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South Platte Park offers wilderness, wildlife amidst an urban area

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 By Laura Bernero, for the Courier

Between Santa Fe Drive and the South Platte River in Littleton, the South Platte Park natural area is a peaceful contrast to the nearby buzz of the city. The river winds through tall cottonwoods, and visitors and wildlife create the only bursts of activity among the seamless woods and wetlands.

With warm temperatures tempting people to spend time outdoors, the park is in the middle of its busiest season of the year.

South Platte Park contains more than 880 acres of open space and trail access, including opportunities for fishing, boating, hiking, biking and wildlife viewing. The Carson Nature Center, at the park entrance west of the Aspen Grove shopping center, offers visitors maps and information before they head out to the trails and wilderness areas.

Although the park is in an urban area, “it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere out here,” said Skot Latona, park supervisor.

The park was converted into open space after the South Platte River flooded in 1965 and altered the landscape and flow of the river. The city of Littleton purchased the acreage shortly after the flood, and volunteers helped rebuild the park until its official opening in 1983.

Today, South Platte Park remains one of the only stretches of the South Platte River that has not been developed to make room for houses and businesses, Latona said.

Carson Nature Center, which opened in 1992, includes a display that re-creates the 1965 South Platte River flood, a popular activity for school groups and families. Visitors can place miniature buildings and plants in the sand, turn on the water, and see the impact of the river flow on the landscape.

The nature center features displays of local plants and animals, including a few live critters that are used for classes and demonstrations. Volunteers at the center are ready to recommend trails and natural areas in the park where visitors can hike, view wildlife and get a feel for the ecosystem of the South Platte.

“We try to cater to what people are interested in. If a family is really into bugs and wildlife, the forest areas are great for that. There are also easy, half-mile-loop trails that give you a flavor of everything in the park without having to walk forever,” Latona said.

During the summer, the park’s guided tours and educational programs for students, adults and families are among the biggest draws, Latona said.

On a weekday morning on the deck of the Carson Nature Center, a gaggle of elementary school students prepare to embark on a nature hike during the Kids Nature Clubhouse Summer Camp program. The group meanders away from the nature center into the tall grass to play games and learn about local flora and fauna.

The Kids Nature Clubhouse camp is one of the most popular summer camp programs and tends to fill up just after registration is posted in February, Latona said.

“I think the camps are so popular because it is an opportunity for parents to get their kids outside every day. They know that the kids are getting consistent exercise and getting outdoors throughout the week,” said Elise Mulder, one of six full-time park naturalists.

Mulder has been at South Platte Park for a year and leads several programs, including the Kids Nature Clubhouse. Other summer programs for kids include nature hikes, wildlife and insect education, pioneer history classes and a junior ranger program.

“The best part is seeing kids get really excited about the smallest things. They find things in the natural world that we didn’t even have to guide them to,” Mulder said.

Park programs for adults and families include monthly campfire chats, sunset canoe tours, survival skills classes, tours of the wildlife reserve areas and parent-child programs. During Littleton’s Western Welcome Week, the park hosts an event at which visitors can pan for gold in the river.

Latona, who started his career as a naturalist in the foothills, says South Platte Park is unique because although it is convenient for metro area residents to access, it still has the feel of open space that could be miles from anywhere.

“I had my doubts about working in an urban area, but I just fell in love with the place. It is unlike any other,” Latona said.

If you go …

The Carson Nature Center is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. South Platte Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. To learn more about the park’s recreational opportunities and educational programs, visit www.sspr.org/nature or call 303-730-1022.