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Formation of Bluff Lake

The Bluff Lake area supports native short-grass prairie bluffs surrounding a 9-acre lake adjacent to a stream corridor. Time and geologic processes formed the bluffs long ago when streams flowed from the mountains towards the plains and deposited layers of soil. Prior to pioneer settlement of the area, Native Americans lived on the plains, hunting bison and deer on the bluffs. They depended upon the land for survival and the resources the Bluff Lake area provided sustained them for many years.

Sand Creek Lateral

The history of development at Bluff Lake can be drawn from an 1899 Willits farm map which shows an outline of Bluff Lake on property owned by the Cyrus G. Richardson Estate. In this map, the lake is fed by the combined flows of West Toll Gate Creek and Coal Creek. Today these tributaries make up the Sand Creek flow as it passes by Bluff Lake Nature Center.

Carl Vincent McFadden describes in his book, Early Aurora, that by 1891, Aurora (or Fletcher as it was known in its earlier years) was cut by irrigation laterals (canals) which would make a garden spot out of the “gateway to the Rockies.” The Sand Creek lateral, an extension of the High Line Canal, fed Guthiel Park Nurseries (the current location of Fitzsimons) before going into Bluff Lake. Cyrus Richardson was a well-known lawyer, rancher and educator, originally from Maine, who owned 7,500 acres along its course. Richardson might be called the “Father of Bluff Lake.”

Richardson’s obituary described him as the owner of the Richardson and Greenwood farms. He operated the Greenwood ranch where he constructed eight reservoirs along the High Line Canal. His influence continues today because the name “Greenwood Ranch” was the inspiration for the name “Greenwood Village.”

Following her husband’s death, Mrs. Richardson managed the property with Cyrus’s nephew, Albert Packard. The greater part of her land was “under ditch, a most excellent irrigation system keeping it in fine condition.”

Stapleton Airport

Plans for building an airport at the Stapleton site began as early as 1929. The 123-acre Bluff Lake area was purchased by the Aviation Department from the Clayton Institute (which was transporting the water from Bluff Lake to Clayton College through a piping system) in the 1940’s and became part of the airport. The land became a “crash zone,” required at the end of all runways to shield the surrounding community from airplane activities. For the next fifty years, Bluff Lake remained undisturbed, surrounded by barbed wire fence and virtually ignored by Stapleton. During those fifty years, wildlife such as deer, red foxes, badgers, snakes, turtles, coyotes, owls, hawks, rabbits and a variety of waterfowl found their homes at Bluff Lake.

A New Era

After Stapleton Airport closed in 1994, Bluff Lake Natural Area was established and protected under the terms of a settlement agreement between the City and County of Denver and the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club’s successful lawsuit against Denver’s Department of Aviation was due to the inadequate retention ponds for ethanol glycol (the de-icing chemical for airplanes). During heavy rains, ethanol glycol would spill into Sand Creek and dramatically lower the dissolved oxygen levels, leading to fish kills. As part of the settlement, Denver agreed to preserve the Bluff Lake area and invest over three million dollars to enhance wildlife habitat, restore the banks of Sand Creek, build an interpretive trail system and construct open-air shelters.

The Bluff Lake area is the cornerstone of the Sand Creek Regional Greenway trail corridor along Sand Creek. The trail, which runs adjacent to Bluff Lake, will connect the Highline Canal in Aurora with the South Platte River in Denver.

Friends of Bluff Lake

While the Sierra Club legal settlement provided the Bluff Lake area with dollars for physical improvements, it lacked provisions for the development of environmental education and public programming. To fill this void, a number of citizens and representatives from various agencies and organizations, including the Denver and Aurora Public Schools, Colorado Division of Wildlife, USDA Forest Service, USDI Bureau of Reclamation, Stapleton Development Corporation and Denver Parks and Recreation, joined together to create Friends of Sand Creek in 1994. Kent Messer became the organization’s first Executive Director in 1994 and served in that capacity for three years. As the organization focused on developing educational programs for the Bluff Lake area, it changed its name to the “Friends of Bluff Lake.”

Immediately after its creation, Friends of Bluff Lake worked in partnership with many agencies to develop quality environmental education and to ensure the ongoing stewardship of Bluff Lake. The first education programs were offered on the site in 1995, with the aid of a team of enthusiastic young AmeriCorps NCCC members. One obstacle to getting educational programs started was an operational open-air firing range at the neighboring prison facility. Stray bullets were often found at Bluff Lake. After much negotiation, the firing range was closed one day before the educational programs began. The current bluff where the parking lot now sits was being redeveloped, and visitors would enter through maintenance gates on the east side of the property.

The year 2000 brought many changes. In January of 2000, Friends of Bluff Lake entered into a management contract with the Denver’s Department of Aviation (still the land owner) and now had full management authority of Bluff Lake Natural Area. The contract included all site maintenance, natural resource management, security and interpretation. In May of 2000, Friends of Bluff Lake changed its name to Bluff Lake Nature Center.

Visitor amenities include a paved parking lot, restrooms, a trellised overlook with benches, interpretive signage, handicapped accessible trails, a xeriscape garden and an interpretive amphitheater. In addition, the eastern bluffs have undergone extensive restoration after serving as a dumping area for excess airport concrete.

BLNC Today

The history is obviously rich, but 2008 brought one of the most significant developments: Denver’s Department of Aviation transferred ownership of the property to Bluff Lake Nature Center. This means that BLNC will be able to continue stewardship of and education at the site for generations to come.

Partnerships continue to drive the work at Bluff Lake Nature Center. Science education programs improve academics with more than 4,000 schoolchildren from Denver, Aurora, and Adams County Public Schools visiting Bluff Lake annually. A partnership with the Denver Botanic Gardens has driven restoration efforts through the property.

As the Stapleton Redevelopment continues to approach Bluff Lake’s boundaries, visitor numbers are rising steadily. Bluff Lake now offers a variety of new programming, ranging from summer programs such as our Fireside Chats and Junior Naturalist camps; Science Speakers; and corporate team-building work days providing service-learning projects that help us restore our land. Special events, such as our “Boo on the Bluff,” “Brews and Blues on the Bluff,” and Earth Day events, as well as our yearly “Wine and Cheese on the Bluff” event, are drawing more visitors to our site. We continue to emphasize our role as a community amenity in the context of our work as an environmental education center and wildlife refuge.

Between 2013 and 2015, Bluff Lake Nature Center raised more than $3 million in cash and in-kind grants and gifts to give Bluff Lake its first infrastructural restructuring in more than 130 years. A new 1,100-foot slurry wall was built behind the dam on the north side of the lake to slow leakage, and the lake bottom was recontoured and compacted to provide additional habitat and to slow leakage as well. As of early 2017, we are working to complete a tap into Denver Water’s local recycled water line to supplement storm-water flows into the lake.