Hear Music at Red Rocks, See Buffalo Bill’s Grave, Ski Winter Park
A ski resort, a buffalo herd, mountaintop lakes, and a natural amphitheater set among towering red rock cliffs make the city of Denver’s park system unique in the world.
From its extensive bike trails to its lovely city parks, Denver has no shortage of green spaces for recreation and relaxation. But the city’s best parks lie outside its urban borders, for Denver’s park system includes 47 mountain parks up to 70 miles away.
Denver’s mountain parks were the brainchild of its visionary mayor, Robert Speer. Nearly a century ago, he realized that the scenic mountain areas bordering the city were a great public asset that needed to be protected.
Speer hired Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., whose father designed New York’s Central Park, to create Denver’s mountain park system. Since its founding in 1912, it has grown to include 31 named parks and 16 parcels of protected landscape, comprising around 14,000 acres.
Denver’s mountain park system is so unique it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its landscapes range from flat Front Range prairie to alpine tundra thousands of feet high. All of the wildlife and plants in the parks are protected, helping to preserve Colorado’s natural heritage.
The most popular Denver mountain parks include:
Denver’s largest mountain park is Genesee Park, encompassing 2,402 acres. It was also the first, established between 1912 and 1926. Climb to the top of the 8,284-foot summit for a panoramic view.
Genesee Park is home to Denver’s buffalo herd, descendants of the last wild herd left in America. A scenic overlook at exit 254 off I-70 provides a good viewing spot. A special “buffalo tunnel” enables the animals to graze on grassy slopes on either side of the interstate. Bison, as well as elk herds, can be seen while driving through the park’s south side.
Nearby at the top of Lookout Mountain is another highlight of Denver’s mountain parks: Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Museum.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
There’s no finer place to hear a concert than this famous amphitheater under the stars. Carved out between two 500-foot-high red boulders over a span of 300 million years, it has 9,000 seats and superb acoustics. Musicians from composer Igor Stravinsky to the Beatles have performed here, and catching a Red Rocks concert is a highlight of a visit to Denver.
Outside of concert times, the park offers great views of the city skyline. It was once the beach of a large inland sea, and the first large dinosaur bones were discovered nearby at Dinosaur Ridge.
Few major cities can claim their own ski resort, but Denver’s Winter Park is the fourth largest ski area in Colorado. Together with its sister mountain Mary Jane, it has 121 trails and 20 lifts, spread over a variety of terrain.
Winter Park is located 67 miles west of the city, and a popular way to get there is to take the Ski Train from downtown’s Union Station (weekends throughout the winter and some Saturdays in summer). It is popular in summer for its mountain bike trails, alpine slide, and outdoor concerts.
Echo Lake & Summit Lake Parks
The summit of Mt. Evans rises 14,260 feet. Located at its base, some 10,000 feet above sea level, is Echo Lake, one of the most beautiful in the state. A road to the top is open in summer. Hiking trails lead out from the lake to wilderness areas, winding through alpine tundra and ancient groves of bristlecone pine.
At over 13,000 feet, Summit Lake is Denver’s highest park. It lies above Echo Lake. This natural botanical area contains tundra wildflowers not found elsewhere outside the Arctic Circle. Bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats are frequently seen on the trail to the peak of Mt. Evans.