If ever there was an area of the US with a bizarre history, this is it. Even the name – which combines ‘arsenal’ and ‘wildlife’ into the same sentence – suggests that this land has quite the storied past.
Located immediately northeast of Denver, the land encompassed today by Rocky Mountain Arsenal used to be a shortgrass prairie home to many types of wildlife and plant species. In 1942, the area was turned into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a place designated for the manufacture of chemical weapons including napalm, mustard gas, and sarin. When the US halted its chemical weapons program in the 1960s, the area then became a site for pesticide manufacturing. Many of the remaining chemical weapons were also disposed of here.
As you can probably imagine, this area was greatly contaminated; in the 1980s it was designated as a superfund site. Fortunately, many years of extensive cleanup and management has returned the area to the shortgrass prairie habitat it once was, though the water is still somewhat polluted. Nevertheless, it was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1992 after bald eagles were found nesting in the area. Since then, bison, deer, waterfowl, and over 300 other animals have returned to this area.
Today, the Refuge houses a visitor center, hiking trails, and a wildlife drive, and entry is free. Pat and I visited on Black Friday 2018, after our #OptOutside hiking plans were put on hold thanks to the weather. Out on the plains it was excessively windy, but at least it wasn’t blizzarding on us.
We began at the visitor center, where we learned all about the history of the area and viewed some artifacts from its time as a chemical weapons facility. This was something I knew absolutely nothing about, and it was fascinating to learn this portion of our nation’s history.
I was also really impressed by the story of the site cleanup; it took many people and agencies, a lot of time and money, and yet everyone worked together and succeeded in their mission. It gives me hope that someday our government will once again be a productive body of people who actually care about our planet and its people.
From the visitor center, we then set out on the wildlife drive. The drive is 11 miles (17.5 km) and the speed limit is only 30 mph (48 kmh), so plan at least 45 minutes to complete the one-way loop. You may encounter bison on or near the road; for this reason you aren’t allowed to leave your car when driving through the bison range. However, outside of the bison range there are lots of pullouts and short walking paths, and we took full advantage of these.
As with all wildlife viewing areas, morning and evening are the optimal times to visit. We were there in the middle of the day, which likely contributed to the lack of wildlife we saw. Even so, I’d much rather be out in the gusty winds enjoying the scenery and looking for bison than standing in absurdly long lines on Black Friday spending money I don’t have on stuff I don’t need!
Read more posts from my Colorado Destinations series here.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the entrance to the refuge is located off Prairie Parkway in Commerce City, Colorado
- Fees and passes: free!
- Hiking: there are 10 miles of hiking trails on the refuge; all are flat with minimal shade and the possibility for snakes in the summer
- Where to stay: camping on the refuge is not allowed, but Denver has plenty of lodging options and there are a handful of state parks within a 1 hour radius
- Other: for more information on the wildlife refuge, visit their website