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Monday, February 17, 2014

A Hidden Gem

There is a little jewel of trail along the southwest edge of the Denver metro area. You may not have heard about it, but it's been a favorite for locals for many years. It winds through a canyon where  lizards, eagles, hawks, ducks, beaver, bear, mountain lion, deer, and Bighorn Sheep make their home. Humans like it here too: the road up the canyon is closed to most vehicles, so you can see cyclists, hikers, runners, and fishermen most days of the year.

A view up the canyon.


The place is Waterton Canyon, and the road leading in to it marks the start of the Colorado Trail.

Young Bighorns dash along the trail in Waterton Canyon.

Waterton Canyon cuts back into the foothills of southwestern Littleton, Colorado. Flowing its length is the Platte River, although in the canyon the river looks more like a large stream. The trail, a road in its lower reaches, parallels the river and provides easy access into the canyon's beauty.

Moonset over Waterton.


It's different here. The plant life reminds me more of the canyon lands of the desert southwest than anywhere else in the area. Yuccas, cactus, bunchgrasses, and junipers are the main vegetation for the first 4-5 miles upriver, and when I need a pseudo-Utah fix for a few hours, I come here. Dramatic rock cliffs flank the river. In the warmer seasons of the year, you might even catch a glimpse of a lizard or two sunning themselves on the rocks. In the spring and early summer, flowers more at-home in the desert send up colorful offerings of blossoms to the sun.

For me, though, the main attraction really is the animal life. Nowhere else in the Denver area can you get up-close-and-personal to Bighorn Sheep, or have a chance of seeing a Black Bear or a Mountain Lion all within a few miles of your car.

Below are a few highlights from Waterton Canyon:


One of the big rams in Waterton Canyon.


A beaver munching on twigs.

A lamb, looking cute.


One thing to note with the animals, especially the Bighorns: they are cute and they are used to people, but these animals are not pets! Please stay a safe distance away from them. Bighorns Sheep may look small, but they are muscular and very strong. One head-butt could send you into the hospital...or the river. If they approach you, stay still and do NOT look them in the eye (especially the males). Quietly them them pass by you.

Please don't feed the animals, try to pet them, or in any way hinder their natural behavior. Avoid getting between a mother and her baby - this could get you horns to your ribs!

To get there: Take Wadsworth south from C-470 in Littleton. Turn left onto Waterton Canyon Road. The second parking area on your left is for the Canyon. Park in here and proceed to the trail at the west end of the parking lot.

Hiking/Cycling: The trail up into the canyon is relatively flat, very wide, and in good repair for at least the first 8 miles up. Xcel energy and Denver Water maintain the road for access to the dams and reservoirs in the upper parts of the canyon. For those more adventurous folks out there, go past the dams and reservoirs to hook up with the Colorado Trail and almost endless miles of hiking and cycling.

Fishing: Fishing is allowed along the river, but check local regulations first before heading out.

Kids: Waterton is a great place for kids! Access into the canyon is kid-friendly for the first several miles and all-terrain strollers are easy to use on the road. The road is wide and relatively flat with lots of things to see and do along the way. And yes, there are restrooms along the canyon in case you miss the one at the parking area.

Handicapped Access: The first several miles of the canyon are accessible to folks in wheelchairs and hand cycles. Restrooms are wheelchair accessible.

Access: Please respect private property and "No Trespassing" signs.

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