At the westernmost fringe of the Great Plains, Colorado‘s ‘Mile High City’ beckons like an urban avatar of welcome relief. On par with much larger cities, Denver is middle America’s de facto hub of culture and commerce, offering all the perks (and few of the pangs) of any modern American metropolis, with a surrounding landscape that lends the city its illustrious ‘grounded’ identity.
Nestled up against the magnificent Rocky Mountains, Denver is the perfect destination for anyone who has trouble choosing between big-city and backwoods attractions or thinks a hard day’s hell raising is best finished off with high tea at a 19th-century society hotel. Where else can you enjoy a buffalo tenderloin before a night at the symphony and top the evening with a nightcap at an art deco bar modeled on that of the Queen Mary.
Denver, despite being known as the “Mile High City” and serving as the point of arrival for travelers heading into the Rocky Mountains, is itself uniformly flat. The majestic peaks are clearly visible, but they only begin to rise roughly fifteen miles west of downtown and Denver has, during the last century, had plenty of room to spread out. Its foundation in 1858 was pure chance; this was the first spot where small quantities of gold were discovered in Colorado. Though local resources have since been exhausted, Denver maintains its role as Colorado’s commercial and transportation nexus. Today it’s a welcoming and enjoyable place: its isolation, a good six hundred miles from any conurbation of even vaguely similar size, gives its two-million residents a refreshing friendliness; and there always seems to be something going on.
Though oil money brought a hectic spate of high-rise construction in the early 1980′s, downtown Denver remains recognizable as the Gold Rush town of the 1860′s. Much of the day-to-day activity centers on the shops and restaurants of 16th Street, which but for its free buses is a pedestrian zone; there’s also a range of galleries, brewpubs, shops and lofts in the revitalizing district between 14th and 20th, Wynkoop and Larimer, known as LoDo, or Lower Downtown. Restored to its late Victorian appearance, Larimer Square and the surrounding areas around Market Street between 14th and 15th, provide another lively focus for shops, bars and restaurants. Northeast of downtown, Denver’s Five Points district, created to house black railroad workers in the 1870′s, has a good museum and a few places to eat.
History & Culture
Already the bison-hunting grounds of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians when (mostly luckless) prospectors began arriving in 1859, Denver began its days as little more than a rough-and-tumble gold miners’ camp. In an effort to polish the area’s image (and bolster his coffers in the process), General William H Larimer shamelessly wooed Kansas Territorial Governor James W Denver into granting Larimer and his partners a township by proposing to name it in the governor’s honor. Larimer’s bootlicking worked and the Denver City Township Company set up shop in late 1859 at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River.
The area’s gold rush though short-lived brought a substantial overland freight and passenger business (via horse and wagon) to Denver, whose foothill location was as convenient as any along the Front Range for servicing the Rocky Mountain mining camps. Nevertheless, without water or rail transportation, Denver’s overnight rise was unsustainable. Languishing far from the Transcontinental Railroad, which was opened in 1869 through Cheyenne, Denver stagnated until the 105 mile (170km) Denver Pacific line joined it to Cheyenne the following year.
The city’s dawdling ascent to prominence was furthered by the arrival of the Kansas Pacific railway line that same year and by a silver rush in the following decade. In 1881, Union Station opened to consolidate passenger traffic for the railroads. The Italian Romanesque landmark burned in 1894 and was replaced with today’s Neoclassical station, anchoring 17th St as a center for banks and posh hotels, including the Oxford, Barth and Brown Palace. By the 1890′s, the region’s population had tripled and Denver had become known as the ‘Queen City of the Plains.’ The city’s boom continued until 1893, when the Silver Panic laid waste to the city’s economy and threw the entire state into a depression. The following year, the discovery of rich gold deposits in Cripple Creek again reversed the trend.
Following the Great Depression, WWII brought jobs at hastily built munitions and chemical warfare plants in and around the city. In 1952, Denver’s 12-story height limit was repealed in the downtown area, excepting the historic districts. The Denver skyline now contains some 20 high rises, but many of these suffered during the mid-1980′s, when an office-construction boom suddenly turned into a glut. The cycle reversed yet again during the 1990′s, as Denver became home to computer, telecommunications and other high-tech firms and service providers, which now dominate the local economy.
Denver’s downtown is an intriguing mix of well-preserved monuments from the state’s frontier past and modern high-tech marvels. You’ll often catch the reflection of an elegant Victorian building in the mirrored glass of a skyscraper. millions of dollars have been poured into the city since 1995, in such projects as the Coors Field downtown baseball stadium and the relocation of Elitch Gardens the first amusement park in the country to relocate into a downtown urban area.
Lower Downtown, or LoDo, is a Victorian warehouse district revitalized by the new ballpark, loft condominiums and numerous brew pubs and restaurants. Also new are the downtown Pepsi Center sports arena and the Ocean Journey aquarium. In downtown Denver, free shuttle-bus service operates about every 10 minutes until 11 PM, running the length of the 16th Street Mall (which bisects downtown) and stopping at two-block intervals. If you plan to spend much time outside downtown, a car is advised, although Denver has an efficient city bus system. Even downtown, parking spots are usually easy to find; try to avoid driving in the area during rush hour, when traffic gets heavy.
Denver Museum of Natural History
One of the premier natural history museums in the country, this institution was founded at the turn of the century to house the collection of Colorado naturalist Edwin Carter. Museum scientists attracted international attention following their 1926 discovery (near Folsom, New Mexico) of distinctive spear points in association with bones of a bison species extinct for 10,000 years. The discovery proved the existence of humans in the New World about 8000 years earlier than previously assumed. Visitors can see dinosaur fossils like Stegosaurus stenops (the state fossil), a small-headed, armor-plated vegetarian that roamed the state 150 million years ago. Enormous remains of the Nebraska mammoth and long-jawed mastodon are also on display. The museum is located 3 miles east of downtown Denver in City Park. Also housed in the complex is an IMAX Theater, a giant-screen movie experience that wows audiences with of all thing nature documentaries and the Gates Planetarium, which features a laser light show tour of distant galaxies. Visitors on a hell-bent pace or with short attention spans could also squeeze in a visit to the neighboring Denver Zoo on the same day.
If you’re searching for a good sense of what makes Denver America’s poster-city for successful redevelopment, start your visit at Larimer Square. Though the idea of festooning renovated turn of the century buildings with strings of ‘decorative’ lights is questionable, the 1400 block of Larimer St presents a tasty array of distractions. This enclave of stylish shops, restaurants and brewpubs is where the gathering spot for the city’s scenesters, running the spectrum from yuppie to punk. If the square’s hip clubs keep you going all night, never fear: its cafes are sure to get you started in the morning. Larimer Square is on the southwestern edge of the downtown grid.
Denver Art Museum
Resembling a modern high-rise jail, this mammoth museum houses one of the largest Native American art collections in the world, with work on display from tribes throughout the country. Pieces from thousands of years ago to the present are arranged geographically, emphasizing the connection between cultures. American Western artists are also featured, as well as works from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific. The museum is on the southern fringe of the downtown grid, just south of the Civic Center.
Black American Western Museum & Heritage Center
‘We tell it like it was’ is the motto of the Black American Western Museum & Heritage Center. although a few notable African-American pioneers arrived at the onset of Colorado’s mining boom in the early 1860′s, it was after the Civil War that most professional and working-class black people made their mark in the state. Black cowboys were particularly influential, making up almost a third of the Western range workers, but the museum also showcases the contributions of black soldiers, miners, lawyers and politicians. Dedicated to correcting versions of history, the museum is housed in what was the home of Dr Justina Ford, Denver’s first black physician, who practiced in the state for half a century. It’s located north of downtown in the Five Points neighborhood; the light rail stops right outside.
Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater
In the hills just west of Denver, this 600 acre stunner should not be missed especially if you can attend a starlit performance, nestled between the outdoor amphitheater’s 70 million year old rock formations. During the Great Depression, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built the 9000 seat amphitheater between 400 foot red sandstone rocks to take advantage of the splendid natural acoustics. Every summer, Red Rocks hosts a variety of world class performers. The surrounding parkland is open daily, except during show times.
Denver’s flat terrain and wide streets make bicycling easy, though intrepid road riders will find more intriguing loops beginning in Golden and in nearby parklands that offer offroad riding opportunities. Matthews/Winters Park, a short drive west of Denver along Hwy 26, is a favorite local mountain biking destination. A further 20 miles southwest, the USFS South Platte Ranger District offers about 40 miles of bike trails in the Buffalo Creek Mountain Bike Area. For maps and information on the trails and road loops, two good resources are Len Newton’s Mountain Bike Rides: South Platte Ranger District and the Colorado Division of Parks and Recreation’s free North Front Range map of urban trails. There’s a Denver Metro Bike Routes map in the Denver phone book.
Castlewood Canyon State Park, 25 miles south of Denver, is a popular rock climbing area. The vertical rock faces at Boulder’s Eldorado Canyon State Park offer class 5.6 to 5.9 climbs, but be sure to steer clear of the peregrine and prairie falcons nests on the walls unless you want some attention from park rangers. No-bolt sport climbing is available on the three Flatirons, reached via hiking trails from Chautauqua Park close to Boulder.
Its location at the foot of the Rockies makes Denver a magnet for hiking enthusiasts. The 500 mile Colorado Trail starts at Chatfield Reservoir, 10 miles south of Denver and enters the Rocky Mountains along the South Platte River. On its way to Durango in southwestern Colorado, it crosses eight mountain ranges, seven national forests, six wilderness areas and five river systems. Eliciting less commitment, day hikes to the 9700 foot Devil’s Head Lookout in the forested Rampart Range, 30 miles southwest of Denver, are popular with those who like a good workout before settling into a picnic. In a little over a mile, you can climb almost 1000 feet to the fire lookout, which offers a commanding view of Spanish Peaks to the south, Mt Evans to the north, South Park to the west and the Eastern Plains.
Clear Creek offers exciting class III white-water rafting for 15 miles between Idaho Springs and Golden, plus challenging class IV rapids from May to October. Half-day trips for intermediate rafters aged 16 years or over can be organized with rafting companies in Denver.
The world-class skiing and snowboarding available at several nearby Rocky Mountain resorts are a big part of Denver’s winter persona. Powder junkies from around the world descend on Vail each winter, making it the most visited ski resort in the United States. Denver’s daytrippers are just as likely to hit nearby Eudora and Loveland for their dose of downhill. Loveland also boasts extensive cross-country trails, which make for excellent telemarking.
For those who find a single season not nearly enough time to play in the snow, there’s always the permanent snow field at 11,000 feet St Mary’s Glacier, a few hours’ drive west of Denver. Those with wheels of their own can reach Loveland Basin, 56 miles west of Denver, via Interstate 70. Carless skiers can catch private shuttles that run from Denver’s hotels and airport; many of Vail’s resorts run airport shuttles that are free to guests.
In The Area
A short drive from the capital, Boulder is the Plains region’s sanctum of all that is tuned in, turned on and scented with patchouli. With more artists’ co-ops and vegan eateries than you can shake a smudge stick at, this place is about as far from Colorado as you can get. While the latter shines with its big-city lights, tiny Boulder sits quietly, contemplating its navel, reveling in its low-key ways. Boulderians one quarter of whom are university students value their quality of life, a fact reflected in the human scale of the pedestrian Pearl St Mall, the town’s network of bicycle routes and the surrounding greenbelt that allows the locals to enjoy the area’s sylvan attractions within a Frisbee’s fling of their homes.
Typically atypical, Boulder’s centers of higher learning include the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where some of the world’s fastest supercomputers (and supercomputer geeks) click and whir inside their striking sandstone home (designed by architect IM Pei) at the foot of the Flatiron Rock Formation. Closer to downtown, hipsters howl for the new-agey Naropa Institute, where poet Allen Ginsberg helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in homage to his fellow Beatnik bard. This definitely ain’t your mother’s Lit program. Twenty-seven miles northwest of Denver, Boulder is an easy half-hour’s drive from downtown Denver along Highway 36. Buses between Denver and Boulder are frequent and can carry bicycles in their cargo compartments.
The town of Morrison sits amid the spectacular upturned red-rock scenery west of Red Rocks Park. Excavations in this National Historic District have yielded fossils of over 70 dinosaur species, including the first fossil remains of the allosaurus and stegosaurus ever discovered. You can view dinosaur footprints during the irregularly scheduled guided tours offered by the Friends of Dinosaur Ridge. Morrison is 12 miles southwest of Denver. It’s accessible by car via Highway 8 or by bicycle via the Bear Creek Greenway and Platte River Greenway, a 32 mile ride from downtown Denver.
Outdoorsy types use the town of Golden as a hub for trips to the Denver Mountain Parks, but the town’s biggest draw is the relatively mundane guided tour through the largest brewery in the world, Coors Brewery. The Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum, 4.5 miles west of town, is located near the site where the Wild West Showmaster was buried in 1917. Golden is on Highway 58, north of Interstate 70, about 20 miles west of Denver. Buses run to Golden from downtown Denver.
When To Go
Depending on what you’re after, Denver is a year-round destination. The winter ski season (roughly November through March) lures skiiers and boarders from around the globe. While summer sees hikers, bikers and climbers heading up, down and around every bump worth bagging. Naturalists will delight in watching dry and comfy autumn paint the landscape with more rusty lemon-yellows than a junkyard in Detroit. And springtime, while typically windy and wet, sees Colorado’s oceans of wildflowers burst into bloom.
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