By Colleen Smith
Just a stone’s 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 psyche.
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 aren’t so wet; and the creek beds run dry, owing to Colorado’s 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 television.
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, there’s not all that much happening at Chatfield Nature Preserve–and that’s 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 Preserve.
“The best time to come is when nothing’s going on,” Lucas says. “The place is gorgeous. It’s just so peaceful.”
“They’re more active at night,” Lucas said, “so visitors don’t often see them, but I hear the elk bugling at night. It’s very cool.”
Lucas also sees bear scat on the property. A year ago, a mother bear raised two cubs on the preserve. It’s 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 it’s all behind glass, so you won’t get stung.”
Though nearby housing developments have tarnished somewhat the pristine nature of the area, the preserve’s 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 Colorado’s 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. It’s 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. Visitwww.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 is $5.
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 winter.