Head for the Hills: Denver Mountain Parks

Everyone knows that in our frantic world of cell phones, e-mail and the Internet, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get away from it all. And, even without such high-tech items, who has the time to escape?

It might be hard to believe, but 100 years ago conservationists were thinking about you, your stress and how it might be alleviated.

In 1910 a local businessman proposed to the Denver Chamber of Commerce a series of mountain parks, linked by a network of roads (not yet built), all within a day’s drive of Denver. The concept was to make nature accessible to residents and visitors.

The idea gained overwhelming support: Denver voters agreed to finance it, the state legislature allowed the purchase of land outside Denver County, Congress let the city buy 7,000 acres at $1.25 an acre, and Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. (son of the noted landscape architect) was hired to design the system.

Denver financed the Mountain Park system to allow city dwellers access to nature.

The first section opened in 1913. By the 1930s, the system was so developed and popular that a handy map (foldable to pocket-size) offered “eight wonderful scenic trips through Denver’s Famous Mountain Parks.” Published by the city and imprinted with “Rocky Mountain Motorists AAA,” the guide detailed drives of varying lengths and parks visited. The shortest was only 35 miles, while the longest was 143 miles and called the “Denver Mountain Parks Circle Drive.”

Today, the mountain parks system is in the National Register of Historic Places and includes 46 named and unnamed mountain parks and wilderness areas that cover 14,141 acres across four metro-Denver counties.

Most of the system’s best features can be seen by following the 1930s DMP Circle Drive (known on the website’s historical section as Circle G drive). On the route are such high profile and scenic locations as Lookout Mountain, with Buffalo Bill’s grave and museum; Mount Evans and its nationally-designated scenic byway; and Red Rocks Park, with its one-of-a-kind natural amphitheater. Also on the route are little-known scenic gems such as Stapleton and Dedisse parks, as well as mountain lakes and streams, pine forests, aspen groves and an abundance of wildlife.

Drivers should be forewarned, however, that following the exact route can be challenging. What’s been lost is the original day’s loop drive developed and appreciated during motoring’s golden decades of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Today’s super highways have relegated the circle drive roads to secondary status. The actual route is not marked, some roads have no signs and a few sections are on dirt roads (safe for any car). Couple this with numerous scenic stops, and the drive can make for a long, but rewarding, day.

Starting from Denver, go west on U.S. Highway 6 to Lookout Mountain Road (also known as 19th Street, Lariat Trail Road, Route 68), where two stone pillars announce “Entrance to Denver Mountain Parks.” Two other pillars marking the end of the drive used to stand outside Morrison, but were swept away in heavy flooding during the 1930s.

Beyond the entrance pillars, the cutbacks, sharp turns and steep inclines give travelers an inkling of the effort it took to build Lookout Mountain Road in 1913. It was the first major project of the infant mountain parks system and was finished in time for the official opening of the initial parks on Aug. 27, 1913. Today, it winds upward through stands of pines and aspens, offering better and better views of Golden, the foothills and distant plains. Atop the 7,375-foot Lookout Mountain is a sweeping overlook, Buffalo Bill’s grave, a restaurant, gift shop and a museum.

The first major project in the mountain parks effort began in 1913.

Just below the peak is Lookout Park, with a stone shelter, picnic tables and fireplaces. Running beside the park, the drive continues along Lookout Mountain Road to U.S. Highway 40. Turn right, heading for Bergen Park and Evergreen, and in about a mile you will come to an overpass junction with Interstate 70 (Exit 254, Genesee Park). At this crossroads is a good panoramic view of the snow-coned Rocky Mountains, as well as the north pasture for the Genesee Park buffalo and elk herds.

Buffalo and elk were initially brought from Yellowstone Park in 1914 to establish a wildlife preserve. Today, both herds are rotated between Genesee’s north and south pastures. (More buffalo reside in Daniels Park, south of Denver in Douglas County and also part of the DMP system.)

At the I-70 junction, the circle drive crosses the highway, follows the Genesee Park sign past the south pasture, and climbs up to major facilities (including a softball field and elaborate shelter) near the top of 8,284-foot Genesee Mountain. From the peak, a 360-degree view proves the park’s name — Genesee is an Indian word for “shining valley.”

The route then backtracks about a half-mile before taking a sharp right onto a dirt road sign-posted, “Genesee Park Picnic Area.” Wandering through more of the park, the road suddenly forks with no signs in sight — take either fork, they both lead to Chief Hosa Lodge and campground.

The campground is the only such facility in the mountain parks, while the picturesque stone lodge, built in 1919, was named for an Arapaho chief. Both the lodge (now used for special events) and campground are operated by a concessionaire, and are located at an overpass junction with I-70 (Chief Hosa, Exit 253).

From the lodge, the route goes over I-70 to a dirt road T- junction. Turning right, it becomes Stapleton Drive and leads through Stapleton Park (previously part of Genesee). Picnic facilities are scattered along the route, which loops through the park and gives startling views of deep valleys and craggy mountain peaks.

Stapleton Park also has two hiking trails. The Nature Trail (formerly the Braille Trail), was started by the Boy Scouts in the 1950s. A waist-high guide wire runs in a 1.5-mile loop and leads to interpretative signs written in English and Braille. The Chavez Trail, named for longtime mountain parks employee Robert Chavez, is a 1.5-mile hike to Beaver Brook.

Picnic areas and buildings were another part of Denver Mountain Parks design to make it easy to enjoy the outdoors.

Following Stapleton Drive back to I-70, the route heads west to the next exit (Exit 252, Colorado Highway 74/Route 68), and on to the community of Bergen Park. Just before Bergen Park, on the left side of the road, Fillius Park has a shelter house, fireplaces and picnic tables. At the major fork in the road is a large open space (called Bergen Park) with similar facilities.

Taking the right fork, the drive follows Route 68/Colorado Highway 103 across alpine valleys and evergreen-covered slopes to Echo Lake and Mount Evans — two of the system’s most spectacular properties.

The deep mountain lake, surrounded by the scent and serenity of towering pines, held great spiritual significance to the Arapaho Indians — legends say the mists of Echo Lake are the beginnings of the Milky Way. Today, visitors can picnic along the shores, fish the dark-blue waters, hike various alpine trails or eat at Echo Lake Lodge, which opened in 1926.

Others will want to continue on by taking Colorado Highway 5 up to Summit Lake Park and the top of Mount Evans, 14,260 feet above sea level. Now a nationally designed scenic byway, Highway 5 is the highest paved automobile road in the nation, and is traditionally open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The view from the top is simply spectacular — lesser peaks crowd around like excited children waiting for candy. The sky envelopes everything in a surreal bright blue. The air is crisp and invigorating. Here is where clouds must be made.

From this magnificent peak, the circle drive backtracks to the Bergen Park fork and takes a right onto Colorado Highway 74. Just before Evergreen, on the right side, is Dedisse Park, which offers an unusual combination: secluded picnic areas nest in a pine forest overlooking Evergreen Lake, while down below is a popular 18-hole golf course — all are part of Denver Mountain Parks.

The mountain parks road system still affords wonderful views of the surrounding foothills.

Back on Highway 74, the drive continues through Evergreen on its downhill run through Bear Creek Canyon to Morrison. Along the way are three parks, all with picnic facilities: O’Fallon Park (with a marked hiking trail), Corwina Park and Little Park (at the end of Miller Lane in Idledale).

These parks, as many of the other mountain parks, have sites that can be reserved (fees apply) for such events as weddings, company picnics and family reunions.

The final stop of the circle drive is Red Rocks Park, just before Morrison. One of the state’s most geologically beautiful areas, Red Rocks was aptly named — giant burnt-orange sandstone plates thrust up at various angles from the grassy foothills.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps constructed Red Rocks amphitheater, which now hosts a variety of musical concerts under the open sky. The park also features geological formations with interpretative signs, a scenic overlook, Red Rocks Trading Post and the Visitors Center with restaurant, gift shop and park interpretation.

From Red Rocks, numerous options lead back to Denver. The park road goes to Colorado Highway 26 or Interstate 70, both of which return to the city. Or drivers can backtrack to Colorado Highway 74, pass through Morrison to U.S. Highway C-470 east and U.S. Highway 285 back to Denver.

No matter which route is taken home, it will be scenic visions of the full day spent in Denver’s mountain parks — not visions of what e-mails were missed — that won’t be forgotten.

If You Go

For Denver Mountain Parks information, go to www.denvermountainparks.org.

Jeff Miller is a Denver-based freelance writer and past editor of AAA Colorado’s EnCompass magazine.