After ignoring the South Platte River for decades, Denver is once again panning for gold

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Behind him, a few steps away on the concrete trail that cuts through the center of Johnson-Habitat Park, a mostly full can of Busch Classic is still cold. It wasn't his, he insists, but it is now. He takes a sip.

Johnson-Habitat, located near the intersection of I-25 and South Santa Fe Drive between rows of west Denver warehouses, is used mostly for foot traffic between other parks, says Jolon Clark, associate director of the Greenway Foundation. Most of its visitors ignore the park's steep river slopes and half-gravel trail in favor of Vanderbilt Park's fish ponds just to the southeast. Here the green water grows narrow and shallow, drawing attention to the algae in the river bed and the weeds surrounding it. For most of the stretch, the bottom of the river lies, at most, a couple feet below the muck.

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.

"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.

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