Denver's parks range from tiny pockets of greenery to acres of open space. Every resident has a favorite among the more than 300 parks in the system; here are snapshots of four of them.
When Stapleton Airport closed, parks officials were shocked to discover a ribbon of wildland running through the heart of the airfield along Sand Creek. In the midst of screeching jets, an amazing population of wild creatures -- coyotes, raccoons, deer and hawks -- had managed to thrive.
Denver is working with Commerce City and Aurora to create a network of parkland along Sand Creek. A trail is already open, taking walkers and bicyclists through the long tunnels that once ran underneath the airport's runways.
The biggest surprise is on the far eastern side of Stapleton, just south of the Denver County Jail. Here some astonishing wetlands grew up along the creek at Bluff Lake, protected for years by the airport fence. Tall cattails fill the lake bed, and groves of cottonwoods and willows create a dense woodland in the middle of the city. At noon, a startled deer bounds out of the cattails. The lake is empty now because of the drought, but most years it is full of fish, toads and ducks.
Many people ride their bikes to Bluff Lake, and they think of it as their secret patch of wilderness -- one that comes with a remarkable view of downtown and the mountains. "It's so peaceful here; it's my retreat during the day," says Linda, a Denver nurse who rides her bike along the trail on her days off. "It's like going to the mountains without having to get on I-70."
This park is the oldest in Denver, founded in 1868 when the city was barely a decade old. But the pleasures of Mestizo-Curtis Park seem as old as time.
On a hot afternoon, dozens of children crowd the outdoor pool. They're Hispanic, African-American, white. Pushcart vendors line up at the entrance to the pool, their brightly colored carts marked with the word "helados," selling ice cream and snow cones for $1 to the kids.
A little girl in a turquoise swimsuit has only has fifty cents and is despondent when the vendor tells her she doesn't have enough money for a snow cone, but a kind stranger gives the vendor two quarters so that she can get a cup of ice streaked with bright-blue raspberry syrup.
Men who speak little English and work temporary-labor jobs when they can get them rest in the shade of the park's century-old trees. There are sometimes soccer games here, just as in Mexico. It's a place where those homesick and alone in a new country can find some camaraderie.
"Every park is good, but I live near this one," says a man named Jorge. "I like the trees and the green things."
Denver's newest park, dedicated last year, sits along the South Platte River between 15th and 20th streets. Commons Park was intended to help spur the construction of new residential buildings in the Platte Valley, and it has succeeded. Across Little Raven Street, high-rises full of expensive condos are filling up.
For years, the area north of Union Station was a no-man's land of barren fields and rundown warehouses. Now it's one of Denver's hottest places to live, and the park is a popular place for the new residents to walk their dogs.
"I think this park will probably become the center of downtown," says Derek, a 32-year-old man who recently bought a condo in the new Riverfront Park development. "You can sit outside with your dog and have coffee at the coffeehouse."
Commons Park was designed to help restore the degraded riverfront to its natural state. A grove of cottonwoods has been planted in an area that should be flooded every spring (drought years excepted), creating a small wetland for wildlife. Native grasses and ponderosa pines evoke the foothills of the Rockies.
Derek expects Commons Park will be even more popular once the city builds a planned bridge over the Platte River and another over I-25, linking the Highland neighborhood to the valley. He's already seen a big jump in visitors since the opening earlier this year of the white-masted Millennium Bridge over the rail tracks, which links Commons Park to the 16th Street Mall.
"On holiday weekends, people set up tables and have picnics," he says. "People are really using the park."
Just off busy East Hampden Avenue, in the shadow of office buildings and subdivisions, a small park has turned into a virtual wildlife refuge.
Fed by the waters of Goldsmith Gulch, Hutchinson Park is filled with several acres of seven-foot-tall cattails. A family of foxes, beavers, coyotes and even a stray deer make their homes here. It's the kind of place where kids can spend hours fishing for crawdads in the cool water, watching as dragonflies flit through the air and an occasional hawk circles overhead.
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"A beaver had a dam here until it was washed out by a flood," says Scott Walker, who lives in a condo that looks out over the park.
Walker takes his cocker spaniel, Chandler, for daily walks along a boardwalk that runs beside the gulch. A recent proposal by the city to replace the boardwalk with a gravel walkway and put a pedestrian bridge over the wetland has angered many in the neighborhood, who want Denver to leave the park just as it is.
Walker fears a bridge would disturb the wildlife. "It will intrude on the area," he says.
Hutchinson Park is immediately south of the larger Bible Park, which also has a natural area intended to support wildlife. Parks officials say they want to create more such places in Denver parks, even though there are inevitable conflicts between the wild and human populations.