Spotlight on Parks: South Platte Park

Like a superhero, South Platte Park’s origin story also starts with a disaster. On June 16, 1965, heavy rains coupled with saturated soils caused Plum Creek to rise. Eventually, the water dumped into the South Platte River causing it to overflow its banks and rush through Littleton and points beyond. The devastating aftermath of the floods, which caused millions of dollars in property damage, but miraculously took the lives of only 21 people, led to the building of the Chatfield dam. Plans by the Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the South Platte were also developed, but Littleton citizens had a different idea. What if the area around the river was preserved so that the South Platte had a safe place to flood? That innovative notion led to the creation of South Platte Park, the first floodplain park in the United States.

The South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Part of the South Suburban Parks and Recreation department, South Platte Park consists of more than 880 acres of protected land stretching along the South Platte River in Littleton, CO. One of the prime park attractions is the extensive trailway along the river, both paved and unpaved, for biking and hiking. On my trip to the park, I could see that the trails are well-used, and by families and individuals alike. Other attractions include floating down the river in a canoe, kayak, raft, or tube. These crafts can put in at several places along the river, including the Carson Nature Center. Two rafts of river explorers floated past me on my visit to the park.

The Carson Nature Center itself is a marvel. Formerly, the building was the family home of Theo L. Carson, for whom it is named. The house was donated to the park and physically moved to its current spot where it now serves as South Platte Park’s visitor center. It’s a great first stop on any excursion to and around the park with interesting, informative displays about the park’s wildlife, geography, and history. It also plays host to nature programs, including guided tours and birthday parties. Carson Nature Center is open daily, except for Monday, from noon to 4:30 pm during the week and 9:00 am to 4:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

Woodhouse's toad on the banks of the South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Woodhouse’s toad on the banks of the South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Juvenile Coopers hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Juvenile Coopers hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The park also includes 5 lakes, several of which permit fishing. Like many others along the Front Range, these lakes are former gravel pits reclaimed for wildlife. These lakes and the surrounding habitat is the reason Audubon has declared the park an Important Bird Area, particularly for winter waterfowl. While summer is not the best time to see waterfowl, I did see common mergansers, mallards, a double-crested cormorant, and Canada geese. Summer is a good time for wildflowers, however. Among those blooming now are prairie coneflowers and prickly poppy. I also saw juvenile Coopers hawks, yellow warblers, blue-grey gnatcatchers, and a Woodhouse’s toad.

In these dog days of summer, South Platte Park is a welcome place to cool off. Entry to the park and nature center is free and the park is open from sunrise until sunset. So, what are you waiting for? Today is the perfect day to plan your visit to this historic park.

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