Best People-Watching Park 2016 | Cheesman Park | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Plopped down right in the middle of the bustling cityscape, Cheesman Park is Capitol Hill's outdoor refuge and picnic destination for all types of city dwellers. While the gardens and meadows are stately, it's the park's walking trail and driving loop that make this grassy esplanade a people-watcher's paradise. Hard-core marathoners whiz past stroller moms, while professional dog-walkers take the dirt trail and dudes on inline skates cruise by occupied cars parked bumper-to-bumper along the asphalt circle. Cheesman's unique marble pavilion provides a pop-up stage for social theatrics as punks, parents and business-casual types take full advantage of the free performance space. Grab some popcorn, pull up a lawn chair and watch your fellow citizens in action.

The Cranmer Park sundial has been through a lot in its life. Added to the park in the '40s, the sandstone timepiece was destroyed by vandals in 1965. Replaced with a larger version that still stands today, the sundial has come to be a defining piece of the Hilltop neighborhood's history. But its future is still shaky: The flagstone plaza on which the clock rests — built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration — is in need of serious repairs. Neighbors motivated to advocate for their special landmark created a local organization, Save Our Sundial, and have organized park parties to raise money. The Cranmer Park sundial is a great example of the pieces of Denver history that can be found tucked away in plain sight in the city's parks.

Lowry and Stapleton contain a range of green spaces that get a workout from families, dog walkers, cyclists and just about everybody else who's moved to the city's quasi-new-urban 'burbs. While modest, the reading garden has a bit more of a community feel than most of these oases. It's not just the choice of seating areas and contemplative nooks, but also the growing collection of book "spines" along a low wall that give the place a personal touch: Locals donate the titles in memory of loved ones, and the dedications, which often describe the dearly departed's relationship to a particular book, make for interesting reading in their own right.

Even if we were dogs — no, wait, especially if we were dogs — Cherry Creek State Park's Dog Off-Leash Area would be our pick for the perfect park. Referred to as "Disney for dogs" by its many fans, the 107-acre, fenced-in doggie dreamland features everything a canine would put on a fantasy must-have list. First of all, Cherry Creek runs through it, so there's plenty of water to slurp, swim and splash in. There's also a wide gravel trail that's easy to follow, and the endless spurs from it wind through acres of brush and small stands of trees, and across the open plains — all ideal for a good, long, fast run or for wrestling with other dogs. And besides other dogs, there are often small critters that need to be investigated. Adults will appreciate the clean restrooms and abundance of bags and receptacles; the level area is accessible and easily navigated year-round; and sunrise and sunset are usually spectacular — though sunrise is generally far less crowded than at the peak times of mid-morning and after humans get off work. At off-peak times, though, it often feels as though you and your pooches are on your own for a great hike. There's a fee — if you plan to go often, it makes sense to buy a state parks pass — but it's well worth the price if it means your dog will snooze for the rest of the day.

Readers' choice: Chatfield State Park

Denver is generously apportioned with dog parks and pet-friendly green spaces, but for smaller breeds who become understandably skittish when faced with a creature ten times their body weight, the options are slimmer. Fortunately, the Berkeley Lake Dog Park, at Sheridan and 46th, features a separate fenced area specifically designed for dogs under 25 pounds, creating an opportunity for off-leash socialization with other pups while keeping their Napoleonic egos intact. Regular visitors are steadfast in their efforts to ensure clean gravel and fresh water for your little corporals. Scenic and easily accessible from downtown, the park is never lovelier than on summer evenings, when the lights of nearby Lakeside Amusement Park ripple across the surface of Berkeley Lake and the merry sounds of roller coasters echo through the night.

Six years ago, the owners of the doggie daycare and grooming spot Woof in Boots decided to start a painting class for dog lovers that would allow them to mingle with like-minded pet people and their pets while raising money for a local animal-related charity. And thus Paw Prints & Cocktails was born. It has since grown into more than just a First Friday event: Several times a month, Woof in Boots hosts people and their pups for a sometimes raucous mixer that involves a local host artist, live music, beer and wine (for an extra fee), and snacks for all involved. And you'll walk away with a piece of art of your own making — probably of your favorite pooch.

It's like the swimming-pool version of dogs playing poker, and quite the sight to behold: Dogs of every size and breed jumping in and hauling themselves out of the Scheitler rec center's outdoor pool, chasing balls and Frisbees, swimming laps and, yes, even sunbathing along the edge. On the last day of the season every year, Scheitler opens the pool for a pooches-only Pawpalooza (though a few brave people jump in, too). The cost is $5 per dog, and proceeds go to local animal shelters and kids' programs. Bonus: The rec center is located next door to the Berkeley Lake Dog Park, which has plenty of room for the pups to shake off the excess.

When dogs want to watch the big game, they head to the Ugly Dog, which not only has a fenced-in outdoor dog area — complete with fire hydrants and doghouses for them and picnic tables for people — but also allows Fido inside to relax on the floor and check out the score. The employees (all women sporting sleeveless referee shirts, by the way) at this north Denver eatery are generous with the dog treats, too.

Nestled into a strip of Barnum Park running along the north side of the Sixth Avenue highway is the Trestle Bike Skills Course — a series of bumps, berms and jumps made just for bicycles. BMX, mountain-bike and downhill cyclists of all abilities are welcome on this circuit, with man-made dirt hills and wooden ridges created to challenge both first-timers and experienced risk-takers. Maintained by the city and dedicated volunteers, this specialty bike course is like no other in the nation — plus it's part of the Parks and Recreation system, so it's free to use. A treat for both riders and onlookers, the Trestle Bike Skills Course entertains drivers along the congested freeway and allows high-flying cyclists to get air while exercising.

While the rest of the hordes dodge each other on the Cherry Creek Bike Trail, savvier cyclists go for long stretches without seeing another soul on the 21.8-mile Clear Creek Trail, a mostly paved bike path (with a few dirt or gravel sections) that parallels its namesake waterway. With killer scenery regardless of direction, the path makes its way from the South Platte River on one end through residential neighborhoods (many with historic buildings right by the trail), local parks and rural locales before reaching Golden, where the reward for a bit of uphill is a panoramic view of the buttes. There's also plenty of off-bike activity at this end; take a rest at one of the many restaurant and coffee shops and watch the kayakers playing in Clear Creek, or pop in for a tour and a brew at Coors Brewing Company. Occasionally the trail requires a sharp eye to watch for signs connecting pieces of the path over residential streets, but they're mostly in heavily populated areas with plenty of places to take a break and regroup if you get lost. Looking for longer mileage? Clear Creek connects with the Platte River, Ralston Creek, Little Dry Creek and Sixth Avenue trails.

Readers' choice: Cherry Creek Trail

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