Discovering a 42-mile Urban Hike Through Denver on Trails

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When I first arrived to Denver, I took out a Denver Trail Map and googled info about Denver’s trails. There wasn’t much. I found lots of information about trails on the Front Range, but those within Denver hid within plain sight.

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I set out the goal to research, name, and then walk a 42-mile loop around Denver on the Sand Creek Greenway, High Line Canal Trail, Cherry Creek Trail and Platte River Trail. Never did I think I’d learn so much, have so much fun, and clarify my purpose in Denver. Not only did all three things happen, but I also developed  a fabulous perspective on Denver. It’s more awesome than I ever imagined.

7 Creeks? 8 Creeks? 9 Creeks?

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Before starting out on this 42-mile urban adventure, I had talked extensively with several agencies including Denver Water, Denver Parks and Rec, and even the US Geological Society. I asked questions about the terrain, the geography, and the history of the creeks. I looked at lots of new and old maps. I asked the GIS folks to measure the distance of my proposed route. I really wanted to understand exactly how many creeks, rivers or watersheds were in the 42-mile loop and what they were called.

After looking at many maps and doing overlays of several resources, I concluded that within the designated loop flows 9 creeks. The problem with the maps is that I couldn’t get all of them into one view. I had to make some assumptions about boundaries and where our Denver Regional Trails actually laid within the old street and topo maps of the area. After walking the Loop, I made some corrections.

Lots of Creeks, But Let’s Count the Ones We See

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After looking at the topo map above, I thought I’d be crossing over First Creek, Second Creek, Sand Creek, Coal Creek, Cherry Creek, Dry Creek, Toll Gate Creek, High Line Canal, and Platte River. I didn’t. But miraculously, I did cross 9 Creeks, and thus I’ll keep the Loop’s name. Ultimately, the 9 Creeks Loop crosses (going clockwise from Sand Creek at Quebec) Sand Creek Greenway, Westerly Creek, High Line Canal, East Toll Gate, West Toll Gate, Toll Gate, Cherry Creek, Goldsmith Gulch, and Platte River.

 

Five Very Different Areas

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Each one of the regional trails had a very different personality. These trails followed through distinct areas, which I roughly broke into five.

The orange area along the Sand Creek hosts Stapleton (now called Central Park), a reurbanized area created from the old Stapleton airport. Here, life exists around major transit areas while relaxing along the Sand Creek. Housing, industry, commercial, and transit co-exist in a shared life of action and balance.

Note: In the summer of 2020, the Stapleton residents renamed their neighborhood Central Park.

Historically, the Stapleton Airport was put “way out” in Rattlesnake Holler. Major thoroughfares grew around it, including Colfax Blvd and Quebec, while railroad continued its western expansion wax and wane. Eventually I70 replaced the east-west bound traffic, and the Stapleton neighborhood overtook the airport. Thus, once there were warehouses and western distribution centers, now there are homes in what used to be a food desert surrounded by industrialization.

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The yellow area along the High Line Canal brings you from rural Aurora into its fast growing suburbs which abut up against Denver’s retirement area, Windsor Gardens. The Canal, although no longer an active distributor of water in this area, stretches 71 miles from Green Valley Ranch to Waterton Canyon. The 9 Creeks Loop traverses it for about 12 miles, and mostly along its Denver portion.

The blue area pulls you onto the Cherry Creek Trail where folks hustle and bustle their way through life via fast bikes, quick walks, and rushing cars. Before arriving to the Cherry Creek Trail, Fairmount Cemetery pops up and tells the history of Denver’s dead through tombstones and plots.

The purple area helps relieves the busy-ness of the Cherry Creek Trail by giving visual relief via the Denver Urban Arts murals and artwork along the creek. You’ll continue through this outdoor art gallery until you reach the Platte River where you’ll turn down river and enjoy all the activity at Confluence Park along what was historically known as “The Bottoms.”

The green area reminds us of the cost of beauty and capitalism after walking through some of the best of Denver. Here on the northern sections of the Platte River as it confluences with the Sand Creek, you’ll see how folks experiencing homelessness survive near our water and sewage treatment centers and petroleum plants.

A walk around the Loop provides such a well-rounded view of life in Denver; there’s no better way to really understand how Denver’s heart beats.

What the Loop Needs

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The four Trails along the Loop have advocacy groups with similar agendas–make their trails great–and they all have the same needs. From my point of view, they need signs, wayfaring, street hardware, facilities, and marketing. These groups would love your support of their trails: Sand Creek Greenway, The High Line Canal Conservancy, The Greenway Foundation (Cherry Creek Trail and Platte River Trail.)

Truly, not one Trail is better than the other. They are all unique and brilliant. Some of the best spots along the 42-mile loop are: Star K Ranch, along Windsor Gardens, the northern end of Cherry Creek, the bridge over the Platte and Sand Creek Confluence. Some of the worst areas along the 42-mile loop: the west end of Sand Creek, the Alameda crossing on High Line, the bike speeds on Cherry Creek, the stink along the Platte River.

But don’t get me wrong.

In its best and its worst, not one time did I feel unsafe, threatened or scared. Most of the time, happiness and joy opened up with the pace of life at 3 miles per hour.

So Much Beauty to See

I took hundreds of photos and about 25 hours of video.But of most of all, my favorite picture is below.

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Or maybe this one.

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Or this one.

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I Narrated Each Mile

I blogged each night about the miles I covered that day, and each blog breaks down each mile. When video is available, I include it within the blog at the appropriate mile. There are some miles missing (human error!), which I hope to re-capture in the future.

My mileage is off in the videos. I’m no pro at this!

Somewhere in Aurora my mileage count went screwy, so please be patient if the video and blog miles don’t sync in narration. In retrospect, I wish I had the coloring system above, as it would have made cataloging easier. But I had to learn, first, and the only way to learn was to walk the trail. So apologies….

What You Need to Know About the 9 Creeks Loop

The surfaces of the loop vary from sand to hard-packed soft surface to concrete to asphalt. You can bike the entire route, although some parts in Aurora and Denver sections will probably do best on a mountain bike.

I broke the 42-mile loop into 8 segments with trailheads and trailends. You can find all that info here, including where to park, start, and finish.

A Giant Thank You to My Sponsors and My Readers

This journey had company. Thank you to my sponsors, Wallaroo Hats who provided gorgeous hats for me to give away, Forest City who provided the GoPro to record the journey, High Line Canal Conservancy who underwrote some expenses, and Walk2Connect my business partner co-op and team of mentors who supported me the entire way.

Finally, to those who walked with me (Steve, Tim, Dawn, Asher), to those who followed the blog posts, and to those who keep asking, thank you. Please post below any questions, comments, or suggestions. I have one question for you in my final thoughts 9 Creeks Loop, when will you walk it?

A Double Thank You

If you’ve enjoyed this walk, maybe you’ll enjoy some other walks curated by Denver By Foot. Get the 52 Hikes 52 Weeks Denver Calendar, which recommends a hike a week, subscribe to the YouTube Channel to hear about weekly hiking suggestions in Denver, and buy access to the Denver By Foot Challenge. The Challenge is 30 activities in Denver to do by foot where you’ll uncover treasures throughout Denver. It’s a great thing to do with friends and family.

Finally, please support Denver By Foot by purchasing Chris Englert’s books, The Best Urban Hikes: Denver and Discovering Denver Parks. Thank you so much!