From the rugged Medicine Bow Mountains of State Forest State Park to the frothy rapids of the Arkansas Headwaters, Colorado has a state park system that makes other countries jealous. Funny thing is, many Coloradans don't know about these outdoor gems. Here, we introduce you to the best of the best.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park
—Photo by Sarah Boyum
Barr Lake State Park
About 30 minutes from Denver rests a tranquil watering hole known as the "oasis on the prairie." The 2,000-acre lake lies between rolling plains to the east and looming peaks to the west, and is surrounded by cottonwoods, willowy grasses, and marshland. The watering ground is an expanded depression that was once a dust wallow for buffalo before settlers arrived. The reservoir now serves as a recreation area perfect for city-dwellers seeking quick access to nature.
The Draw The best bird-watching in Colorado. Barr Lake serves as headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and is an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. With half its acreage a designated wildlife refuge and about 350 avian species, Barr Lake harbors everything from nesting bald eagles, which have returned each year since 1986, to great blue herons in the rookery.
For the Family Book a trip on the Eagle Express, a motorized 13-person cart that trolleys from the Nature Center to the rookery on a naturalist-guided wildlife/birding tour. Tours run two to three hours on weekend mornings, starting in May; call 303-659-6005 for reservations.
The Alternative Boating (10 horsepower or less) and fishing are allowed in the northern half of the lake. The Colorado Division of Wildlife stocks the lake with trout, walleye, and wiper; bass and muskie feed in from the South Platte River. While there is no camping in the park, active fishermen can fish through the night.
Quick Tip Hike for nearly a mile across the top of the century-old working dam (the Crest Trail, on the north side of the lake) for the best mountain views and superb sunsets.
When to Go Fall and winter for birding. It'll be brisk, but you'll be able to scout the most birds and wildlife when the trees are bare.
Get There Follow I-76 northeast from I-25, take Exit 22 (Bromley Lane). Turn right onto Picadilly Road; follow it for almost a mile, until you reach the park entrance. For more information, call 303-659-6005.