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Denver, Colorado
Pawnee National Grassland
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
May 2023

A family gathering brought us to Denver Colorado in May - a place I haven't spent much if any time of my adulthood. Both being unfamiliar with the area, we decided to spend a couple of extra days exploring what the region had to offer. Here are a few of the places we ended up exploring with or without my extended family

Lookout Mountain
We didn't have much of a view when we went up to the top of the mountain. The clouds were socked in so all we could see was a lighter shade of gray in every direction. We could and did see Buffalo Bill's grave (allegedly, depending on who you believe) and the museum, which took us through the past of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West performing career.

Red Rock Park and Amphitheatre
You always hear about the concerts that go on here. "Live at Red Rock..." The stage was constructed among the beautiful red boulders of a canyon. It isn't exactly where I'd want to go, especially since I was more interested in nature than watching a bunch of stage hands setting up for a concert. But it seems people like going here to see just that or just to be where a bunch of famous people have been before. Or they come to workout on the empty seating/giant steps. There are some trails around the area that looked worthwhile, but we were there with family just poking around at the time.

Dinosaur Ridge
Road construction revealed dinosaur tracks on the side of a ridge, which is why it is now a trail instead. Pretty cool to see dino tracks up close. You can walk up the road/trail or take a bus tour from the visitor center that will take you to the top of the ridge.

Pawnee National Grasslands
It's a bit of a drive to get out to the grasslands from Denver and mostly through backcountry roads. But it's a unique environment and I wasn't expecting the short-grass prairie to have - well, such short grass.

Crow Valley Campground
The campground in the southeast corner of the grasslands was a great place for birding. Riparian-grassland habitat produced a good mixture of sparrows, warblers, thrushes, and birds of prey. Despite the remote location, we weren't the only birders there that morning. Further proving its popularity and infamy among birders.

Grasslands Auto Tour
On the auto tour, the grasslands stretched out in every direction. Primrose and sandlilies were blooming in the short almost manicured grass. Occasionally there was a sagebrush, soapweed, or prickly pear cactus, but mostly it was a vast amount of grass. Prairie dogs stood sentinel on their dirt mounds, and we spotted two Burrowing Owls next to their nest mounds. For such an open habitat, there were a surprising amount of birds: Brewer's and Clay-colored Sparrows frequently perched on the barbed wire. Western Kingbirds and Western Meadowlarks sat on the fence posts. Horned Larks were pretty much everywhere. Lark Buntings combed the grasslands in large flocks. Along the auto drive, we spotted two small groups of pronghorn in the distance. We failed to see other buntings or the Mountain Plover, but it was still an amazing environment to explore. Contrast that with the adjacent ranches, which were overgrazed or the shooting ranges, which were unnerving to drive around.

Pawnee Butte Trail
This is pretty much the only official hike in the area, but it's a beauty. Its remote location means the only reason to be out there is to hike the trail or to disperse camp. The easy trail wanders through grassland then drops through a small rocky canyon. A trail that goes over the top of the mesa is closed in the spring and summer for nesting raptors (although we didn't see or hear any). But going through the rocky canyon is pretty. The trail then drops down into a small juniper forest then snakes around the rock formations back out into open grasslands. There is a large and small butte - jutting up from the surrounding grassland. The bare faced rocks are hard to miss. Also hard to miss is the natural gas processing plants that hum constantly nearby - detracting from the beauty and peacefulness of the area.

Rocky Mountain National Park
A little bit of a drive from Denver, the Rocky Mountain National Park is more of a tourist draw than the Pawnee Grasslands (wonder why). Entering the park from Estes Park, we came upon 2 moose at Sheep Lake, which were more like large ponds set in a golden meadow. The pair was a mother cow and her 1 year old young from last year.

In mid-May the park roads weren't fully open, so we couldn't drive the highest highway in the park. Instead, we drove to the road closure at Rainbow Curve and walked up Trail Ridge Road. The depth of snow piled and plowed onto the sides of the road grew deeper as the road ascended the mountain. The road afforded great views of the valley and the snow-capped mountains on either side. Yellow-bellied Marmots were awake and prowling around the snow covered meadows in search of food and perhaps warmth. Pika were also awake, but less inclined to stray far from their burrows among the rocks. American Pipits called as they flew overhead and Dark-eyed Juncos traveled in pairs at the edges of alpine forest. A flock of perhaps rosy-finches flew off in the distance before we could get a positive identification. Despite the cold, the slowly melting snow was awakening life in the high alpine.

Down at lower elevations in the park, we also saw Mule Deer and Elk grazing in the vast meadows. Unfortunately we didn't have a lot of time to spend exploring the park. I'm sure we could have seen a lot more.

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
I saw this on the map, then looked at the Google reviews of the place (I don't know why I bother, but sometimes they are funny). One review said to stay away from this place at all cost because it's radioactive and bad for your health (something to that effect). The refuge used to be a plutonium processing plant, which was shut down because they were illegally burning the waste at night. Of course when you burn something, the plume and toxins don't stay where they are burned. They travel in the wind. As a result, most of Denver was contaminated with the toxic chemicals they illegally tried to dispose of. In other words, if you are really concerned about it, maybe avoid Denver altogether. Funny enough, the actual land of wildlife refuge was capped (meaning toxic soil was buried under clean soil). As long as you're not a prairie dog, there's not much to worry about if you're visiting (also don't go into the plutonium plants, which are restricted).

When the plant was operating, the city was probably a good distance away. But over time the sprawl of the city reached the wildlife refuge. I would worry more about the neighborhood of new houses that literally butt up against the refuge. I wonder if they have to sign a disclosure agreement when they move in.

Aside from having to drive through and parking in the housing development to access the refuge, Rocky Flats was relatively peaceful for being so close to the noise of sprawl. We entered from the south, but didn't have much time to travel far on the trails.

The wildlife refuge was an expanse of lush green short-grass prairie. Soapweed occasionally dotted the landscape of rolling green hills. A narrow creek with yellow buffalo bean and wild roses on its bank cut through the meadows. A small colony of prairie dogs peeped at us, but only the mother prairie dog was bold enough to stand tall and give us a reproachful look. Vesper Sparrows and Western Meadowlark sang from every spent soapweed bloom. And a couple of Grasshopper Sparrows added to the chorus. In the trees, a pair of Swainson's Hawk tended their nest and a pair of coyotes loped over the grasslands looking for a meal. It was a neat little oasis among the encroaching Denver sprawl.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Another interesting oasis among Denver sprawl - Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR is located between the city and the airport. Like Rocky Flats, dense housing developments adjoin the refuge's border. The military still owns and uses buildings on this refuge, creating an interesting juxtaposition of wildlife and destructive arsenal. The NWR actively manages a small population of bison and black-footed ferrets. These two animals - one virtually extinct and one highly endangered - are kept alive within a stone's throw from a busy metropolis - the very reason they are at those statuses.

The refuge is surrounded by fencing to keep the bison in. Inside the refuge, there are several trails around the headquarters and an auto tour around the refuge. During our visit the auto tour was closed because of flooding (Denver just had a record breaking rainfall). So we stuck to the trails that circled the short-grass prairies and small lakes that were frequented by fishermen. There was a healthy population of prairie dogs and we were happy to see a burrowing owl among them. With the large bodies of water, there was a greater diversity of birds (shorebirds and water birds) than Rocky Flats and also a very healthy population of white-tailed deer, who seemed unbothered by all the human activity.

Overall Denver was a great way to explore two major environments that we don't get on the West Coast: the Rocky Mountains and short-grass prairie. Also the central location of the state means it supports both west and east coast birds. If the opportunity arises to visit again, I'd be eager to explore more in depth, maybe focusing on the chance to see the prairie-chickens.


Pictures (click on thumbnail)

Bird List
Canada Goose P,D,RA
Blue-winged Teal P
Gadwall P
Mallard P,D,RF,RA
Northern Pintail P
Western Grebe D, RA
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) D,RA
Eurasian Collared-Dove P,D
Mourning Dove P,D,RF,RA
Common Poorwill P
Broad-tailed Hummingbird D,RA
American Avocet P
Black-bellied Plover RA
Killdeer D,RA
Stilt Sandpiper P
Western Sandpiper P
Long-billed Dowitcher P,RA
Wilson's Phalarope P
Spotted Sandpiper D,P,RA
Lesser Yellowlegs P
Common Loon D
Double-crested Cormorant D,RA
American White Pelican RM,D
Great Blue Heron D
Snowy Egret RA
Turkey Vulture P,RM,D
Osprey D
Northern Harrier P
Broad-winged Hawk D
Swainson's Hawk P,D,RF
Red-tailed Hawk P,RM,RA
Burrowing Owl P,RA
Red-naped Sapsucker RM
Northern Flicker RM,D
American Kestrel P,RF,RA
Say's Phoebe D,P,RF
Western Kingbird P,D,RF,RA
Eastern Kingbird RF
Loggerhead Shrike P
Steller's Jay RM
Blue Jay P
Woodhouse's Scrub Jay D, RM
Black-billed Magpie RM,D,RF,RA
American Crow RM
Common Raven P,RM,P,RA
Mountain Chickadee RM
Horned Lark P
Northern Rough-winged Swallow D,RF
Violet-green Swallow D
Tree Swallow P,D,RA
Barn Swallow P,D,RF,RA
Cliff Swallow D,RA
Bushtit D
Ruby-crowned Kinglet RM
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher D,P,RA
Rock Wren D,RA
House Wren P,RF
European Starling P,D,RF,RA
Brown Thrasher P
Northern Mockingbird P
Townsend's Solitaire RM
Swainson's Thrush P
American Robin P,D,RA
House Sparrow P,D
American Pipit RM
House Finch D,RF,RA
American Goldfinch P,D,RF
Grasshopper Sparrow RF
Chipping Sparrow P
Clay-colored Sparrow P,D
Brewer's Sparrow P,RF
Lark Sparrow P,RA
Lark Bunting P
Dark-eyed Junco RM,D
White-crowned Sparrow P,RM,D,RF
Vesper Sparrow P,RF
Song Sparrow D,RA
Lincoln's Sparrow P
Green-tailed Towhee P
Spotted Towhee P,D
Western Meadowlark P,RF,RA
Bullock's Oriole P,RF,RA
Red-winged Blackbird P,D,RF,RA
Brown-headed Cowbird P,D,RF
Brewer's Blackbird RF
Common Grackle P,D,RF
Orange-crowned Warbler P,RA
Common Yellowthroat P
Yellow Warbler P,RF,RA
Yellow-rumped Warbler P,RM
Western Tanager D
Black-headed Grosbeak P
Lazuli Bunting D
Indigo Bunting D
Stripped Chorus Frog D, P, RM heard
Coyote P, RF
Mule Deer RM
White-tailed deer RA
Elk RM
Moose RM
Bullfrog RA heard
Notable blooms:
foothill arnica
cushion milkvetch
foothill paintbrush
Plains wallflower
spiked ipomopsis
sand lily
fringed puccoon
leafy wildparsley
prairie false dandelion
tufted evening-primrose
James' catseye
spiny phlox
Front Range twinpod
prairie pasqueflower
fragrant sumac
golden bean
yellow prairie violet

P: Pawnee National Grassland: Crow Valley CG, Bird Tour, County Road 390 & 112 ponds, Pawnee Butte Trail
RM: Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road, Sheep Lake
D: Denver area: Lakewood, Crown Hill Park, Jim Barker Reservior
RF: Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge: south entrance
RA: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge


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page updated: 7/2/23