Situated between busy shopping centers, housing developments, and the Denver County Jail, Bluff Lake Nature Center truly is an escape from busy lives into the beauty of nature. It is a free, 123-acre wildlife refuge and environmental education center located on the eastern edge of the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver. Bordered by Sand Creek on the northeastern edge, it is the largest privately-owned open space in Denver. The area includes a seasonal lake and restored native short-grass prairie, wetlands, woodlands, and riparian areas preserved for wildlife inhabitants and visiting humans.
Bluff Lake Nature Center is also a stop along the Sand Creek Regional Greenway, a 14-mile stretch of paved and gravel trail connecting the High Line Canal in Aurora with the South Platte River Greenway in Commerce City. But it is also much more than a place to take a walk. Part of the center’s mission is to foster environmental education and stewardship. This is done through the hard work of a large group of volunteers and a small staff. Each year, more than 2,000 students and teachers from Denver area schools visit the center for field programs to help the children experience and learn about nature. Another 3,000 students visit Bluff Lake for other types of fun and educational events. According to the center’s website, children who have visited the center have shown consistent, significant improvement in environmental literacy assessment scores.
Bluff Lake Nature Center was first noted on an 1899 farm map as an irrigation reservoir on property owned by the Cyrus G. Richardson Estate. The West Toll Gate and Coal Creeks fed Bluff Lake at that time, but today these tributaries are a part of the Sand Creek flow, which is an extension of the High Line Canal. In 1929, the Stapleton International Airport, called Denver Municipal Airport at the time, opened in Stapleton. The Aviation Department purchased the 123-acre Bluff Lake area to use as a required crash zone at the end of the runways.
Bluff Lake has been largely untouched for more than 50 years, and wildlife enjoyed the solitude. Animals such as deer, red fox, badgers, snakes, turtles, coyotes, owls, hawks, rabbits, and a variety of waterfowl lived, hunted, and raised their young at Bluff Lake. As Denver International Airport opened in 1995, Stapleton became a development area with restaurants, shopping centers, business centers, and hotels. Denver, CO city and county in 1994 created the Bluff Lake Natural Area after establishing an agreement with the Sierra Club to protect the lake. Since then, the property has changed ownership from the Department of Aviation to the nonprofit Friends of Bluff Lake. In 2000, the name was changed to Bluff Lake Nature Center, and in 2008, the ownership was fully transitioned to Bluff Lake Nature Center.
Bluff Lake Nature Center is now an outdoor classroom with many visitor amenities and education programs. It has several miles of easy, flat trails, a xeriscape garden, interpretive signs, and an interpretive amphitheater. Throughout the season, a variety of animals make the area their homes, such as mule deer, coyotes, beaver, muskrat, songbirds, turtles, bats, rabbits, great horned owls, and raccoons. In the fall and winter, the lake and its surrounding wetlands become a haven for migratory waterfowl, including Canada geese, northern shovelers, American wigeons, redheads, and teals. There are two areas for viewing waterfowl: an overlook at the end of the boardwalk and a bird blind on the northwest end of the lake.
Volunteer naturalists take visitors out on free bird walks on the first Saturday of every month from 8 to 10 a.m. More than 135 species of birds have been identified at Bluff Lake, and these walks offer an excellent opportunity to see some of these birds.
There are several other types of public programs at Bluff Lake. On the first Friday of each month, volunteers conduct hourlong family preschool programs for budding naturalists. These programs cost $5 for children and are free for adults. In the summer, they have programs such as Fireside Chats, Junior Naturalist camps, and the Science Speaker Series. Corporate team-building workdays are also available from 4-6 p.m. Thursday there is the Trick or Treat Trail event. Children can enjoy games, treats, and crafts. Bluff Lake Nature Center is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
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