Hiking Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge
Need a great hike that’s close by, is fantastic for kids, invites world travelers, and includes world history?
And you might even see bison, deer, foxes, prairie dogs and bald eagles?
Then head over to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. It’s nearby and on the way.
From Homesteaders to Bison
The Wildlife Refuge, which now hosts a bison herd of close to 100, two types of deer, lots of foxes, coyotes, prairie dogs and ferrets, used to be the dirtiest land in the country. Seized from homesteaders after Pearl Harbor, the Army built munitions and chemical warfare, creating a toxic cocktail of mustard gas and dioxins. On top of this deadly soup, the space race created fuel for the Apollo space mission. The filthy mess was then topped with pesticide production waste.
By the time the 80s rolled around, Denver’s too-small, Stapleton airport and a disgusting dirt pile of tainted soil called out for solutions. Leaders came together, moved the airport, and got the old Army base declared a Superfund site. At the same time, bald eagles appeared in cottonwoods along Second Creek. With legislative maneuvering and citizen support, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge claimed its place.
Hike or Drive to See Bison
And now, you can view the bison on this wonderful urban resource, just a few miles off I-70 just north of the old Stapleton airport tower. The bison’s range behind fences. In a car, you can drive along a designated route within the range and get very close to the bison. Yet, you must stay in your car.
If you decide to walk, you can get close, but a fence will always be between you and the bison. The hike from the Visitors Center to the lakes brings you close to their range. But really, let’s be honest, right up front.
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Bison aren’t friendly. They don’t want your company. They weigh almost a ton. So, no, you won’t actually be hiking with them. You’ll more be walking near them, in view of them, or within range. If you don’t see them walking the Legacy Trail from the Visitors Center, hop back in your car and drive the Wildlife Drive Trail.
Get Up Early or Go Late
The best time to view the bison is early in the morning or later in the afternoon. But it’s really a guessing game at best. The bison roam the Refuge throughout the day, and there are many days you can’t see them from the trails or the public viewing areas. None the less, here’s how you can walk right next to them if they’re out.
The Trail Route
Park at the Refuge’s Visitor Center. Inside, you can see a life-sized bison and learn the history of the Refuge. When you’re ready, head out on the Legacy Trail, which leaves from the back side of the Visitors Center. At the head of the trail is a ferret exhibit that you won’t want to pass up. Then head northeasterly along the trail to Lake Mary.
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The trail is mostly pebble rock. Rollers and strollers can enjoy it on dry days. You’ll walk along medium-high prairie grass on rolling knolls. About halfway to Mary Lake, which is about a ½ mile, you’ll encounter some swales on both sides of the trail where lovely cottonwood and oak trees grow. Keep your eyes peeled, as you’ll have a high chance to see mule deer and maybe even some white-tailed deer. Prairie dogs will scatter and bark your arrival. (Another trail where you might see bison within the Refuge is the First Creek at DEN Open Space Trail.)
Shortly after you pass the swales and before you cross Havana, look to the north. If you’re going to see any bison by foot, here’s your best chance. Often, small parts of the herd will hang out just north of the swales and west of the road. You’ll be close enough to take pictures where they look like bison and less where they look like little brown dots out in a field of grass.
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While you’re near Mary Lake, cross over Havana and enjoy a walk around Mary or go a bit further to Lake Ladora. There’s a great loop trail of about 2 miles to take you around the lakes. When you’re ready, head back west along the Legacy trail to the Visitor Center, completing a four-mile out-and-back walk.
By the way, Colorado natives and long-time locals call the area the “Arsenal” while new-comers tend to call it the “Refuge.”
Traveling to Denver International Airport?
If you have 2-3 extra hours before checking in for you flight, stopping by the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge is a great last stop on the way to the airport. If you’re driving from downtown Denver to the airport, take I70 to the Central Park Blvd. Go north about a mile when the street turns into Prairie Parkway. Take a right on Gateway Road into the park. When you finish your visit, leave the park, turn left on Prairie Parkway to Central Park Blvd. Turn left on 56th Ave to Peña Blvd. Turn left on Peña to the airport.
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Or, if you are taking public transit, purchase a ticket on the A train for the airport. Take the A train to Central Park Station. From there, you can take Bus 62. The bus will let you off on Prairie Parkway, and then you’ll have about a 1/2 mile walk. It might be better to Lyft to the Visitor’s Center from Central Park Station. When you’re finished, either Bus 62 back to Central Park Station or Lyft to the 61st and Peña A Train station. Take the train to the airport. You will not need to purchase another ticket. Your airport ticket is good all day and for multiple rides. It’s good on the bus, too, if you decide to take that route.
If you go to the Refuge, post your pictures and tag them with #DenverByFoot. I’d love to see them!
~See you on the trail
PS If you’d like more great hiking suggestions nearby in Denver, get my book Best Urban Hikes: Denver.
Hiking the Refuge and Supporting Denver By Foot
If you’ve enjoyed this information, 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!
See you on the trail!