finding nature in (or near) the denver metro

As I mentioned recently on my Instagram, my goal for the summer is to try to get the kids outside for at least 3 hours a day. Some of this will be swim lessons and other planned activities, but I’ve recently been reminded of the importance of unstructured outdoor play. I grew up doing this, on a large lot of land in northern New York, as I’m sure many people my age did. I’d spend hours playing in mud and water and setting up forts amongst the trees. But in recent years, there’s been a shift towards spending more time indoors with increase supervision. I’ve been reading “There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather” by Linda Åkeson McGurk and she has me completely convinced of the benefits of freely playing outdoors.

We moved a couple years ago to a house with a larger backyard. We try to get the kids outside as much as possible. But lately I’ve been thinking about finding more “real” nature for them to explore. More trails and streams and mud. I reached out to some of my parent networks on Facebook, and received tons of great suggestions. I’m compiling them all here for my own purposes, and perhaps for your reference as well. I haven’t been to even half of these spots, so do let me know in the comments if you have any feedback on any of the suggestions.

Where to find nature experiences within the Denver metro area, divided by region.
Spots closest to Denver are listed first. —

NORTH

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge // 6550 Gateway Road, Commerce City, CO 80022
There’s a driving loop for viewing wildlife, but several short walking trails as well.

Broomfield Bike Park // Zuni Street, Broomfield, CO 80023
Bike park and supposedly fantastic nature playground nearby. Free.

Sunflower Farm // 11150 Prospect Road, Longmont, CO 80504
A single-day admission ticket gives you access to this quaint farm in Longmont. Feed animals, play on swings and the treehouse playground, ride the horses or tractors. They also offer a preschool and summer camp options. Reservations required to visit.

Eldorado Canyon State Park // 65 Baldwin Cir, Eldorado Springs, CO 80025
Four trails ranging from 0.5 miles to 3.5 miles. Tip: aim to go on a weekday; weekends get very crowded.

Dirty Bismark Trail // Superior, CO - various trailheads along loop
{from the website} Dirty Bismarck Loop Trail is a 13.8 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Louisville, Colorado that features beautiful wild flowers and is rated as moderate. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from March until October. Dogs and horses are also able to use this trail.

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SOUTH

Washington Park // S. Downing St. & E. Louisiana Ave., Denver, CO 80210
Great walking paths, a new playground, and a creek to explore. Recent improvements have minimized car traffic inside the park.

South Platte Trail // various starting points along a ~20 mile route.
”Scenic bike ride but lots of places to stop! Get out down south by the Botanic Gardens at Chatfield.”

High Line Canal // various starting points
{from the website} At 71 miles long, the High Line Canal is one of the longest continuous urban trails in the country, twisting through the most populated area of Colorado while crossing a diverse mosaic of communities and nature. The Canal originates at Waterton Canyon in Douglas County and runs to Green Valley Ranch in Northeast Denver, falling within one mile of more than 350,000 residents.

Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms // 8500 W Deer Creek Canyon Road, Littleton, CO 80128
{from a mom who works there}: “Amazing place to let your littles run around and explore. Farm animals, lots of birds, frogs, and beavers dams all along the creek. Most folks don't walk the full loop of the trail along the creek so miss a lot of the site.”

Chatfield State Park // 11500 North Roxborough Park Road, Littleton, CO 80125
{from their website} “Float your boat in the lake, bicycle or hike on a trail that provides scenic views of the neighboring foothills and Platte River valley, camp, ride a horse and even fly a model airplane - all at Chatfield State Park, nestled next to the foothills southwest of Denver.”

Castlewood Canyon State Park // 2989 South State Highway 83, Franktown, CO, 80116
Slightly hidden in the plains (not the mountains) which makes this park unique and sometimes less crowded than other state parks. Various hiking trails and much nature to explore.

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EAST

Bluff Lake Nature Center // 3400 Havana Way, Denver, CO 80238
No bikes or dogs allowed. Free entry. 1.2 mile loop and several other trails and areas to observe nature.

Star K Ranch // 16002 E Smith Road, Aurora, CO 80011
They do a great nature class for kids 5 and under on Thursday mornings. Check their Facebook for details.

The Urban Farm at Stapleton // 10200 Smith Road, Denver, Colorado 80239
$5 admission for ages 2+

Cherry Creek State Park // 4201 S. Parker Road Aurora, CO 80014
{from the website} A scenic oasis in the Denver area offering a wide variety of water and land activities for outdoor enthusiasts. The 4,000-acre park and modern campground are open year-round. View birds and wildlife, recreate or relax with the majestic Rocky Mountains as a backdrop.

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WEST

Crown Hill Park // 9357 West 26th Avenue, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033
Nice walking loop around a lake.

Anderson Park // West 44th Avenue and Field Street, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033
Access to Clear Creek. Possible water play and much to explore by the creek.

Alderfer / Three Sisters Park // 5136 South Le Masters Road, Evergreen, CO 80439
There’s also an east trailhead.

Bear Creek Lake Park // 15600 W Morrison Road, Lakewood CO 80228
When I first moved to Denver after living in places with more water, I laughed when someone told me this was a good beach. Then, a few years later, I took my kids to swim and said to friends, “this is GREAT!” It’s not the Adirondacks or Minnesota, but it’s still fun!

Lions Park // 1470 10th Street, Golden, CO 80401
Walk by the creek and play at the playground before or after. Water level varies so be cautious if there’s a high/strong flow.

Bear Creek Greenbelt // 2800 S. Estes St., Lakewood, CO 80227
{from the website} “This lovely, natural stream corridor provides a continuous trail connection and wildlife corridor from Wadsworth Boulevard west to Bear Creek Lake Park. The 379-acre preserve parallels Bear Creek and contains wetlands, fishing ponds, riparian forests and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. Trail connections provide endless options for biking and walking along the scenic floodplain heading toward Denver or Bear Creek Lake Park and the foothills beyond.”

Lair o’ the Bear Park // 22550 State Highway 74, Idledale, CO 80453
Great walking path along a creek. Good for families and usually suitable for a stroller with large wheels.

Matthew Winters Park // 1103 County Highway 93, Golden, CO 80401
Various trails, but apparently the trailhead itself is a great place to play; a stream and some trials offer kids ample opportunity to explore nature.

North Table Mountain Trail // Access the trail via Highway 93 just north of Pine Ridge Road. (4758 Highway 93)
{from the website} North Table Mountain Trail is 1.5 miles and traverses the southwest side of North Table Mountain below the cliff band. There are excellent views of the Golden Valley. The trail is moderate to advanced in difficulty, with 300 feet elevation gain from the north and 400 feet elevation gain from the south. The trail branches left to the Golden Cliffs Trail shortly after the trailhead in the north. Stay right to keep on the North Table Mountain Trail. The trail terminates near Peary Parkway at its southern end.

Apex Park // 121 County Highway 93, Golden, CO 80401
Close to downtown Golden, this trail is nice on really hot days, it eventually follows a stream with good shade thanks to a dense forest. This trail is popular with mountain bikers, but there are “directional use” restrictions: “Bicyclists are required to ride in one direction only (uphill/west) on odd-numbered calendar days.”