Why this wild retreat next to the city is such a great attraction — and why we’ve so often had to close its gates.
By Travis Thompson
If you search Waterton Canyon on the Web, you’ll find countless wildlife photos, ranging from bighorn sheep and rattlesnakes on the canyon trail to birds and toads along the banks of the South Platte River. It’s not uncommon to see snapshots of bears this time of year, either.
But when mama bears are foraging the canyon with their cubs, while hundreds, if not thousands of visitors a day are looking for that perfect wildlife shot, that’s asking for trouble.
“We’ve actually seen people using selfie sticks to try and get as close to the bears as possible, sometimes within 10 feet of wild bears,” said Brandon Ransom, Denver Water’s manager of recreation. “The current situation is not conducive for the safety of our visitors or the well-being of the wildlife.”
That’s why, on Friday, Aug. 28, we closed the canyon to the public until the bear activity subsides.
Closing Waterton has been an unfortunate, but familiar story this summer. In May and June, we had to close the canyon because of a deteriorating diversion structure, annual maintenance and flood conditions.
With more than 100,000 visitors a year, Waterton Canyon is one of the most popular outdoor recreation amenities for Coloradans and tourists alike. But as a key Denver Water operational facility, the attributes that make this canyon so great can also lead to unexpected closures.
Let’s take a look at some of the ups and downs of this special place.
Why it’s great: Well-maintained trail for hikers, bikers and horseback riders
The road for Denver Water employees to access the canyon facilities and Strontia Springs Reservoir doubles as the canyon trail for recreationists. Because this is a vital road for our operational crews, it’s always well maintained, providing optimal conditions for a family-friendly hiking and biking experience.
Challenge: As a working facility, there are times when infrastructure and maintenance projects create unsafe conditions for the public, prompting us to close trail access.
Why it’s great: A scenic mountain experience without having to venture far from the city
Within minutes of starting the 6.5-mile hike up the canyon, visitors are engulfed in nature, losing sight of the Denver suburbs that are right around the corner. And as the South Platte River cascades along the canyon path, the echoes of the flows bounce off the valley walls, providing an escape from the everyday din of the city.
Challenge: Environmental conditions can change quickly in the canyon. During dry times, forest fires can spark in the area. When it floods, the beautiful winding river trail turns into a hazard, as high waters ascend the river banks. In either extreme, one thing is certain: the canyon gates will be locked.
Why it’s great: The wildlife experience
The canyon is home to rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, bears and more than 40 species of birds.
Challenge: The wildlife is a highlight for visitors, but the animals are exactly that — wild. As with the current bear situation, there are times when it’s necessary to keep the public out of nature’s way.
We love Waterton as much as you — for its natural beauty as well as its vitality to delivering our customers water.
Hopefully, we’ll reopen the canyon soon. But there will come a time when we’ll have to close it again. So when we do, know that it’s done to maintain a safe environment for the recreational users and workers who share the canyon.
Oh, and the next time you see a bear in the woods, or even your front yard, please put down the selfie stick.