrete wall separated pedestrians from the gulch, which city planners had attempted to corral between manmade walls.

But the walls proved no match for the water that night. Just after 7 p.m., the sky opened up and dumped so much rain and hail that the river rose nearly three feet in less than an hour. According to news reports, Guel ducked into a narrow concrete tunnel along the path to escape the deluge. The water came after her, flooding the seven-by-seven-foot tunnel near the intersection of Decatur Street and West Howard Place. The force of it knocked her off her feet and pried the handles of Jose's stroller out of her hands.

Rescuers found her clinging to a concrete barrier. Firefighters told the media that Guel repeatedly asked if her baby had been found. When rescuers told her no, she let go of the barrier, saying she didn't want to live. Rescuers eventually pulled her out of the water, but there was no sign of baby Jose. His body was found two days later.

Today, the spot where the tunnel once was looks completely different. The bleak concrete walls are gone, and the entire area has been returned to a more natural state. There's still a paved path, but now what separates it from the gulch are grass, rocks and newly planted trees and berry bushes. A gently sloping hill leads from the street down to the water, providing an easy way to escape to higher ground in a rainstorm.

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8 comments
KevinInCentennial
KevinInCentennial

Lots of people also have fun gold panning in the river. I would love to see that mentioned along with the running, fishing, boating,etc. sometimes at Grant Frontier Park on the weekends there are more than 10 gold prospectors and most days at least one or two.

sifted1
sifted1

I love the path...I do not like the degrading comment about the homeless. This whole city is becoming a yuppie tourist trap. I hope all those "plans' for the Globeville part of the path do not go through. It is a nice area but real. Homeless people share the area with the yups all done up in thier cute little spandex bike suits and helmets. Yet the park itself is quiet and peaceful. If the plans for the area go through it will become a tourist trap like Confluence Park all clogged with people and very little wildlife. Did the evil fat cats REALLY ban homeless camping in the whole city? It is obvious they were never homeless. I laugh and laugh at the yups who pay a million dollars to live a block away from the rescue mission. I guess the REAL reason they are here is to drive the poor away to the degrading suburbs so they can have a REEL urban experience. I felt the article was really just thinly disguised boosterism.

MARGYVER
MARGYVER

I grew up in Swansea near globeville and the Platte....it used to be so horrible back in the day. Im always glad to see all the improvements. If I ever hit the lottery......im gonna give back to my old neighborhood to make sure that future generations never see it as crappy as I did!!!

Skotl
Skotl

Trying to make some improvements upstream as well - South Suburban Parks and Recreation partnering with Littleton, Urban Drainage, Trout Unlimited to enhance the river through South Platte Park in Littleton. The plan should help concentrate extremely low flows to create better fish survival and more varied aquatic habitat. Phase 1 to be constructed hopefully this fall, still seeking funding for the full plan, but the entire plan can be viewed (large file) on Littleton's website here: http://www.littletongov.org/pa...

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

Miles
Miles

Great article! I've been documenting unsanctioned use of the Lakewood gulch area for several years for a street-art project WeDUPT (West Denver Urban Preserve and Trail) http://www.sociometry.com/wpsb... It's interesting to see the greenway renewals effect on the homeless (and day-drinker) population. There are already new unsanctioned paths being trampled to and from clandestine camping spots in area – taking advantage of the new light-rail tracks segmenting off one side of the creek into barely accessible enclaves. It has however shifted a lot of homeless people away. Not so much up by the Taxi building, on a recent bike ride up there I saw easily 40 to 50 homeless people and several quasi-permanent camp spots. The recent ban on urban camping initiative will undoubtedly bring more people into the corridor hiding out from sweeps on the 16th St. Mall and Civic Center Park areas.

Whatajoke
Whatajoke

The improvements are great, but allowing Suncor to get away with decades of environmental degradation is shameful.

guest
guest

I commute by bike from Thornton to Denver on the Platte River Trail, and this trail is an urban treasure. While biking it I have seen abundant wildlife including Bald Eagles, Beavers, Owls, Coyotes, Deer, Snakes, White Pelicans, and countless other bird species. Major kudos to the Shoemakers for their dedication to this great river and its inhibitants.

 
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