In my six years of living in Colorado, I’ve learned some Colorado truths.
- Fall is only barely a season, and one in which you can’t hope to be properly dressed;
- Bluegrass is not dead;
- Blinkers are optional;
- Some people see the I-70 bison herd all the time while others almost never see it.
But here’s the thing I discovered just three years ago: You don’t have to rely on the whims of the I-70 herd. You can drive 20 minutes out to Commerce City and for an all-but-guaranteed bison sighting.
But first, let’s get this out of the way: The animals we’re talking about — the brown, very large, sort of fluffy creatures that roam North American — are bison, not buffalo. We all say buffalo and it’s really not hurting anyone except Actually Dudes and, maybe, biologists. Nonetheless, they are bison.
So, anyway, you can see bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. I’d never heard of the place until my last job at the Denver Post familiarized me with Commerce City, and I’ve found that a lot of Denverites don’t know about it either.
Here’s the deal. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is a 15,988-acre piece of land sandwiched in between Denver and Commerce City. (It’s not technically part of either.) If you’ve ever been to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, where the Colorado Rapids and Phish play, or the Commerce City Civic Center, you’ve been right there. You drive past both to enter the park.
When I say it only takes 20 minutes to get there, I’m not exaggerating. From where I sit now, writing this at 3:30 p.m. in the Golden Triangle neighborhood, it would take me exactly 20 minutes to get there, Google Maps tells me. Obviously, if you’re coming from further south or west, it would take longer, but you get the idea.
It would take me almost twice as long to get to Genessee, where the I-70 bison herd is occasionally in view. I say “occasionally” because I am one of those people who never sees the herd. Some people tell me they see it all the time, but in six years of frequent trips west on I-70, I’ve only seen it four times.
At Rocky Mountain Arsenal, you will see the bison. I’ve been out there five or six times now and I’ve seen them every time. Sometimes they’re off in the distance, but sometimes they’re really, really close. And because you’re allowed to drive through their enclosure, the closeness feels somewhat wild.
When I went with a friend in 2015, one walked right up to the car.
And, as a delightful bonus, it started rolling around in the dirt.
There are also trails you can walk around the park — outside the bison enclosure — and you can see them from at least one of those trails, too.
And the other trails are worth exploring. On those trails, I’ve gotten up close to deer, a variety of birds I can’t identify, a rather large snake and a ton of prairie dogs. You can fish off at least one of trails that wraps around and bridges a pond.
If guided fun is what you’re looking for, Rocky Mountain Arsenal has it. The refuge offers birding walks, guided tours, nature programs and educational programs — all of which you can learn more about here.
The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset daily and closed only for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and closed on federal holidays.
You can learn more about Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge at fws.gov/refuge/Rocky_Mountain_Arsenal or by calling the visitor center at 303-289-0930.