If you’ve recently seen two or four people batting around what looks like a whiffle ball on what looks like a miniature tennis court using what look like beach paddles, what you’ve actually witnessed is the fastest-growing sport in America: pickleball. Participation shot up 14.8 percent from 2020 to 2021 (after jumping 21.3 percent from 2019 to 2020), and Denver is no exception to that trend.

Pickleball was on the rise before COVID-19, says Rachel Heise, the general manager of Game-Set-Match—a local racquet and paddle sports outfitter founded in 1989 with four stores in the metro area—but as an outdoor, inherently distanced, low-barrier-to-entry sport, its popularity exploded during the pandemic. When tennis-centric Game-Set-Match surveyed its customers in January 2021, more than a quarter of the nearly 600 respondents said they played the badminton/tennis/ping-pong hybrid, which was invented near Seattle in 1965 by a few dads trying to entertain their kids. “For a while, it seemed very recreational; I categorized it as a beer sport,” Heise says. “That’s not true anymore. There’s a U.S. Open for pickleball, and it’s actually getting quite serious.”

Another stereotype that’s gone by the wayside: that it’s a toned-down version of tennis for seniors who can no longer hack it with a racquet. “I can’t say it’s old people anymore,” says Roxie Augustine, recreation coordinator for Arvada’s Apex Park and Recreation District, who has seen her leagues double in size over the past few years. “It’s all ages.”

If you want to join the dinking, smashing, drop-shotting hordes, here’s the good news: “It’s pretty affordable—you really only need a paddle, some balls, and somewhere to play—and it’s easy to learn,” Heise says. (USA Pickleball’s website is a good place to review the rules.) “Pretty much anyone of any age can pick it up, and maybe they’re not going to go on the pro pickleball tour, but they can have fun and have a reasonably competitive game.”

Here, we answer what you need to know to enjoy pickleball, Denver’s new favorite sport.

Editor’s Note: This guide was updated on July 15, 2022.

Pickleball paddle
Babolat’s XPLR paddle is great for beginners. Courtesy of Babolat

What Do I Need to Play Pickleball?

Pickleball Paddles

These range from inexpensive, loud, hard wooden paddles to light, powerful, pricey graphite models, with composites in between. For $59, you can snag the Franklin Court Set—two basic paddles, two balls, and a portable net—at any of Game-Set-Match’s locations. If you think you might get hooked, however, consider taking advantage of Game-Set-Match’s demo program: For $5 you can try a paddle out for three days (or $10 for a week), and that money goes toward your purchase if you decide to buy. Heise recommends testing out a few back to back so you can really feel the differences. For beginners with $79 to spend, she likes the Babolat XPLR, which has a somewhat rounded grip (as opposed to rectangular), making for an easier transition for those used to swinging tennis racquets. Advanced players should check out the Babolat MNSTR ($139); players rave about its spin-generating capabilities, and it features a dampening pad made of a material the aerospace industry uses to stifle airplane vibrations.

Pickleballs

The main thing to know here is the difference between indoor and outdoor pickleballs. Indoor pickleballs are larger to help slow them down, while outdoor pickleballs—often in brighter, easier-to-see colors—are smaller in order to move faster against the wind. Game-Set-Match sells a variety (and they’ll match any competitor’s price on a like-for-like item, so you might as well support a local business instead of ordering them from you-know-where).

Court Shoes

Special shoes aren’t required, but, as Heise says, playing in runners can be “a good way to roll an ankle.” For lateral stability and a tough rubber sole that won’t mark up the playing surface, any court shoe will do, but there are pickleball-specific kicks out there; pairs from Acacia’s pickleball line, from $100 to $130, are Game-Set-Match’s best-sellers.

Where Can I Play Pickleball?

Outdoor Pickleball Courts

Within the Mile High City’s boundaries, Denver Parks and Recreation has four outdoor courts each at the following locations:

  • Northfield Athletic Complex
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Park
  • Skyland Park
  • Congress Park
  • Huston Lake Park
  • Bear Valley Park
  • Eisenhower Park

These are free and first come, first served. (Four more each are in the works for Sloan’s Lake Park and Rosamond Park, and the department also has indoor courts in rec centers across town.) Congress Park in particular is known for its robust, social pickleball scene; grab a friend (although pickleball can be played as a singles game, doubles are much more common), a cooler, and a couple of chairs and head to the green space after work to challenge whomever is currently on a court by hanging your paddles on the fence, which is the pickleball equivalent of calling “next.”

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Cherry Creek’s Gates Tennis Center has 10 pickleball courts, rentable for $6 per hour daily. For $8 per time (or $40 for a eight-pack), you can reserve a drop-in spot and test your skills against other locals during various open play sessions every day of the week.

Northwest of the city, Arvada’s Simms Street Recreation Center is a pickleball mecca with 24 outdoor courts. In June, July, and August, the facility is open for free play from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays (leagues utilize most of the courts in the evenings) and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. Residents can pay $10 per hour to reserve a court and guarantee their spot; for nonresidents, it’s $12 per hour.

In Littleton, Cornerstone Park’s six courts are ideal for evening play, since they’re lighted while Daylight Savings Time is in effect. You can reserve courts online; pricing varies from $10 per hour to $30 per hour based on residency and off-hours versus prime time.

Pickleball Classes & Leagues

Denver Parks and Recreation offers a variety of learning opportunities, from a four-week Pickleball 101 course to single-day workshops for more advanced players. The Gates Tennis Center, Apex’s Simms Street Recreation Center, and South Suburban Parks and Recreation’s Cornerstone Park all host clinics and leagues throughout the summer. Simms Street’s annual Apex Foundation Memorial Day Pickleball Tournament, which registered 109 teams in 2022, offers a wide range of categories for players 18 and up.

Pickleball Bars

Yes, you read that right. The HangryHorse Eatery in Superior started testing the concept locally in 2021, with four outdoor courts. Then, in early 2022, Pickleball Food Pub opened its eight indoor courts and full bar in Westminster. The airy facility runs leagues, can be reserved for birthday parties or team-building events, and holds lessons for beginners and skills and drills clinics for experienced players. Most days, court fees are $30 per hour before 5 p.m. (or noon on weekends); it’s $40 per hour during busier times. Members ($120 a year) get some perks and discounts, but everyone can enjoy the killer drink specials: From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, house shots, craft beers, and glasses of wine are all $5, and $25 weekend brunch buckets come loaded with seltzers, mimosa fixin’s, or Montuckys and Pink Whitney shots.