Our very first campsite in Colorado was at Cherry Creek State Park. In fact, it was the first place we ever spent the night anywhere in Colorado – and that includes our apartment. We’d left Pat’s old car behind in Connecticut (it wouldn’t have made it to Colorado) and his residency start date was just two days after our apartment would be ready. It was a really tight turnaround, so we knew we’d need to arrive a couple days early and do some car shopping. Fortunately for us, Cherry Creek State Park is right on the southeastern edge of Denver and very close to where we’d be living, so we booked a campsite for two nights and that was our home base upon arrival.
I’ve since lost count of the number of times we’ve visited this park. The back entrance was just a mile from our apartment, and it’s a walk-in entrance which means no fee is charged. It’s a good place to take out of town visitors for a short walk/hike; the trails are wide and fairly flat with a great view of the mountains and lots of prairie dogs.
There are almost 30 miles (48 km) of trails in the park, which provided us with numerous walking/hiking/jogging opportunities – particularly during the height of the COVID pandemic when we were limited to close-to-home recreation activities. We frequented the park during these months, which allowed us to explore much of the trail system.
We usually entered the park on foot at the Pope Trail, which meanders through the grasslands, along the edge of a pond, across a small creek, and up to a fairly expansive viewpoint.
The trail then descends through prairie dog territory and terminates at the Cherry Creek Trail, which is actually a 40 mile (64 km) urban trail that runs from downtown Denver out to the southeastern suburbs, including almost 8 miles (13 km) inside the park boundary. Within the park, it runs along the wetlands and the southwest shore of the reservoir before curving around behind the dam.
Just before the Pope Trail intersects with the Cherry Creek Trail, there’s a gazebo with informational signs commemorating the 1993 World Youth Day. This is an event that has taken place semi-annually since 1985 and is organized by the Catholic Church. Over half a million people attended the event; it’s the largest gathering of all time in the Denver area.
Cherry Creek was already a state park at the time, and I was really grateful to read about the many steps Colorado took to protect and preserve the park before, during, and after the event. In fact, one of the program principals – as quoted on the sign – was “invite respect for the Earth and a concern for the environment.”
There is very little native prairie habitat remaining in this area, so it’s very important to protect it. Park workers and volunteers built canvas-and-gravel covered paths to protect against soil compaction, patrolled to keep people out of sensitive habitat areas, and planted thousands of trees, shrubs, and grasses after the conclusion of the event to accelerate reclamation. Standing there now, you wouldn’t guess that such a large event ever took place.
The west entrance of Cherry Creek State Park – for cars – also has a trail that allows you to enter on foot, so we’ve walked that route a couple times as well. This is the main boating entrance, and the trail parallels the road down to the docks and a beach. From here, we followed the Cherry Creek Trail along the southern edge of the reservoir.
Despite the crowds of people, there is wildlife to the found in the park. Prairie dogs are easily spotted in the grasslands. There are usually ducks and pelicans in and around the lake, and we’ve seen raptors perched in the trees. We also once caught a glimpse of a coyote off in the distance.
Cherry Creek is never going to be my favorite state park. The centerpiece of the park is the reservoir, which would probably be more exciting if we were super into water sports. But we’re not. Plus, it’s always crowded due to its proximity to the city, and with crowds of people comes noise, garbage, and general disrespect for nature. I like to think that most people at least attempt to be respectful, but inevitably there will be someone obnoxious.
Nonetheless, it was nice to have a state park so close to home for our first two years in Denver (we’ve since relocated to a different part of the metro area), and we are now busy enjoying the urban trails near our new apartment.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the main entrance is located off Parker Road (Highway 83) in Aurora
- Fees and passes: $9/car per day, or annual CO state parks pass required for entry; additional fees apply for camping
- Hiking: there are 30 miles (48 km) of trails in the park; most of them are wide and flat and open to walking and biking
- Where to stay: Cherry Creek can be visited as a day trip from anywhere in the Denver Metro area; the nearest lodging is in Aurora or the Denver Tech Center, or there is a fairly large campground in the park
- Other: this park is always crowded, so definitely plan ahead and arrive early to secure parking, a campsite, a picnic table, or a spot on the beach