The Denver Mountain Park system consists of forty-six public parks that are home to some of the most popular mountain destinations near Denver, including Red Rocks, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Grave, Evergreen Lake, Lookout Mountain, and Echo Lake. This distinctive system of parks, established more than a century ago, was designed to capture the essence of the Rockies for tourists and locals alike. It remains an important recreational and natural asset today.
In the early 1900s Denver promoters watched a rising tide of tourists pass through town on their way to mountain destinations elsewhere, namely Colorado Springs. Talk of improving access to the scenic resources on Denver’s doorstep finally gained momentum in 1910. Mayor Robert W. Speer championed City Beautiful improvements in Denver, and favored mountain recreation generally. But Speer was averse to using city funds so far outside Denver’s boundaries, so local entrepreneur John Brisben Walker began a vigorous campaign to persuade the city to act.
Walker was a skilled promoter of Colorado’s scenic beauty and was busy developing a fashionable tourist destination in Morrison, with Red Rocks Park as the focal point. In 1910 Walker unveiled a bold plan in the Denver Post. He called for a 41,000-acre municipal park in the mountains behind Red Rocks, linked to Denver by several grand boulevards. Such a mountain park would give Denver “the most extensive and magnificent system of parks possessed by any city in the world,” Walker enthused. It would also capture for local businesses a share of Colorado’s growing tourist trade, and offer convenient outdoor recreation for residents.
Denver promoters in the city’s Real Estate Exchange, Chamber of Commerce, and Motor Club soon embraced Walker’s vision. Led by Warwick M. Downing and Kingsley A. Pence, these groups took over for Walker, creating an action plan and bringing the proposal before Denver voters. A dedicated mill levy (property tax) would provide the funds needed to acquire parklands and build roads and facilities in the region between Golden, Bergen Park, Evergreen, and Morrison. At the city elections in 1912, the Mountain Parks Amendment passed with an 8,000-vote majority, showing strong public backing for the plan.
Developing the Parks
From 1912 into the 1940s, Denver invested deeply in the development of a network of scenic parks, rustic lodges, shelters, and attractions that eventually reached as far as Winter Park, Mt. Evans, Conifer, and Sedalia. The city hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to create a detailed mountain park plan. Olmsted recommended that Denver acquire 41,310 acres of land and build 200 miles of scenic parkways to link the parks together. Denver eventually came to hold about 14,000 acres in its mountain parks. Decades later, Jefferson County protected still more of the Olmsted lands in its open space system.
The oldest parks in the Denver Mountain Parks system dot what is now called the Lariat Loop National Scenic Byway. By 1918, Genesee Park featured a game preserve, campground, and the rustic Chief Hosa Lodge, designed by Denver architect J.J.B. Benedict. Motorists chugged along the hairpin turns of the dramatic Lariat Trail Road up Lookout Mountain, and hikers made their way along the Beaver Brook Trail. Lookout Mountain Park was already an international destination, after frontiersman and entertainer William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was laid to rest there in 1917. In fact, historian W. F. Stone reported in 1919 that more people visited the Denver Mountain Parks in 1917 “than the combined attendance at all of the Federal national parks in the country.”
This phenomenal popularity prompted expansion, and during the 1920s Denver built outward, adding Evergreen Lake, Echo Lake, Summit Lake, and Red Rocks Park, among others. Each place offered something unique to outdoor enthusiasts, from towering red sandstone to winter ice skating to summitting Mount Evans.
The Great Depression brought New Deal opportunities to the mountain parks, and the system enjoyed many improvements thanks to these federal programs. In 1934–35, crews of Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) workers completed major road improvements and new amenities in Bear Creek Canyon, Genesee, and Red Rocks Park. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in 1935 and completed a wide range of projects throughout the system. In 1939 Works Progress Administration (WPA) crews focused mostly on roadwork. The unparalleled Red Rocks Amphitheatre, designed by Burnham Hoyt and Stanley Morse, took shape under the direction of George E. Cranmer from 1935 to 1941. Of the four CCC companies assigned to the mountain parks, two were dedicated to this historic project, along with workers from the WPA.
In 1937 Daniels Park was expanded with a generous 960-acre donation. This park now forms part of 11,000 acres of contiguous open space preserved in Douglas County. And beginning in 1939, Cranmer spearheaded the development of Winter Park Ski Resort.
After World War II, the mountain parks entered a long period of decline. Denver’s suburbs saw explosive population growth in the postwar decades, and a growing number of local users put pressure on the parks just as funding for the parks decreased. In 1955 the city discontinued the dedicated levy that had developed and sustained the parks since 1913 and moved the Mountain Parks Division into a reorganized Department of Parks and Recreation. Suddenly, the mountain parks were in competition with Denver’s urban parks and recreation centers for limited dollars, and the city’s urban services were a higher priority.
By the 1970s, the once-beloved parks were suffering from heavy use, aging facilities, deferred maintenance, and vandalism. The worn-out parks made a stark counterpoint to the new Jefferson County Open Space system, which acquired large tracts contiguous with Denver’s mountain parks. As Jeffco advanced its own system, budget cuts worsened for Denver’s mountain parks.
Park managers coped with the hard times creatively, establishing regional partnerships and seeking grants to supplement limited operating funds. By 1995, all but a handful of Denver’s mountain parks were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation recognized the historical significance of the parks and opened the door to State Historical Fund grants for restoration work on the parks’ historic structures. In 2015, Red Rocks Park, with its surviving CCC camp, was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Denver Mountain Parks Foundation was established in 2004 to assist the city’s efforts through advocacy and fundraising.
Today, the system includes twenty-two destination parks, most of them in Jefferson County. Altogether, the mountain parks represent every life zone found in Colorado, from prairie to forest to high alpine tundra. Signal attractions such as Echo Lake, Red Rocks, and Lookout Mountain complement the scenery and wildlife habitat found across the system, while visitors enjoy picnicking, hiking, biking, fishing, and golf.
Despite ongoing challenges, the mountain parks continue to protect the natural and historic landscapes that inspired Denver’s citizens in 1912. Descendants of Denver’s original Genesee bison herds still graze along I-70 and in Daniels Park, and Flag Day has been celebrated on Genesee Mountain every year since 1911.