Walking with Denver’s Bison

By Chris Englert

Within driving distance of Denver, four herds of bison roam Denver’s great Front Range. Although you can easily see all four herds from your car, there’s really only one herd you may get close enough to enjoy by foot. That herd lives at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. The other three herds dot Denver and Fort Collins. Click here for an interactive Map of where the bison are near Denver.

WALKING…SERIOUSLY From left: Connie Englert, Kelly Millikan and Chris Englert in the museum. Photo by Steve Goodfriend.

The Wildlife Refuge, which now hosts a bison herd of about 80, 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.

By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Denver’s 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. With legislative maneuvering and citizen support, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge appeared.

And now, you can view the bison on this wonderful urban resource, just a few miles off I70 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.

This is a good thing.

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.

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 Visitor 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.

BISON HERDS. Photo by Chris Englert.

Walk on By

The trail is mostly pebble rock. Rollers and strollers can enjoy it on dry days. You’ll walk through medium-high prairie grass along 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.

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.

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 a mile to take you around the lakes. When you’re ready, head back west along the Legacy trail to the Visitor Center, completing a two-mile out-and-back walk.

A SINGULAR BOLD BISON. Photo by Chris Englert.

Worst-Case Scenario, Drive

If you miss walking with the bison, you’ll just have to come back another day. But if you just want to see them, you can always drive the loop at the Refuge. Or, you can try one of these other three destinations.

  1. Genesee Park. Anyone can see the herd owned by the City of Denver from the I-70 exit #256. Park on the south side and look toward the south where the herd generally hangs out in the winter time. On December 1, the park closes Genesee Road, enabling you to walk at your own risk. Eventually the park plans to turn the road into a trail. Look for the upgrades in the summer of 2016. On the north side of the interstate, you’ll also be able to park and overlook the bison. Here, too, there are plans to connect the trail from Denver to Glenwood Springs, possibly giving views of the bison as well. Look for these changes in 2016 as well.
  2. Daniel’s Park. Like Genesee, there are no real trails designed to get to the bison. Sadly, it’s a drive and see adventure, or you can risk your safety by walking along the side of the road. The good news is that trails are coming as well in 2016, so keep your ears open for future announcements.
  3. Finally, Fort Collins just got its first herd in November at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. Again, you can only see them from the road, but trails are also planned. Look for those trails, also, in 2016.

No matter how you eventually see the bison in Denver, you’ll be lucky to experience these beautiful beasts. The herd was originally estimated at 30-60 million. Today, less than a 250,000 remain.

Chris Englert, the Walking Traveler, believes that walking is the platform for life. She finds walking adventures throughout the world and blogs about them at www.eatwalklearn.com. You can also find her ebook, Travel Magic Postcards, on Amazon. Chris leads a quarterly walk entitled, Bison, Bombs, and BiPlanes, taking walkers through the history of Denver’s Mayor Stapleton, the Stapleton airport, and the rise of the Refuge. Check the calendar for her next walk. Chris is also available for speaking engagements.

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