City Park: A stroll in the heart of Denver

Editor's note: Our cover story this week, Alan Prendergast's "Party in the Park," looks at how Denver's park rangers are gearing up for a busy summer season. In response, Westword writers are weighing in with appraisals of their own favorite Denver parks, starting with Prendergast's tribute to City Park.

City Park is not only the largest of Denver's parks, but also the most handsomely designed and -- for me, at least -- the most soul-soothing parcel of public land anywhere in town. I know this because it took me years to discover some of its more intriguing nooks, respites and redoubts, which is as it should be. See also: Rethinking City Loop -- what City Park should be

Parks have been an important part of every neighborhood I've called home in Denver. Growing up in Capitol Hill, I used to play with friends in the oddly sunken gardens of Alamo Placita and later, as a teen, schlep through Cheesman on my way to East High. After college, I lived for a while a block from Washington Park, back when it was possible to cross the road to the rec center without being mowed down by a relentless procession of joggers, skaters, triathletes-in-training and speed-racing stroller-pushers.

After that, living on the west side meant morning walks or rides at Sloan's or Confluence, with the occasional diversion to Berkeley Lake or Jefferson Park. But four years ago I moved back to the east side and began to explore City Park in earnest.

I had occasionally wandered into the park back in high school, of course, but knew mostly its fringes -- the Denver Zoo, the Museum of Nature & Science, a jazz concert or two at that bandstand (so reminiscent of the Lake Tahoe bandstand in The Godfather Part II). I imagine that's how most people see it; the park draws more than three million visitors a year, but most of them are there for the zoo and museum.

Not that there isn't plenty of activity elsewhere, too -- bikers and boaters, ballfields and tennis courts in seemingly constant demand. Yet the park's layout is so elaborate, with so many surprising little refuges and byways -- surrounded by more than 3,000 trees and five formal gardens, with the odd cannon or statue thrown in for the heck of it -- that even Thoreau could find sanctuary here on all but the most special-event-heavy weekends.

Although substantial chunks of the grand pedestrian promenade have been sacrificed to the expanding footprint of the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the parking lots, it's still possible to stroll the park and get some feel for what it was like in the City Beautiful days, when parks were for perambulation rather than workouts. There are the jaw-dropping panoramic views of the skyline and the mountains, with Ferril Lake in the foreground; there's the lily pond at the southeast end, the greenhouse to the northwest, and all those bucolic meadows with mature trees in between.

For a regional attraction, City Park also reflects a lot of pride of ownership by the surrounding neighborhoods, which were active recently in deep-sixing the City Loop project that threatened to make the park's west side as busy as the east entrance. Despite heavily traveled streets on all sides, the park doesn't feel as hemmed in as some other Denver greenways; it remains a suitable gateway to stately Park Hill, gentrifying uptown or ever-crazy East Colfax, but it's buffered by a golf course on the north that helps to preserve a sense of openness that has been there ever since they started landscaping the windswept prairie 120 years ago.

Yes, the goose poop and the annual influx of cormorants and the never-ceasing construction associated with the big cultural institutions can be annoying. But the bucolic is still there, too. City Park is a place for everybody and for lone explorers. And isn't that what a park should be?

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