Genesee Park is a Denver Mountain Park that stretches from Clear Creek Canyon to Genesee Mountain in the Rocky Mountain foothills about five miles southwest of Golden. In addition to the 8,424-foot summit of Genesee Mountain, attractions at the 2,413-acre park include Beaver Brook Trail and the rustic Chief Hosa Lodge. Today the park is probably best known for its bison herd, which was established in 1914 and can often be seen from Interstate 70.
The Mountain Parks Movement
In the early twentieth century, momentum started to build for Denver to establish a system of parks west of the city that would preserve mountain views and provide outdoor recreation opportunities. Dreams started to turn into reality after Morrison resident John Brisben Walker came forward with his own parks proposal in 1910. By 1912 Denver voters approved a Mountain Parks Charter Amendment and a mill levy to fund the parks. The city hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to tour the mountains west of Denver and devise a plan for park acquisition and development. Completed in 1914, Olmsted’s plan called for the city to acquire roughly 40,000 acres of parks in Jefferson County and build about 200 miles of scenic roads to connect them. Denver ultimately secured only 14,000 acres of mountain parks, but Olmsted’s vision remained influential in guiding the parks’ growth.
Genesee Park was the first to be acquired as part of Denver’s new mountain parks system. It was included among Olmsted’s recommended parks, and the city was already working to obtain it before his plan was formally submitted. In 1911, when the city’s Mountain Parks Committee was investigating potential parkland ahead of the 1912 elections, committee members discovered that 1,200 acres of land on Genesee Mountain had recently been sold to a sawmill. To prevent the land from being logged, in January 1912 Denver booster E. W. Merritt raised enough money to buy several hundred acres, planning to resell the land to Denver once the mill levy passed.
On August 27, 1913, Denver held an official opening ceremony for its first two mountain parks, Genesee and nearby Lookout Mountain, even though the city did not formally acquire the Genesee land until the next month. The Lariat Trail soon provided access to the parks by climbing Lookout Mountain from Golden and then continuing southwest to Genesee. In 1914 Denver built a road to the summit of Genesee Mountain, and by 1915 motorists could drive the Lariat Loop, which passed through Genesee Park on its way to linking up many of Denver’s new mountain park purchases.
The mountain parks proved immensely popular, with 70,000 cars visiting them in 1917 and 116,000 cars driving the Lariat Trail the next year. To allow visitors to access Genesee Park without a car, in 1917 Denver built the Beaver Brook Trail to connect the park to a railroad station in Clear Creek Canyon. A year later, the Colorado Mountain Club helped extend the trail all the way to Windy Saddle, making it possible to hike to the park from Golden.
To accommodate the flood of visitors, Denver quickly developed a series of shelters, rest houses, picnic areas, and campgrounds. The most important of these in Genesee Park was Chief Hosa Lodge, which was designed by Jules Jacques Benois Benedict and opened in 1918 on the far west side of the park. Named after the Southern Arapaho leader Little Raven—also known as Chief Hosa—the rustic lodge was made of local stone and natural logs so that it would blend into its hillside surroundings. Inside, the building offered a restaurant and a dance floor, which were popular with visitors at the campground that also opened in the park in 1918.
Perhaps the most enduringly popular attractions drawing people to Genesee Park were the herds of elk and bison that Denver established there in 1914. The city acquired the animals from Yellowstone National Park and erected fenced enclosures for them on the west side of Genesee Mountain. The enclosures started at 165 acres but were expanded to 465 acres in 1918 to prevent overgrazing. The animals’ caretaker lived in the Patrick House, an 1860 residence that originally served as a toll station along the old wagon road up Mount Vernon Canyon. It is the oldest structure in the mountain parks system.
Further improvements to the Genesee Park came in the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established Chief Hosa Camp and Genesee Mountain Camp. CCC workers improved the park’s campgrounds and picnic areas, built new roads and trails, and performed forestry work and flood control.
By the late 1930s Denver had used purchases and donations to expand Genesee Park to 2,413 acres, the largest in the mountain parks system. In 1937, however, the park was split into separate northern and southern portions when US 40 was completed up Mount Vernon Canyon and through the park just north of Chief Hosa Lodge. A tunnel was built under the highway to allow the park’s bison herd to move from one part of its pasture to the other. In the 1960s Interstate 70 was constructed along the old US 40 route, further cementing the park’s division into two distinct halves. A bridge built over the interstate in 1970 frames a stunning view of the Continental Divide as westbound drivers enter the park.
Most of the development in Genesee Park was completed by the 1930s, but several initiatives in the past twenty-five years have helped expand the park’s offerings. In 1994 Denver established a wilderness education program at the park. A year later the city installed a ropes course as part of a new Genesee Experiential Outdoor Center, which offers programs in ecology and environmental ethics, orienteering, climbing, leadership, and team building.
In 2015–16 Denver worked with the Denver Mountain Parks Foundation, Jefferson County, and the Colorado Department of Transportation to build a new bike path through Genesee Park on the north side of I-70. The path includes a 120-foot bridge over the bison tunnel, which also serves as an overlook for pedestrians to view the herd.