Denver's Parks: The Last Fortresses of Undeveloped Land for All to Enjoy

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There's a point in City Park, on the backside of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where you can see the city skyline just perfectly. The foreground is patched in with rolling acres of green surrounding Ferrill Lake and its companion boathouse and bandstand. In the background, you can see the purple, gray and white of the Rocky Mountains against a sky that changes every day — sometimes the clouds look like cotton candy and lately, because of the rain, we've been gifted with many soft rainbows. I stopped at this spot last Saturday to snap a picture of this particularly beautiful window on Denver, a version of a photograph that I'm sure has been taken hundreds of thousands of times. I took the photo because I just can't seem to stop documenting the best parts of Denver now that it's changing at such a rapid pace. I worry that many more of the places and structures I've known my whole life will soon be gone.

Lucky for us, City Park and other Denver parks are free from the grips of development, so we don't have to worry about them being bulldozed and packed in with the hastily constructed crap development that is infecting every other square inch of the city. For now, at least, dedicated park land is free to be itself. There are exceptions, of course, like in 2013 when Mayor Michael Hancock traded dedicated park land for a building and then tried to push the dreaded City Loop project, which thankfully got shut down before he turned City Park into some kind of atrocious attraction. And there's still the Denver Zoo's expansion to watch.

Minus those hiccups, though, our Denver Parks system has created many an oasis in the city that everyone can enjoy — in Denver, our famous green stuff may make newcomers think of weed, but it's our parks that we're proud of. I often walk up to Barnum Park by my house, which offers a completely different view of the city along with a great pool, rec center and covered areas for sharing meals. There's a particular high point in the park that my boyfriend says reminds him of Dolores Park in San Francisco — except instead of looking out into the foggy city, we have an unparalleled east-facing postcard view of the Denver skyline sans mountains. It's all beautiful city. 

Then there's one of my favorite parks in all of Denver, Cheesman. Unlike others that are flush with amenities, Cheesman is all about the vibe — there's so much city history (good and bad) in these hallowed and haunted grounds (dude, it used to be the Prospect Hill Cemetery!). The park is mostly used for picnics and hanging out and its short asphalt loop provides the perfect arena for many varieties of cruising. While it doesn't have tennis courts or a pool, Cheesman is crowned with a wonderful pavilion where you can catch photo shoots of the wedding, prom and Quinceañera varieties happening each weekend. Cheesman holds a special place in my heart for being the site of my first and only curfew ticket, a fond memory because the cops shined their lights in my teenage face just after I pulled my pants up from peeing on the side of the pavilion, narrowly escaping a much worse ticket.

Washington Park — or Wash Park, as it is known — is hands down my favorite park for people-watching. The lengths folks go to in order to use this public space as a training ground for their random sports fetishes know no bounds — there are dudes on rollerblades with ski poles alongside dudes on longboards using hockey sticks for paddling the invisible current of cement waters. There are groups of runners, groups of stroller racers and groups of cyclists decked out in crazy spandex hauling ass along the roadway like other humans aren't present (for the record, I think those guys are dicks). There is a playground teeming with so many children they resemble insects on its wood frame. And the indoor pool at Wash Park is a great place to catch a few laps. 

I grew up in the little southeast Denver neighborhood of Virginia Village, which is dotted with some humble and welcoming parks. I practiced riding my bike along the walkways of Garland Park — which I thought was called "Lollipop Lake" until my early teens, when I realized that was just the name of the tiny body of water at its center. That same park was also the hub of my first job as a summer camp counselor, when our wild bunch would take over an entire section of Garland's shaded area each day to enjoy Kool-Aid and animal crackers, both served out of Dixie cups.  

Denver parks are made for gathering and playing sports and enjoying a covert cocktail — and that means anyone can take part in their beauty. It doesn't cost money to go to the park. Everyone is invited to enjoy the benefits of Denver's many open spaces, regardless of class or economic status. As Denver expands and our city continues to feel the many growing pains that seem both inevitable and soul-crushing, I turn to the parks for comfort. Denver can be rebranded many times over, but the unique feeling of our parks will never change — so get out and explore some of that green space. Whether you're hometown proud or new to the Mile High City, there is likely a park you've never set foot in...yet.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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