Stroll into a Simpler Time
Just a stoneís throw from bustling Wadsworth Boulevard--lined with Wal-Mart
and Petsmart and every other chain retailer and restaurant you can name--lies a
bit of untrammeled territory. To be precise, 750 acres of prairie and wetlands,
native flora, fauna and Colorado history, to boot, await your world-weary
Take a stroll into a simpler time at Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield. Leased from
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and opened in 1990 to the general public, the preserve has been through
numerous incarnations, including Green Acres Arboretum and, most recently,
Chatfield Arboretum. But when a noted landscape architect deemed the site
unsuitable for a traditional arboretum, the name was changed again; and the
place labeled a preserve.
Fair enough. This place that soothes the soul preserves two miles of trails
lined with tall blonde grasses and rough-hewn log benches that invite repose and
enjoyment of calming foothills vistas. Nesting boxes foster the bird population.
The click of flying grasshoppers springing on the trails and the cawing of crows
roosting on low limbs is a pleasant distraction from the distant roar of C-470.
The wetlands arenít so wet; and the creek beds run dry, owing to Coloradoís
drought. Yet trails through tall trees and open prairie provide a gentle break
from the slick city.
Chatfield Nature Preserve also conserves Colorado history. Vestiges of a
working ranch homesteaded in 1866 highlight the site. German immigrants, Frank
Hildebrand and his family, grew wheat and raised Hereford cattle on the land.
The clapboard ranch house and its satellite buildings, listed on the National
Register of Historic Places, give a glimpse of pioneer life. The ranch house is
appointed with antiques throughout lending quaint charm. In the kitchen: a
butter churn, crocks, a pie safe and a dinosaur of a stove. The wallpapers look
authentic, and the creak of the old wood floor adds acoustical authenticity,
too. In the bedroom: a handmade quilt on an iron bed, ivory brush and mirror, a
bedpan. In the parlor: stereoscopes, leather bound books, a Victrola and a
fainting couch. No Gameboys here. No Internet access. No cell phones or cable
The property also preserves a summer kitchen, an outhouse, a bunkhouse, a
barn, a woodshed and an icehouse, a pole shed, a windmill, a blacksmith shop, a
carriage barn and garage. Turkeys and hens reside in the chicken coop; the barn
houses three goats and three sheep. Originally located downstream, Deer Creek
School--a one-room schoolhouse dating form the 1870s--was moved to the property
and restored as a visitor center.
Aside from a few special events, thereís not all that much happening at
Chatfield Nature Preserve--and thatís the whole point. The annual Corn Maze
and the Pumpkin Festival draw crowds. School children visit. A group of birders
meet on Tuesdays.
But Adam Lucas, who manages the preserve and has lived on-site for nearly 14
years, agrees that off days are the most precious days at Chatfield Nature
"The best time to come is when nothingís going on," Lucas says.
"The place is gorgeous. Itís just so peaceful."
Peaceful, indeed. Raptors wheel above the foothills. Red squirrels scurry to
and fro, frantically readying for winter. Elk herds inhabit the preserve,
particularly during hunting season.
"Theyíre more active at night," Lucas said, "so visitors donít
often see them, but I hear the elk bugling at night. Itís very cool."
Lucas also sees bear scat on the property. A year ago, a mother bear raised
two cubs on the preserve. Itís been about eight years since Lucas has spotted
a mountain lion at the preserve, but he sees plenty of rabbits and raccoons,
deer, ducks, geese and blue herons.
Lucas tends seven honeybee hives on the property. "They pollinate the
pumpkins and the flowers out here," he said. "You can watch them at
work, doing their thing, making honey; and itís all behind glass, so you wonít
Though nearby housing developments have tarnished somewhat the pristine
nature of the area, the preserveís immediate surrounds are protected to
maintain a wildlife corridor.
"Jefferson County Open Space bought about 1450 acres neighboring
us," Lucas said. "It goes up to the hogback, over to Chatfield State
Park and connects with Waterton Canyon, so that will never be developed."
Fall is an ideal time to visit the preserve. Stands of cottonwoods glow
golden under Coloradoís unimaginably blue autumn skies. Splashes of
saffron-colored yarrow and scarlet sumac brighten the landscape. Ripe orange
pumpkins, hundreds of them, sun themselves
Yet other seasons hold allure, too. Winter, for example, offers trails for
snowshoeing and Nordic skiing. Spring and summer see wildflowers and lilac
hedges and perennial gardens in bloom. Picnic tables near the entrance provide
an ideal spot for a pleasant repast. And the preserve has restrooms, wheelchair
accessible trails and wildlife observation blinds to make the experience more
pleasant for everyone.
In the end, Chatfield Nature Preserve soothes the soul two ways. First, the
rustic walk into yesteryear reminds us of simpler times, an agrarian culture in
tune with the environment, the seasons, a low tech people slowed down to the
pace of pioneer life.
Second, the preserve soothes the soul by awakening awareness of the comforts
of life in the 21st century. Itís soothing to the soul to know that ice is in
the freezer and you did not have to haul it from the creek. Butter is in the
fridge, and you did not have to churn it. Chicken comes boneless and skinless,
and you did not wring a neck or pull a single feather. Considering the clothes
iron that was heated at the hearth, the metal box stuffed with kindling for the
wood stove, the gas lamps, and, especially, the outhouse, life in the digital
age seems quite comfortable, thank you very much.
Chatfield Nature Preserve is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but closed on
major holidays. The preserve offers volume value, so you might want to invite a
friend whose soul needs soothing, too. Admission costs $5 per car, $8 per bus
with 6-16 passengers, $15 for 16 to 30 passengers and $30 for a bus with 31 or
more people. The first Friday of every month is a free day, thanks to SCFD
(Scientific and Cultural Facilities District) funds. Visit www.botanicgardens.org
for more information.
Chatfield Nature Preserve is located in Littleton at 8500 Deer Creek Canyon
Road, just southwest of the Wadsworth Boulevard and C-470 intersection. Proceed
south on Wadsworth to the second traffic light; turn right (west) onto Deer
Creek Canyon Road. The entrance gate is less than half a mile ahead, on the left. Bring
comfortable walking shoes and drinking water. Wearing long pants is recommended
to protect against irritating plants and insect bites. No pets or bicycles
permitted. Happy trails!
Editor's Note: Chatfield Nature Preserve is adjacent to Chatfield
State Park. While the Preserve is owned by the Denver Botanic Gardens, the park
is a state reservoir. It also offers hiking trails, fishing, biking trails, horseback
riding and a marina
with boats. Both the park and preserve are exquisite for an autumn destination.
And each is best during the week or in off-season. Entrance to the park
Helpful websites: Chatfield Nature Preserve is at 8500 Deer Creek Canyon
Road, Littleton, Colorado, 80128; 720-865-3560; www.botanicgardens.org.
Chatfield State Park is at 1150 N. Roxborough State Park Road, Littleton,
80125; 303-791-7275; http://parks.state.co.us/
For the marina information: 303-791-7547, or boat rentals: 303-791-6104 or
the horse riding stables: 303-93-3636. Stables and marina are closed for the