7 Reasons to Visit Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver

The bison herd started with 16 of these majestic beasts, but today it’s over 80.
The bison herd started with 16 of these majestic beasts, but today it’s over 80. Emma Walker
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Despite many out-of-towners’ visions of snow-capped peaks and high mountain passes, Denver is, like most cities, a concrete jungle. One of the few exceptions, though, is Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, whose nearly 16,000 acres are just a few minutes from downtown. Visiting the refuge is free to the public and open seven days a week (it’s closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day). Whether you’ve got a full day or just need a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of Metro Denver, Rocky Mountain Arsenal has plenty to offer. Here are seven reasons why you should experience the refuge.

1. It boasts a fascinating history.

Formerly a weapons production site, Rocky Mountain Arsenal is steeped in history.
Formerly a weapons production site, Rocky Mountain Arsenal is steeped in history. Emma Walker

Things have come full circle at Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Plains Native Americans once followed bison herds across this very prairie, and though it’s a different herd today—these bison were brought in from the National Bison Range in Montana in 2007—the plains are once again teeming with wildlife. The Arsenal facility was built as a weapons testing facility in 1942 as a response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then used for weapons production and demilitarization during the Cold War era. Learn more about the site’s history, cleanup, and transition to wildlife refuge at the Arsenal’s excellent visitor center, which opened to the public in 2011. Here, you’ll find in-depth, interactive exhibits both on the the area’s human history and its current residents. The visitor center is located just inside the park entrance and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9am-4pm.

2. You can hike through three different ecosystems.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal’s 10 miles of easy-to-moderate hiking trails are open and accessible year-round. Trails here are for foot traffic only (no bikes or dogs except on the Perimeter Trail), though when enough snow accumulates, visitors can also snowshoe or cross-country ski the trails. Most of the Arsenal’s trails are a wide, flat gravel surface, though there are also more traditional dirt trails. Explore the grasslands on the Bluestem Loop (1.3 miles) or Rattlesnake Hill Trail (1.5 miles), stroll through the wetlands on the Lake Ladora Loop (1.8 miles), which includes a floating bridge through the pond itself, or wander through the Woodland Trail (0.4 miles).

3. Take the Wildlife Drive.

The gorgeous new Rocky Mountain Arsenal Visitor Center opened in 2011 and features historical and ecological exhibits.
The gorgeous new Rocky Mountain Arsenal Visitor Center opened in 2011 and features historical and ecological exhibits. Emma Walker

The refuge is home to more than 330 species of wildlife, and the nine-mile Wildlife Drive is the best way to get the lay of the land and its inhabitants. It’s open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset. There’s no need to stop at the visitor center on the way in, though you’ll find maps and information on road conditions there, and you can also check out a pair of binoculars from the front desk at no cost. This one-way loop is open only to drivers in motorized vehicles—motorcycles and other open-air vehicles aren’t recommended, as wildlife, particularly the unpredictable bison, regularly cross the road.

4. It has excellent programming.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service offers tons of programs year-round at the Arsenal. In addition to several guided wildlife viewing tours each weekend (in both English and Spanish), you’ll find programs on waterfowl identification, antler anatomy, and the winter habits of raptors, to name just a few. The refuge also regularly hosts opportunities to help rangers with seed collection and introduction of flowering plants to restored prairie areas. Most programs are free but require a reservation, and all are family-friendly.

5. It’s a great place to hone your photography skills.

The Rocky Mountains make the perfect backdrop for Denver’s iconic skyline, visible from the Arsenal.
The Rocky Mountains make the perfect backdrop for Denver’s iconic skyline, visible from the Arsenal. Emma Walker

With majestic Rocky Mountains, the iconic Denver skyline, and tons of gorgeous wildlife, this place makes it hard to take bad photos. The refuge often hosts guided photography workshops, where knowledgeable rangers show visitors the best spots to capture, say, mule and white-tailed deer at the height of the rut season or newborn bison calves in the springtime. The park also has a wildlife viewing blind, allowing photographers to get cozy and wait for big bucks to present the perfect shot. When you’re ready to show off your chops, enter the annual amateur photo contest. Submissions are accepted each year through September, and a winner is decided by National Wildlife Refuge Week, celebrated in early October.

6. It’s a great spot to go fishing.

On weekends between mid-April and mid-October, the refuge opens two of its lakes, Mary and Ladora, for fishing. And it’s not just for the little guys: Think trophy-size largemouth bass and northern pike, along with bluegill and channel catfish. Lake Mary is ideal for new anglers: At 8.4 acres, it’s the refuge’s smallest body of water, and fishermen can head out onto the floating boardwalk or the fishing pier. Lake Ladora, meanwhile, is the Arsenal’s largest lake, as deep as 17.6 feet and allows wading with calf, hip, or chest waders after Memorial Day. In both lakes, it’s all catch-and-release fishing, and anglers must use barbless hooks and artificial bait. If you’re over 16, bring a valid Colorado fishing license and plan to read, sign, and keep a copy of the Refuge’s fishing regulations, then pay the $3 daily fee at the Contact Station, adjacent to both lakes.

7. Watch the seasons change.

With 280 bird species, Rocky Mountain Arsenal is prime for bird watching.
With 280 bird species, Rocky Mountain Arsenal is prime for bird watching. Emma Walker

The beauty of Rocky Mountain Arsenal is that it’s open year-round, which means visitors can see it in all its seasonal iterations. In addition to changing leaves, this means migrating bird species, and with 280 species of birds, your inner ornithologist can count the seasons by their comings and goings. Pick up a bird species checklist from the visitor center, then head out to see feathered friends from the Wildlife Drive, the trails, or the park’s viewing blinds. The refuge also offers naturalist-guided programs for both new and experienced birders.

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