Cherry Creek Trail – End to End

The energy of a 24 – 7 lifestyle filled the air and had our senses pushed to their limits. By nature, we prefer a more relaxed environment, this was difficult for us and not what we are used to.

Following Cherry Creek from end to end, while not necessarily a trail we would typically hike, was an intriguing and somewhat historic endeavor to find its beginning, nearly 7 miles south of Franktown, and follow it all the way to downtown Denver where it spills into the Platte River at Confluence Park. We had often wondered where the creek actually began, knowing it flowed pretty much east to west and in a northerly direction, we set our sights on the plains south of the Denver metro area, far from our normal hiking regimen. For a majority of this adventure, we used the Cherry Creek Regional Trail, a multiuse, wide concrete paved path, that runs from Franktown all the way into Denver at Confluence Park. The early portions of the creek are not part of the Cherry Creek Trail system, so we accessed the creek using the trail system within Castlewood Canyon State Park, which are packed dirt and rock slabs in places. Our primary goal was to walk the entire length of the creek, though we wound up opting to bike the section from Franktown to Cherry Creek State Park to save time and ease our logistical needs.

Cherry Creek itself is not that big, which is surprising knowing how much its name is used. One would think, based on the number of times the name is used, that Cherry Creek would be a bit more formidable than it is. None the less, this little creek has had quite the impression on Denver and its history. Cherry Creek’s impact in the development of the communities it flows through is interestingly substantial, even if it were just for its namesake. This small waterway flows gently along from the high plains along the Palmer Ridge to Denver seemingly unnoticed. And yet, anyone who happens along its banks, will notice its name being used in a multitude of different companies and landmarks. From a large urban state park, to neighborhoods, a school system, malls and countless businesses, Cherry Creek has had quite an impact on development.

Our journey began some 40 miles away, southeast of Denver, at Castlewood Canyon State Park near the small town of Franktown. Castlewood Canyon is quite impressive, and for travelers heading through the area, it goes fairly unnoticed with the exception of the historic Cherry Creek Bridge that travels over the canyon along highway 83, 4.5 miles south of Franktown. The park itself has many opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hiking trails, rock climbing, birding, wildlife viewing and scenic overlooks.

There are also the historic ruins of the Castlewood Canyon Dam that held back Cherry Creek in the early 1900s that eventually failed in 1933 and amazingly flooded the downtown area of Denver some 40 plus miles away. Hiking the Creek Bottom Trail one can certainly get a grasp of the amount of water that must have been behind the dam, now a beautiful lazy valley. The Army Corp of Engineers began building a new dam in 1948, nearly 23 miles to the north, completing it in 1950. This new dam would form Cherry Creek Reservoir, the focal point of Cherry Creek State Park established in 1959.

Section 1: Castlewood Canyon State Park – East Canyon Preservation Area

After looking over several maps to determine where the creek actually started, we soon found ourselves arriving at Castlewood Canyon State Park and at the trailhead for the East Canyon Preservation Area. This is a smaller area of the park, though no less beautiful and only accessible May through October due to the fragile nature of the landscape. From here we were able to navigate our way through the canyon and then climb up and out onto the high plains along the Palmer Ridge where East and West Cherry Creeks merge together to form Cherry Creek proper. Here our journey truly begins, as we now find ourselves at the beginning of Cherry Creek.

The diversity of the landscape from this point forward would prove to be unique, traveling from the high plains, through a canyon, across open farmland and ever so slowly into the developing neighborhoods and the hustle and bustle of the urban corridor of Denver. All the while, the sleepy Cherry Creek flows seemingly uninterrupted and unnoticed as it travels on towards the city. One thing is for sure, where there is water, there is life and where there is life, there is nature. Nature, in turn, is beauty. Taking time to slow down and notice this very fact along this trail will bring forth the evidence of an entirely different experience and a seemingly unnoticed ecosystem.

The loop trail through the East Canyon Preservation Area is roughly 4 miles in its entirety. It is understandable why this area is closed for several months out of the year as it is quite unique and most assuredly fragile in nature. Sticking to the trail is imperative to protecting the landscape and being able to enjoy it for generations to come. From the trailhead the trail drops slightly towards the canyon where you can enjoy commanding views. The trail meanders its way through a unique landscape of pines and slab rock that has been eroded over the years by wind and water, be careful to watch for cairns to navigate the trail here. Eventually the trail comes to the historic “arch style” Cherry Creek Bridge that was opened in 1948 spanning hundreds of feet across the canyon. The trail crosses underneath the bridge as it enters into the East Canyon Area. There can be plenty of road noise in the area of the bridge as HWY 83 is a heavily used route between Denver and Colorado Springs. Once under the bridge you enter the East Canyon Preservation Area, take note of the added rules and regulations that are posted here in addition to the typical park rules and regs.

Following along the edge of the canyon there are many picturesque opportunities to view Cherry Creek. The trail eventually begins descending into the canyon and crosses over the creek, a notable spot to take a break and look for Mule Deer feeding amongst the tall grasses. Leaving the footbridge, the trail begins an easy climb out of the canyon and away from the creek. The climb is gradual and through a very diverse landscape of rock, pools and lush undergrowth. Walk gently through, appreciate the shade and enjoy the energy of this area. Soon the trail will come to a “T” where the loop itself goes to the right or left; we chose to go left as the views are better from this direction. You will eventually find yourself walking out onto the high plains and wondering where the trail is leading. This is a great opportunity to get wide-opened views east of the plains and to the southwest of Pikes Peak (14,115′) before descending back into the canyon.

Just before the decent back into the canyon, take note, to the south, East and West Cherry Creek come together to form Cherry Creek. There is some rock slab that is amongst the tall grasses and makes for interesting conversation about what the area might have looked like many years ago. Water and wind have a way of changing landscapes over time, what will it look like in another hundred years? Enjoy the hike back and keep in mind the landscape of the canyon and how eventually you will wind up in an urban environment in Denver. The quiet subtle breezes accompanied by songbirds found here is in stark contrast to the noise of the busy city miles away.

Section 2: Castlewood Canyon State Park – Creek Bottom Trail

Our next section, we traveled along the Creek Bottom Trail down in the canyon, giving us a much closer up experience of Cherry Creek for most of the trip. There are a few small waterfalls, the ruins of the old dam and plenty of views along the way. We parked at the Lake Gulch Trailhead and followed the Lake Gulch trail as we dropped down into the canyon. From there we looked to connect with the Creek Bottom Trail and follow it through the canyon alongside Cherry Creek. On the way down, you can see a vast valley that once was the Castlewood Canyon Reservoir until the dam failure. It is amazing to take a break here and imagine all the water that was once here in contrast to today, it is a beautiful and fertile valley that begs the imagination to envision building a homestead and living out your days under the Colorado sky. Continue along and down to an intersection with the Inner Canyon Trail, cross over Cherry Creek and another intersection with the Rim Rock Trail, which makes for a great loop hike given time. Today, we moved on.

Continuing on along the Creek Bottom Trail, we followed closely with Cherry Creek. This section of the trail affords you a close up and personal experience with the creek. A side trail will take you up and over the old dam or continue along and see the dam from the bottom. Both are worthy and impressive in their own rights, especially keeping in mind how much water the dam was holding back at one time. The Creek Bottom Trail makes its way through an interesting landscape of boulders and slowly begins to climb out of the canyon and into a more forested part of the canyon with good views from above. Eventually the end of the canyon arrives, and you can choose to loop back via the Rimrock Trail or return the way you came. In this area, the ruins of the historic Lucas Homestead from 1898 and notable points of interest about their daily lives are littered about with interpretive signs.

Castlewood Canyon is an amazing place to explore, with plenty of trails and differing points to view the canyon and Cherry Creek from. One can get a real sense of how water has impacted the landscape and changed it over time. The diversity found here is in contrast to the surrounding open prairies, a fact that is hard to keep in mind as you hike through the canyon that you are in, hidden on the eastern plains of Colorado. Lush forests, a carved-out canyon and interesting rock formations littered about overtake your imagination keeping your focus on the immediate landscape and far from the open fields above. This canyon is an oasis on the plains, not only for the abundant wildlife that call it home, but for the explorer on its trails.

Section 3: Castlewood Canyon State Park to Cherry Creek State Park

This section is wide open and exposed, it was best done as a bike ride! From the Lucas Homestead near the west entrance station of Castlewood Canyon State Park it is a 2.25-mile ride on North Castlewood Canyon Rd to HWY 86 in Franktown. Once at HWY 86 it was a bit tricky to get over to the actual Cherry Creek Regional Trail. Cross over the bridge towards town (east), the trail is easily seen from the bridge, but getting to it was a little more of a challenge. Once across the bridge, head down the side on a social trail to find access. The trail heads south nearly 1,700 ft to the actual beginning, or end, depending on direction of travel. You will find a bench and an abrupt end of the concrete path. Turn around and head north, under the bridge and on to Cherry Creek State Park 22.5 miles away.

The terrain allows for big open views. There are Cottonwood trees here and there, benches placed along the trail every few miles and several parks with restrooms if needed. The trail itself is fairly level most of the way, rolling here and there and stays close to the creek the entire way, only diverting occasionally. After Franktown, there are developing neighborhoods the closer you get to Parker. It won’t be long before this entire section is full of houses as urban sprawl continues. Fortunately, the developers design in greenbelts in these areas where the trail touches or goes through the neighborhoods. Surprisingly, the route never crosses an intersection, rather, goes underneath, keeping the rider out of traffic and street crossings, an added bonus that continues all the way to Denver.

The only real difficulty on this day was a strong headwind that would not let up. It made for difficult travel, especially on a mountain bike, but what can you say, mountain bikes are not aerodynamic. Living in Colorado you just go with the weather changes as they happen. Besides, the beautiful bluebird skies made up for it. There is not much to this section, which is actually its appeal, rolling open prairies can be quite calming and meditative with their big wide-open spaces. Something that is slowly disappearing and ultimately gives way to neighborhoods and new developments the closer you get back to Denver. It is an obvious acceptance with this trail, especially after the upcoming Cherry Creek State Park section where we would enter the urban corridor and leave the open countryside behind.

Like a relentless climb up a mountain pass, here you just pedal, pedal, pedal and before you know it, you find yourself back in town and entering the southern edge of Cherry Creek State Park. It was a good 25-mile ride from the Canyon, full of wide-open prairies, songbirds, frequent creek crossings, underpasses, wind and now moving towards the Denver urban corridor.

Section 4: Cherry Creek State Park

Cherry Creek State Park is as urban a park as they come, and yet somehow you can still feel like you have got away from the hustle and bustle of the city that is still only minutes away. With over 5 square miles of prairies, woods, wetlands and the reservoir itself, there is something for everyone here and places you can still find some peace from the daily grind. Open all year, this is a great place to walk, ride or run so close to the city, all the while keeping your drive at a minimum. City and mountain views make this a unique opportunity for photographers who want to capture that breathtaking Colorado sunset. It’s no wonder John Denver sang those heartfelt Colorado lyrics with such passion, “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky.”

The Cherry Creek Trail is only 3.5 miles long through this section, hugging the woods, wetlands and the reservoir on the right and open prairies to the left as you walk along. With plenty of optional side trips, you might consider making it a longer day if time permitting. Wildlife viewing is surprisingly good, especially in the morning and evening hours. Deer, coyotes, hawks, eagles and all types of waterfowl can be seen throughout the park. Try adding in the Wetlands Loop Trail for an added experience or just stop along the trail and enjoy the many places that afford for the natural world to be enjoyed. Again, if you’re careful not to be in too much of a hurry as you progress along the Cherry Creek Trail, you are most likely to take notice of the ever-present ecosystem all along this small waterway. This will come as a welcome bonus to this, now seemingly urban hike.

Section 5: Cherry Creek Dam to Glendale (Colorado Blvd)

Once you pass the Cherry Creek Dam, it is all city. Like a rite of passage, the dam represents the border between the somewhat natural world of the two state parks and open prairies experienced thus far to a full-on urban setting. If you have ever felt uneasy walking on the dry side of a dam, the beginning of this segment might give you that same uneasy feeling as you walk along the trail next to the Cherry Creek Dam. Standing at 141 feet high, 14,300 feet long and a maximum capacity of 170 million cubic meters, this is not a small hill holding back a pond.

It is quite noisy along the first stretch as you start out. I-225 is a very busy interstate to say the least! Eventually you will cross under I-225 at the spillway, which would be a treat if the gates are open, and water is being released. Once under, you emerge in a completely new environment. Welcome to the Denver urban corridor along the Cherry Creek Regional Trail. Golf Courses, housing, businesses and daily life are plentiful here. The city life is in full swing as is the newfound energy of the trail. Despite the changing atmosphere, the trail and creek move on. You are getting closer and closer to the end. The trail luckily continues under all major intersections, keeping you off the busy roads and out of harm’s way. Neighborhoods, parks and businesses pass buy as you keep walking along the creek and trail.

To help us in our logistics, we opted to take advantage of the transit system to get back to our car. Parking at one end, near the dam, and taking a train back later in the day made things very easy. Traveling through the city, you will certainly find services that would not otherwise be available on a hike. As such, we enjoyed a nice lunch at a favorite restaurant of ours, Native Foods Cafe, once we reached our goal for the day. After which it was just a short walk to the transit system that would get us back to our car. Something we would again take advantage of in the final section. The day would be filled with plenty of conversation as we walked along in an area we had never been. Sometimes it is fun to explore in your own backyard. Besides, it was late fall, early winter and the weather was quite mild, taking advantage of this anomaly was a must.

Section 6: Glendale (Colorado Blvd) to Confluence Park

The final leg! The closer we got to Denver and Confluence Park; the more eclectic things were getting. Granted we are not fond of big cities, it was fun to see the sights and sounds for a short time, a very limited in and out short time! It was loud. There were sirens screaming past here and there, honking horns shouting at each other, city trucks clanking about and an endless sea of people going about their daily lives. We were in the thick of it now. The energy of a 24 – 7 lifestyle filled the air and had our senses pushed to their limits. By nature, we prefer a more relaxed environment, this was difficult for us and not what we are used to. It was sad to see the creek, pathway and our earlier surroundings change from a mostly natural state to an unnatural, noise-filled, concrete and steel, chaotic setting. Still, the trail and creek went on. We were nearing the end.

Now the tall buildings of Denver rose up out of the ground all around. Like trees in the wilderness, these skyscrapers enveloped the land and covered the earth. We walked by wondering how many people filled them, what were they all doing as time passed by and life continued on. Did they notice the creek running through? Could they hear the water? Would it hurt to just stop and let the natural world calm the senses for just a moment of solace in this crazy place? Like the creek, the city moves forward on its own course.

The Cherry Creek Trail is somewhat sunken into the landscape as it travels through the city. Most of the action is all above as we traveled below. In some ways this made for pleasant passage from the chaos of the city. Like the creek, we passed through unnoticed, heading towards the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte River. Soon we would arrive and the trail would come to an end. We had seen so much diversity along the path. From the beginnings on the quiet and wide-open plains, to the ending deep in the hustle and bustle of the city, we had seen how the landscape changed dramatically, and yet, Cherry Creek flowed on unchanged as if another day gone by. While man and machine are in constant flux, the creek continued on, bringing and giving life as it always has done.

We stopped short of the Platte River, taking one last look at the much smaller Cherry Creek. Pick a spot in the creek, watch its water flow forward and into the Platte River, merged and moving on. Confluence Park is a busy area, so many people coming together from different directions. There are many places to sit, relax and enjoy the space. The trail had come to an end and another experience was in the books. Like the creek, we too move on, flowing forward in our own lives, embracing life and each other.


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