The weather was perfect for this week’s Denver adventure: exploring a few of the city’s largest and well-known parks plus–my favorite park–a tiny pocket of green in a swank older neighborhood. Parks are a perfect place to take a break when you’re touring an urban area; you can give the kids or yourself a respite from museums and shopping, you can rent a bike and ride the perimeter of these larger parks, you can create a budget friendlier picnic, or just soak up the sun and rest your mind after seeing the sites. One of the things which reminds me how Denver’s roots are firmly in the American Midwest are the many parks we have scattered throughout distinctive neighborhoods throughout the city. Each of these neighborhood parks also have pockets of retail areas that were once utilitarian shops and retailers but are now boutique specialty stores and restaurants. The park and the playground become a bribe: “Mommy gets to look in this cute store where the fancy gardening things are and then we can go to the park. . .” (I should have a PhD in Bribing Five Year Olds To Behave Themselves While Shopping)
The first park I visited is the one most familiar to me. Once upon a time when I was a fancy free single twenty-something, I lived down the street from Washington Park and would walk or ride around the perimeter almost every day. Every so often, I’ll take a walk around the park; usually when the flower beds are at their peak. During the summer, every other Sunday night the park hosts free band concerts and every Thursday night for the last forty two years, people gather for folk dancing by the boathouse at 6:30 until dark. It sits in the middle of one of Denver’s first suburbs and was completed in the early 20th Century. It isn’t close to any of the big sites but there are several air BnB homes in the neighborhood. Sometimes, it’s just fun to dive into neighborhoods when you’re touring a city. The park borders Downing Street to the west, Franklin Street to the east and lies between Mississippi and Virginia (they are east/west running streets).
A few miles to the north, off Speer Boulevard which will take you downtown and plop you in the middle of the Theater District, is a postage stamp-sized neighborhood park: Alamo Placido Park (“Apple Mo Cito” park at my house until Wally was five and could say it properly). This park has a lovely formal garden planted and maintained by volunteers and it is at its zenith in late July/August. It’s almost a distraction as you zip down Speer towards downtown with its riot of color. This park is in the middle of a bike friendly neighborhood and is just off the Cherry Creek bike path so it offers a place to rest if you’re working your way through town via two wheels. I discovered this park when my kids were very young. It sports a smaller playground which is geared to toddlers and preschoolers. It was confidence building for my shy and physically tentative older son because there weren’t gaggles of rowdy five year olds swooping, jumping and running through the structure. Today, there was a new generation of young mothers with their kids who had taken leave of the bigger park down the street for the same reason. I was pleased to discover a new display describing the history of the park. In the late 1890’s this park was an amusement park for “grown up boys and girls” with a small lake and a water slide sort of thing. There was a shooting gallery, bicycle track, mystery maze, and scenic railroad. The park attracted itinerant acts like Professor Barnes and his diving elk who would dive off the chute into the water; and a young lady who bicycled down the shute. Unfortunately, all these high jincks came to an end in 1901 when the park succumbed to a fire. The houses around the park are large and majestic, more fitting for Kansas City, St. Louis or St. Paul than Denver, so it amused me see the almost staid architecture and the polite well-heeled mommies in the midst of a park that was once a little rough around the edges and rowdy at its core. (That is just so “Denver”.
In the midst of one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods, and a place which has the reputation of being one of our “gayborhoods” is Cheesman Park. This park is off 8th avenue (a one way avenue running West) and near the Denver Botanic Gardens. The park has a grisly history to it; the land was originally a cemetery which was underutilized and in a state of disrepair by the early 20th century. The cemetery was decommissioned and then turned into a park; however an unscrupulous undertaker was awarded the contract and when he desecrated the graves, there was public outcry and the task was abandoned for many years until 1907 when trees and shrubs were planted in the remaining open graves. The same architect responsible for designing Washington Park– Reinhard Schuetze–designed Cheesman. The acropolis structure anchors the park at one end and provides a place for entertainment. I doubt when the Teller family donated land adjacent to the cemetery for the park realized it would become a popular place for the GLBAT community to congregate, play sports, sun bathe, and organize one of the country’s largest annual Gay Pride parades. Cycling around Cheesman isn’t as easy as the Washington Park but it is two blocks from 7th avenue which has a designated bike lane. I like riding 7th avenue it’s a pleasant tree lined street of turn-of-the-century mansions.
The largest and most famous park in Denver lays to the northeast of downtown and is home to the Denver Zoo and The Museum of Natural History: City Park. At a mile long and ¾ of a mile across, it’s the largest park in Denver. It’s an invigorating run or ride around the outside of the park (I’ve never done it before so that last statement is an educated guess) There are two lakes and a lovely Spanish style boathouse where the paddle boat rides begin and jazz concerts every other Sunday (the concerts alternate with Washington Park which makes every weekend a festival in Denver). Adjacent to the park is City Park Golf course, an older eighteen hole municipal course. A great place to leave golf inclined companion if the younger members of your entourage are pining to go to the zoo or explore the Natural History Museum. I think the steps leading from the museum towards the fountain and into the park offer one of the best views in Denver. Mount Evans and the other peaks forming the Front Range become a part of the cityscape.
Another large park which includes a recreational lake is in the far Northwest sector of Denver proper, Sloans Lake. I had never been to this part and had only been down the western part of Colfax Avenue (the longest avenue in the US to boot!) a couple of times in two decades. Funny how we forget about seeing foreign parts of our home cities isn’t it? Sloan’s lake is the second largest park in Denver and no one is sure were the lake came from but the most popular legend is Thomas Sloan was digging a well and tapped into an underground aquifer, flooding his land. During the 1880’s it was home to the first amusement park west of the Mississippi, Manhattan Beach. In June the Dragon Boat Festival takes place which celebrates Asian-American culture and community in Denver. You can fish, boat and even water ski Sloan Lake. There was a water skier on Tuesday and frankly, the idea of water skiing an urban lake made me shutter like bathing in the Ganges. Yeah…no…I’m good. There is a hiking/biking path around the lake and the neighborhood around the lake features modest mid-century houses. It’s close enough to I-70 if you’re on your way to or from the mountains and want to take a break in Denver, you can stop at one of the tacquierias along Colfax about a half mile to the south of the park and stretch your legs before you start up the hill or make your way to the prairie to the airport.
The picture of Cheesman came from here because my photos were terrible.