Denver's Trails Stretch From Urban Chic To Rockies Peaks

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

"On your left."

Truthfully, there wasn't anyone on my right, but let's just say I was practicing. This was urban biking, after all -- in the middle of Denver, where cars and people throng the streets and sidewalks. Yet the Mile High City's bike paths were hardly a traffic jam of spokes and wheels. In fact, at times it felt more like the New Frontier -- if the pioneers rode hybrids with aluminum frames and 21 speeds.

In annual rankings by national publications, Denver (population 2.6 million) has repeatedly topped the charts as the healthiest city in the country, and an American Cancer Society study recently called Denver the thinnest city, due to its muscle-flexing lifestyle. Of course, the Colorado capital also knows how to cut loose: It's known as one of the best places in the country for singles, as well as one of the most inebriated towns around. But Denver is, without question, a proactive, anti-slothful city. And it has 650 miles of urban bike trails to prove it.

As many cyclists know, to bike in a city you must be as alert and agile as a gazelle in the Serengeti. Hazards pop up on every street corner: potholes, parked cars with doors flinging open without warning, oblivious taxis. Even Rock Creek Parkway is a slalom course of runners, bikers, strollers and wayward dogs. Denver, though, is a different kind of Tour de Colorado. With its widespread bike routes that fan out for miles, you can travel almost anywhere in and around the city on two wheels -- safely. "We don't have a subway, but we do have bike paths," said Meredith Arndt, an outdoor enthusiast and spokeswoman for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The city was designed with bike paths in mind."

And therein lies the Denver Challenge: Can a weekend visitor tool around solely by bicycle? Though I didn't bring my bike (I rented one on arrival), I was happy to see that I could have cycled straight from the airport terminal to town if I'd so desired: Apparently Pena Boulevard has a shoulder lane for bicyclists. How appropriate.

* * *

Since the days of the Wild West, Denver has had a reputation as a pass-through city. In the mid-19th century, many pioneers in wagons crossed Colorado on their trek to California; they set down roots only after getting swept up in the gold rush. In more recent times, vacationers with powder on the brain fly into Denver International Airport before scattering to the ski mountains to the north and west. When out-of-towners do stick around Denver, most wander over to the 16th Street Mall, a 16-block pedestrian strip that runs through downtown and is lined with such national staples as Hard Rock Cafe, NikeTown and multiple Starbucks. Besides shoppers with credit cards to burn, the area attracts the riffraff of Denver, from poser hip-hoppers jamming to a boom box to lost souls napping on benches.

"When tourists come, they often think the only place to go is the 16th Street Mall. It's kind of a tourist trap, though," says Leslie Chadwick, 27, a Denver inhabitant who works for an organic food company. "But if you go left or right, there's quite a bounty of shops and restaurants."

Even more telling, the 16th Street Mall bans bikes. There is, however, a free shuttle that cruises the length of the mall, but in Denver parlance, that's lazy.

Though downtown has its merits, a variety of new neighborhoods have sprouted up around Denver's urban center. Each has its own personality and scene -- and, true to the city's outdoorsy nature, all are connected by bike paths. To be sure, I picked up the Cherry Creek Trail right outside my hotel's front door, in the Cherry Creek neighborhood, where I rented my hybrid for the entire weekend. (The hotel even stashed it for me in the luggage room.)

Armed with a bike map covered in tiny grid marks and interlocking colored lines, I hopped on my hybrid and headed for the D-12, the Massachusetts Avenue of Denver bike paths (albeit without the death-defying traffic). The route altered from smooth bike lanes overlooking enviable homes to a pastoral path through Cheesman Park. Sixteenth Street led to 17th, then to Uptown, a formerly seedy section that is now a Restaurant Row of sorts. Old mixes with new (or new in old) in the blocks-long neighborhood: For example, Steuben's diner moved into a car mechanics shop this summer, while the nearby Bump & Grind Cafe remains a classic -- among the RuPaul set. Some of B&G's waiters, who during the Petticoat Bruncheon prance around in bad drag (5 o'clock shadow with cherry-red lipstick), date to the Bush I era, but others are just babes.

The biggest proof that Uptown is on the rise is the relocation of the legendary Tattered Cover Book Store. In July, the indie bookstore -- one of the country's largest -- migrated from the hoity-toity Cherry Creek area to the former Lowenstein Theatre. No neighborhood is complete without paperbacks, biscotti and a reading room with no limits on loitering.

No tour of Denver can ignore the giant shards of titanium that shoot up and over the Golden Triangle, the cultural 'hood and home of the Denver Art Museum. To see the museum's new addition, I simply exited off the easy, paved Cherry Creek Trail, which I'd been riding in fits and starts for a couple of hours (and twice as many miles), and gazed up at the $90.5 million expansion by architect Daniel Libeskind. The 40-foot-tall blue bear peering into the convention center seemed quaint by comparison.

The Golden Triangle, though, is more than just arty megaliths. The expanding area also has Native American galleries, coffee shops serving gooey cupcakes, and ethnic restaurants and bars, including the Church, a club housed inside a former cathedral. If only my bike had had a headlight. (For more galleries, many with a Latin American streak, go west of the Golden Triangle to the Santa Fe Arts District, officially La Alma/Lincoln Park, a blossoming creative arts area.)

"When I was 10, my family would go into Denver, but as big groups, because it wasn't safe," said Colorado native Brian Saxon, 27, an assistant dive coordinator at the Downtown Aquarium. "But the safe areas have gone from being this big [he mimed a small coin with his fingers] to this [two hands, as wide as his shoulders]."

Saxon was one of the underwater guides I met at the aquarium, an easy turn off the trail. I had just pedaled along the Platte River and into the Riverfront district, which is nicknamed "Playdo" (emphasis on the "play," with the "do" thrown in for downtown). The area is big on biking, running, goofing off with dogs and kayaking, especially on the short whitewater course at Confluence Park.

In addition, the REI flagship store is nearby, and I was tempted to sneak into its cold chamber -- where visitors can test Arctic-style gear in varying temperatures and wind chills -- and stretch out in a sleeping bag. Instead, I went diving with 20 sharks.

Since I had been biking for most of a day, I needed a cool spritz. The aquarium had a bar, but even better, it organizes snorkeling and diving outings in its exhibits -- mask, fins, wet suit and tank included for the half-hour adventure.

Turns out a lot of the attraction is watching the people watch you in the tank. Of course, I was easily distracted by a 250-pound grouper named SuperGrouper, a sea turtle with a bite like an angry parrot and sand tiger sharks desperately in need of an orthodontist.

For the dive (certification required), I was told that if any sharks entered my personal zone I should turn my scuba tank toward them. After seeing those rows of crooked, knife-sharp teeth, I wasn't sure metal would stop them, and my dive master's stick looked as harmless as a noodle. But the sharks seemed docile as they floated over my head, or played chicken by swimming directly toward my mask, then quickly swinging left or up.

As we left the underwater world, an older man with a bald spot snapped a picture of me, as if I were on display.

* * *

For my first day of biking, I had covered a large slice of the city and its interlocking bike paths, but for Day 2, I needed a Rockies fix. Plus, I was curious to see if I could truly bike all the way from the capital to such mountain towns as Morrison, Colorado Springs and Golden, which most people reach by interstate. In 25 miles, I'd know.

On the first section of the South Platte River Trail, the roadlike path snaked through a number of yin-and-yang settings: on my left, the sparkling-clear river, unruly with vegetation; on my right, a strip of mattress warehouses and a homeless man with a cardboard sign. The scenery followed the shift from city to suburbia (golf courses, playgrounds) before becoming more rugged and craggy -- more Colorado Rockies.

The hours-long bike ride to Morrison is tougher on the quads than cruising around Denver, which is as flat as a prairie. The two-stoplight town is quintessential West, with distressed-wood shop fronts and a dusty main street where you can just imagine a shootout. Instead, there were Audis and Harleys parked on the side, and cafes serving city-slicker fare such as roasted duck and super nachos. The Morrison Inn concocts a killer margarita, but I'm pretty sure the cycle patrol (cops can track you with a radar gun and ticket you for irresponsible cycling) would not think highly of biking and drinking. In addition, I wanted to head up (and up and up) to Red Rocks, the venerable park and concert venue. (Be warned: You must share the road with other cars, and the shoulder is skinny.)

With its towering sandstone formations and thrumming acoustics, Red Rocks is an illustrious place to catch a show, and performers from Nat King Cole to Bob Marley have appeared here. The visitors center, above the amphitheater, is packed with history covering its geology, dinosaur discoveries and Billboard pedigree. But the real thrill is going onstage and performing -- whether for real or in your rock-star fantasy. Skipping down the steps, I jumped on stage and was about to sing a little ditty to my imaginary fans when the sky started crackling and displaying an electric light show. Upstaged by Mother Nature.

With the impending storm, it was time to get back in the saddle and ride back to the city. Fortunately, it was all downhill from there.

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