Night lights: Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield shines with the Christmas spirit

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By AJ Vicens

As the Hogback was silhouetted by the encroaching dusk on Dec. 2, the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield joined the eternal battle between darkness and light by illuminating more than 1 million Christmas bulbs.

Those greens, blues, reds and whites are part of the Gardens' first-ever Trail of Lights, which nightly transforms the trees and riverbanks into a holiday wonderland. The Trail of Lights opened to the public Dec. 3 and will run through Jan. 4. People can visit between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. daily, and more than 4,500 turned out for the member-only night Dec. 2.

Mark Payne, the lighting designer, said erecting the display took a team of six people 10 to 12 hours a day from Nov. 2 to Dec. 2. Payne said the design process started in January 2008, and the lights were ordered in April. The team began prepping the light strands in August. When the display was finished, the more than 1 million lights — half being energy-saving LEDs — were spread through trees, bushes and buildings over 40 acres.

"Everything has a purpose," Payne said, when asked about the placement of the individual lights. He said the goal was to create layers of color that appear different no matter where a viewer is standing on a new asphalt path that weaves through the park.

Creating those layers wasn't easy. One section of a half dozen trees that reach 77 feet into the sky is bathed in 105,000 red, yellow and white lights, all of them energy-saving bulbs. The entire group runs on 9 amps, less than the average microwave oven.

"That entire strand is plugged into a $5 Home Depot extension cord," Payne said.

The tallest decorated tree is at the beginning of the Trail of Lights. The 86-foot-tall tree has green lights along its trunk and white lights illuminating its top, looking a bit like a giant piece of frosted of broccoli.

The Denver Botanic Gardens usually hosts the Blossoms of Light every year at its property on York Street in Denver, but this year construction of a parking garage, visitor center and new public greenhouses made that impossible.

"We wanted to keep it going," said Will Jones, spokesman for the Denver Botanic Gardens. "People love Blossoms of Light. It's a tradition in Colorado."

Blossoms of Light will be back up next year in Denver, but if the Trail of Lights is successful, Jones said, the Gardens may do both.

As Jones walked along the trail, he noted that something about Christmas lights always makes people happy. One woman gave him a high-five, telling him the display was "absolutely amazing."

Gertie VanNatter of Highlands Ranch came with her friend Kathy Mortensen of South Jeffco.

"It's absolutely awesome," VanNatter said. "It's really just spectacular."

"It's so wonderful it's in our area of town," Mortensen said.

VanNatter said she hopes the display will draw more people to the Gardens, which she considers to be a Denver area treasure.

"I think people will come out in droves," VanNatter said. "It's really a remarkable place." She added that the previous weekend's snow helped, because the lights contrasted with the white ground and the dark sky.

"I'm in awe, personally," said Brian Vogt, the Gardens' CEO. "I'm really proud of the team that put it together."

Vogt said he hopes the display brings to the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield to see the more than $1 million in facility and land improvements made in the last six months. Kathy Miller of Englewood said she liked the contrast between the park during the summer and now.

"Having been here in the summer and to come now, there's a whole fresh look," Miller said. "It's a fun thing to do compared to the normal Botanic Gardens."

Miller's friend Phyllis Record of Centennial loved the display.

"I think they've done a wonderful job out here," she said. Record added that she attends the Blossoms of Light every year but thinks the Trail of Lights may be easier to negotiate for seniors and the disabled. And she said all ages will love it.

"The kids love it," she said. "The lights are just spectacular."


If you go ...

The Trail of Lights at the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield will be open from 5:30 to 8:30 Wednesday through Sunday until Jan. 4. Tickets are $9 for adults, $6 for people ages 4 to 15, and $7 for those 65 and above. Members get $2 off.