LITTLETON • Susan Dunn has some weird looks on the runway.
“People will ask, ‘Why are you carrying paper and writing things down?’” She said.
The answer is plants, birds and butterflies. Dunn regularly notes what she sees as she walks around this colorful paradise a few miles from her home here in the southwest suburbs of Denver.
This is Roxborough State Park, a sanctuary of dizzying red rocks that blend with the green of oak and pine and the blue of the sky. Life all around adds to the spectrum: wildflowers, monarchs, hummingbirds and jays and swallows and large raptors.
A deer roams a meadow that day. “You are in their house,” Dunn tells a visitor, still an educator with Friends of Roxborough State Park, the group that has dozens of people like her over the age of 20.
The deer cannot steal the show from the geology of the neck, like frozen waves above a sea of trees. It recalls the dramatic landscape of a crown jewel to the south. “Denver’s Garden of the Gods”, Roxborough has been called.
There are some striking differences.
“It’s less crowded here,” says a visitor, Son Cao, almost alone at a vantage point that seems far removed from the city skyline.
No road crosses Roxborough. Drivers end in a parking lot, where they follow a sidewalk on foot to the trailhead. A sign welcomes them to “a quiet and precious place”, a place offering “a symphony of the senses” – the chirping of birds on engines, cherry cherries and wild plums on the stench of exhaust fumes.
Only dirt trails run through the park. Only hiking is allowed. No cycling, no climbing, no fishing, no hunting and no camping. Doors close at 6.30 p.m.
It’s all part of the park honoring its National Natural Landmark and State Natural Area designations. The park’s Gold Standard Site tag is most recent by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which only lists 12 other sites in the country sharing the distinction.
Compared to Colorado’s 41 other state parks, Roxborough is “extremely unique” in the way it prioritizes conservation, says director Colin Chisholm. He started at the park last summer, coming from one of Colorado’s most traditional state parks: Golden Gate Canyon, which hosts all kinds of recreation on over 12,000 acres. At 3,317 acres, Roxborough sits somewhere in the middle of the state park system.
“This state park, we are here to preserve and protect it,” said Chisholm. “It’s not so much about trying to accommodate different types of hobbies or trying to get more people in.”
But more people are coming.
Nearly 20,000 more visitors were counted in 2020 compared to 2019 – in line with increases in the outdoors during the pandemic. That meant widened trails and eroded slopes, says Chisholm. This meant long queues at the entrance post. People waited to hang on to one of the 100 or so parking spaces.
Dunn volunteered at the gate, overseeing regular waits of over 45 minutes.
“It looks like we should have more parking, but we really shouldn’t have more,” she says. “You would dilute the peculiarity of the park.”
The paving of the access road was quite controversial last year, the section already dug and degraded by traffic. Dunn doesn’t expect traffic to drop.
“It’s going to increase,” she said. “It’s going to increase because we still have people who have never been here. There are still people who come to this park who have lived in Denver 30, 40 years, and they have never been here.”
They start on the road by first admiring the Dakota Formation, the sandstone with rippling shallow sea that existed 100 million years ago. Hundreds of millions of years earlier, the Fountain and Lyons formations slowly rose, tilted as they did, and sculpted by wind, water, and ancient times.
This is the explanation of what Major Stephen Long’s expedition saw when it arrived in 1820. The site was “truly picturesque and romantic,” one Edwin James wrote in his diary.
The area gained more attention after 1873 photos taken by William Henry Jackson. He shot from where there is now a golf course, just beyond the park boundaries.
“It’s shocking to think that this pastoral scene could just as easily have turned into a sea of neighborhood homes,” Susan Kraner Trumble wrote this summer.
The longtime director and senior park ranger wrote to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the park’s expansion to 625 acres – land previously proposed for a neighborhood. The Friends of Roxborough formed to raise funds for the land, continuing a mission that began in 1975 with the establishment of the state park.
Ideas for development came almost as soon as the native tribes were banished to the reservations.
These early residents were known to warm up at night next to rocks that stored up the heat of the sun. Then came Henry S. Persse in the early 1900s with the vision of transforming the natural wonderland he called Roxborough, after his family’s estate in Ireland. His farm still standing is a reminder of what could have been.
In 1907, a Denver newspaper reported on its plans for a seaside resort “which promises to rival anything the state can boast in terms of attractiveness.” Also that year, a poem was scribbled in Persse’s guestbook:
“Who wouldn’t live among the birds and the song, away from the mad city crowds, to listen to the lark, singing Roxborough Park?”
Preservation prevailed. It prevailed 25 years ago with the expansion of the park. It happened after Dunn regretted seeing development win beyond other borders.
“Too bad,” she said.
She sided with something then-Gov. Roy Romer said at the time during the celebration of the expansion: “Aside from how we take care of our children, how we take care of our environment is the most important issue we have. “
This is something Dunn could tell people who look at her strangely on the runway with her pen and notepad.
It’s stranger to see her lean over, bringing her face closer to something hard to see.
“When I walk on a trail and see something new blossom, I just talk to it,” she says. “I talk to the plant and tell her it’s a good thing that she’s here in our world, and all of these people can share with you.”