My first visit to the Carson Nature Center and surrounding South Platte Park was with my mother and siblings when we were all still small enough to be carried off by the bald eagles who fish here (not really, but you get the point). Over the years, we’ve been to the park many times walking, biking, and wading in the river on 5th grade class field trips. In short, it’s no surprise to anyone that we ended up here after Easter dinner at my parents’ house.
South Platte Park itself is absolutely fantastic. Located in Littleton, Colorado, it consists of over 880 acres of open space along the South Platte River. This includes a number of lakes open to fishing, over 4 miles of natural-surface trails, and a paved multi-use path. However, the most appealing feature of the park is the location and ease of access. Located just off of Santa Fe Drive and Mineral/Ken Caryl Avenue, South Platte Park sits just behind the Aspen Grove Shopping Center and Mineral Light Rail Station. There is plenty of paved parking right at the trailhead(s), making it easy to bring wheelchairs, strollers, and small children along.
On this specific visit, we parked behind Carson Nature Center and headed south along the gravel and dirt trail.
Not too far down the trail we passed the 14-foot tall flood sculpture.
This height of this sculpture is the height flood waters reached in June 1965. The rusted steel is was chosen to look like the muddy, rolling water that tore apart bridges, buildings and streets. Interpretive panels, located a the base of the sculpture, feature historic photos and a timeline of the event.
After passing the sculpture, we continued down the trail and passed underneath Mineral Avenue. However, instead of staying on the main trail, we took a detour on a small loop that overlooks a marshy area frequented by beavers. The water level was too low though, and we didn’t see any beavers. Also, instead of following the loop back to the main trail, we got slightly off track and ended up at the park boundary, overlooking the neighboring field. The view was incredible.
Once we realized that we were no longer following a trail, we made our way back over to the main path. From here, we walked all the way down to the end of the trail (where it is stopped by C-470). Here, the South Platte River passes under the highway, and as guided down a rock waterfall. We climbed over the flat, raised rocks to get a better look at the waterfall and river.
While climbing on the rocks, we noticed small shells in the shallow water.
They turned out to to be very pretty when we cleaned them off.
The water surrounding the waterfall is home to many crawdads. In the past, my brother has seen the rocks crawling with these animals, but this time we could only find a single claw.
After exploring for a bit, we headed back along the main path. The views of the South Platte River, with the Rocky Mountains in the background, were lovely.
We returned to the trailhead, where we stepped inside the Carson Nature Center for a quick, free visit. The nature center has numerous factual signs and animal displays, as well as samples of fur, teeth, etc. for people to touch. The displays are well done for both kids and adults. Recently, the nature center added a large, interactive water table for visitors to play with. This table contains sand and various building materials, allowing visitors to place houses along the banks of a “river”. The idea is to prevent the houses from being washed away in a flood by also building up retaining walls, dams, vegetation, etc. During our visit, we had the table to ourselves, and we decided to thoroughly test it out.
Before the flood:
The destruction that remains:
Overall, South Platte Park is well worth the quick visit to walk a couple of miles in nature without leaving the city. You can walk on either the gravel trails, or on the paved path shared with bicyclists. Both paths follow the river, and offer excellent views of the front range. Carson Nature Center is free and open Tuesday through Sunday, and is always worth at least a quick visit, especially with children (they also have restrooms available to the public). One could easily spend anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours in the park, all within a 20 minute drive of your house. I highly recommend it.