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On the trail of holiday lights

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Botanic Gardens at Chatfield firing up massive display this week

By Emile Hallez

The bright, saturated hues of the holiday-themed Trail of Lights display at the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield are returning Dec. 4 through Jan. 3 for the second year.

Hanging on barns, an antique ranch house and a variety of trees will be more than 1 million small bulbs, which will be illuminated from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Among the features at the Chatfield Gardens are a children’s treehouse, a barn that is home to chickens and sheep, and a circa-1880s farmhouse.

“We’re trying to get kids back in touch with nature,” spokesman Will Jones said. “We give kids a chance to dig down in the dirt, play with wood, mess around in the water.”

The play area, dubbed Deer Creek Discovery, was decorated to resemble a massive candy cane last year.

“It looked like something from Dr. Seuss’ wonderland,” Jones said. “The kids can run around. They can play in the treehouse; they can explore all throughout the area.”

Concessions at the Trail of Lights will include seasonal beverages such as apple cider, hot chocolate and coffee.

Last year’s Trail of Lights was implemented in place of the usual Blossoms of Light holiday feature at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The downtown-area gardens were in the middle of massive remodeling project, and the annual lighting display was alternately held at Chatfield. Responses to the new feature were overwhelmingly positive, Jones said.

“After the first night … our CEO said, ‘Oh yeah. This is going to happen again next year and every year after that,’ ” he said.

About 350,000 of the display’s bulbs are LED lights, which use a paltry 10 percent of the energy consumed by a conventional bulb, said lighting designer Mark Payne.

The process of diagramming, planning and installing the display takes a year, said Payne, who has worked on the Blossoms of Light feature at the Denver Botanic Gardens for 11 years. Payne said planning has already started for next year’s installation.

“We placed the order for the lights in late February,” he said of this year’s exhibit. “Trail of Lights has taken five weeks (to install).”

Though hanging all the strands of lights is a painstaking endeavor, every tree is carefully planned out on paper months ahead of time.

“Everything is mapped out on paper. Every tree has a number,” Payne said.

Tags with specific instructions are then placed on each tree.

“I will say, though, that I don’t have a single strand of light at my own house,” he chuckled.

The cost of little bulbs alone was $20,000, about as much a well-equipped Honda Civic.

But based on the reactions Payne sees from visitors, all the effort seems well worth it.

“People are just amazed,” he said. “The pure size of these trees is just something else.”