Spotlight on Parks: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

A short drive from Denver lies a remarkably diverse wildlife habitat: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. The area, previously a chemical weapon and agricultural chemical manufacturing facility, was designated a national wildlife refuge in 1992 and reached its full size of almost 16,000 acres in 2010. The refuge is notable for being one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the United States.

I visited the refuge a few weeks ago during National Wildlife Refuge Week. The first thing that stood out to me was definitely how close the refuge is to our state capital. The second was how secluded it felt for all of that. There weren’t very many people out and about so I could pretend I was the only one there.

The visitor center was closed for Columbus day, so I parked and literally took a hike. The refuge features a rather large black-tailed prairie dog town and the prairie dogs eyed me warily as I wandered down the path. My presence scared off a coyote that might have been looking for a less observant town resident for breakfast. It looked back at me briefly before melting into the grass and trees. I didn’t see any burrowing owls who also make use of prairie dog dens, but I did see a couple of cottontail rabbits hunkered down.

Mule deer buck at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Mule deer buck at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

This time of year is a great time to see deer and I saw several, including a big buck lying by the wildlife drive with a huge complement of antlers. Both mule and white-tailed deer are present in Rocky Mountain Arsenal, though I only saw the former while I was there. I also saw a lot of birds, including a great-horned owl resting in a tree, several hawks and falcons (American kestrel and red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks), and a whole slew of waterfowl using the refuge’s ponds as a stopover for migration. The waterfowl I saw included several species of ducks (mallards, green-winged teal, and northern shovelers), a pied-billed grebe, and American coots.

One of the members of the bison herd at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.
One of the members of the bison herd at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

What’s really special about the refuge is that it was chosen for a bison reintroduction project in 2007. Bison were introduced from Montana as an experiment to see if they could survive. They did and now they roam an area of 2,600 acres within the refuge. Currently, that area is fenced off with cattle guards to prevent them from moving to other areas of the refuge along the road, but the plan is to eventually open up 12,000 acres to the bison. I saw one bison on my visit. It seemed curious to see me as we eyed each other through the fence. I wonder what it thought of my being there?

Rocky Mountain Arsenal is open almost all year long from sunrise to sunset. It’s closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The visitor center is open from 9:00am to 4:00pm Wednesday through Sunday and is closed on all Federal holidays. I encourage you to go visit. I’m sure it’s spectacular no matter what time of year, but autumn in particular is a good time to visit.

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