Spotlight on Parks: Barr Lake

There are 42 state parks in Colorado along with a host of other open spaces and recreational areas. That’s not to mention the 4 national parks the Rocky Mountain State boasts. Every month I hope to bring you a break down of one of those parks or areas, highlighting the natural diversity we’re lucky to have here in Colorado. This month’s Spotlight on Parks features Barr Lake State Park.

Barr Lake State Park is located in Brighton, not far from Denver. Map of Barr Lake The main attraction of the park is the titular lake, but the lake wasn’t always a lake. Historically, the lake was a bison wallow and watering hole for native wildlife. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that the wallow became a permanent water source due to the construction of the Burlington Canal.

Today, the lake’s cottonwood-lined banks, as well as the lake itself, provide both valuable habitat for a number of fish, birds, and mammals, as well as recreational fishing and boating opportunities.

A white pelican forages among the aquatic plants of Barr Lake. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A white pelican forages among the aquatic plants of Barr Lake. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The diversity of birds at the park also makes it an idea spot for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory’s bird-banding headquarters.

On a hot July day, I visited Barr Lake for the first time and found myself enamored of its nature center, which is stuffed to the gills with informational displays and animal artifacts. Running my hands over a beaver pelt, I thought back to the fur trappers of the 1700 and 1800’s, and marveled at the size of a merlin in comparison with a bald eagle.

The nature center is open daily from 9-4pm and is the epicenter for many park activities, including guided hikes. In addition to the displays, the nature center has a modest book store and a large picture window where you can sit and watch the birds (and an enterprising squirrel or two!) visit the park’s bird feeders.

Heading down the Niedrach trail from the nature center, you’ll come to a fork. To the left is the part of the park designated as a wildlife refuge. This path leads to the boardwalk, which takes you along the marshy perimeter of the lake. Common grackles and Bulloch’s orioles flit in and around the aquatic plants and that popping sound you hear is a big catfish breaking the surface in search of insect prey. Arriving in late morning, I didn’t see many mammals on my visit, but birds were abundant. In fact, 350 species of birds have been recorded at the park. While I didn’t see nearly that many, I did see what appeared to be a family of American kestrels, a Swainson’s hawk being mobbed by western kingbirds, a slew of white pelicans gliding over the lake, and a juvenile Bulloch’s oriole being fed by its mother.

A mother Bulloch's oriole feeds her juvenile chick. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A mother Bulloch’s oriole feeds her juvenile chick. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Heading down the right hand portion of Niedrach trail brings you to a small picnic area overlooking a wooded, swampy area. The highlight of the park for me was by far the owl box nailed to a tree just beyond that raised picnic area. Inside the box? A pair of roosting barn owls; a first for me! Barn owls are present throughout most of the lower 48 states, but in some of those areas their numbers are declining due to habitat loss. Do these owls have chicks in that box?

Two barn owls roosting in nest box at Barr Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo
Two barn owls roosting in nest box at Barr Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

After seeing the barn owls, I turned around. However, the trail continued and I think I could have spent all day exploring rather than just the few hours I did. There’s just that much to see. So if you have some extra time, check out Barr Lake State Park. The daily fee for all Colorado State Parks is $7, but you can purchase an annual pass for $70. If you can afford it, the annual pass is definitely worth every penny.


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