Chatfield State Park’s 33 miles (53 km) of trails, many of them paved, allow for hours of hiking exploration. Located in Littleton, Colorado, Chatfield State Park has welcomed outdoor enthusiasts since 1975. The park’s managing organization, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) calls it a “full-service outdoor recreation area.” The 2-mile (3.2-km) long park reservoir and its associated water activities may dominate in the summer, but hiking in this Colorado State Park is a year-round activity.
About Chatfield State Park
Chatfield State Park is in the far southwest corner of the Denver metro area, straddling Jefferson and Douglas counties at the edge of the foothills. The park was designed around the flood control dam near the park’s northern border. When settlement in the area began in the late 1850s and continued to grow, so did the problems arising from periodic floods of the South Platte River. After a particularly catastrophic flood in 1965, something had to be done, and construction of the Chatfield dam started in 1967. Developing over 5,000 acres (2,023 ha) for recreational purposes began in 1973, and the dam construction finished in 1975. The Army Corps of Engineers built the dam and resulting reservoir and remains the owner today. The land is leased to CPW for the management of recreation.
The park is named for Isaac W. Chatfield. Chatfield bought land, some of which is now within the park, for farming and ranching in 1871. This Civil War veteran and his siblings were early settlers of Littleton, business owners, and politicians.
The Chatfield Storage Reallocation Project
When the population grows, so do water needs. The Chatfield Storage Reallocation Project, completed in 2020, increased the water storage capability of the reservoir.
As a result of this project, the water level in the lake rose by an astounding 12 feet (3.7 m). The surface area of the lake is now 4,822 acres (1,951 ha). All this additional water changed the lake shoreline, so many day-use areas in the park were also moved and improved.
As part of the park remodel, some existing trails were relocated or repaved, so a lot of the pavement is new and smooth. If you visit or hike in Chatfield State Park, make sure you’re using updated maps.
Choosing a hiking trail in Chatfield State Park
With almost 33 miles (53.1 km) of trails, it’s easy to get some miles (or kilometers) in at Chatfield State Park. A search for trails on AllTrails contains several suggested routes, but be aware that many of these include trails outside the park.
The park trail map reports 17 trails, all rated as “easy.” The longest of these are the Chatfield Internal Trail at 10 miles (16.1 km) and the Chatfield Dam Trail at 2.4 miles (3.9 km). I disagree with the “easy” designation in some cases. For example, I don’t think most people would say that climbing to the top of a dam is easy.
All trails are open to hikers and nearly all open to cyclists. In the western part of the park, near the horse stables, about 6.2 miles (7.2 km) of trails, including the Equestrian Loop, allow horses. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing are also allowed if snowfall permits.
Many trails are marked as “wheelchair friendly,” but I would encourage investigating these trails on foot before bringing a guest in a wheelchair.
Hiking for Bird Watchers
Bird watchers will enjoy the far southwest part of the park and the 8.6-acre (3.4-ha) Denver Audubon Nature Center. This uncrowded area hosts hundreds of bird species, some permanent, some migratory. A network of short trails covers this riparian habitat. Although there is a fee to enter Colorado State Parks, there is no fee to park or hike around the Denver Audubon Nature Center.
Here’s an example of a stroll around the Nature Center. I kept it slow because I was constantly looking for birds. Without too much effort, I identified herons, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, spotted towhees, western meadowlarks, tree swallows, and some warblers.
Hiking with Pets
Dogs on leash are allowed in the park and on all park trails. Like Cherry Creek State Park, Chatfield has a fenced-in dog off-leash area. This 69-acre (28-ha) open space includes two ponds and about 2 miles (3.2 km) of trails for dog exercise. Review the trail layout of the dog off-leash area on this AllTrails map.
Note that an extra fee applies to use the dog off-leash area.
The Reservoir Loop
I was able to hike all the way around the reservoir on a late spring morning. To accomplish this, I used the Chatfield Internal Trail and the Chatfield Dam Trail. Only a short stretch on the park road separates these two trails.
Since it’s a loop, any of the multiple parking lots and day-use areas with picnic tables located around the lake’s perimeter can serve as a starting point.
I started at the Plum Creek day-use area near the marina in the southeast part of the park. Plum Creek is one of the locations that was relocated and upgraded during the Chatfield Reallocation Project improvements. It’s close to the reservoir, features several picnic tables, and has a restroom at the edge of the parking lot. See the route map below.
The Chatfield Internal Trail is just steps from the Plum Creek parking lot. I chose to walk in a counterclockwise direction, moving southeasterly and then turning toward the east. Of course, going in the clockwise direction is also an option. While there are no trees and no shade at the Plum Creek parking lot, the trail soon moves into an area with cottonwood stands and other native trees.
Moving to the Dam Trail
After crossing over Plum Creek, one of the waterways feeding to the reservoir, the trail intersects the Chatfield Dam Trail close to the park boundary. At this point, wanting to go around the reservoir, I turned toward the north. The Dam Trail is unpaved and, as the name suggests, climbs to the top of Chatfield Dam along a northwesterly line. (This contrasts with the Dam Trail at Cherry Creek State Park, which follows that dam’s base). Plan on being on this trail for a while, as the Chatfield Dam is approximately 13,136 feet long (2.5 miles, 4 km). The highest point is 147 feet (44 m) above the streambed, so good views from the trail are given.
As the elevation rises, views in all directions start to develop. The High Line Canal Trail is just on the other side of freight train tracks to the east.
To the west, the park and reservoir come into view. To the north, observe the outline of the dam and its intake structure.
The path on top of the dam is flat but slightly rough. With no roads or park services nearby, there are few people and a lot of quiet (unless a freight train comes by).
The Dam Trail eventually turns to the west and slightly north, passing next to the dam’s intake structure. This 157-foot (48-m) tall tower connects to the top of the dam via a bridge. Its hydraulically operated slide gates control water flow from the reservoir to an outlet structure under the dam. I never tire of observing the results of these engineering feats up close.
The Chatfield Dam Trail terminates at a parking lot near the end of the dam. Here, it’s worth spending a few minutes on the overlook to take in the park and lake from a different perspective.
Back to the Chatfield Internal Trail
At this point, it’s necessary to walk downhill on Perimeter Rd for approximately 800 feet (240 m) to get back to the Chatfield Internal Trail. This situation is potentially dangerous, so stay sharp and aware. Cars, bicycles, and other pedestrians will also be on the road.
I have to wonder why there is no safer connection between the trails, given the recent renovations. At least it only takes a few minutes to go between the two. Note that the Chatfield Internal Trail picks up on the side of the road opposite the Dam Trail and is easily found by looking for the crosswalk. The rest of the loop hike is on this paved trail. See the route map below.
At this point, the trail is heading downhill somewhat steeply since it’s moving off of the dam. The bottom of this hill is a busy area of the park because it’s close to the park entrance and swim beach. Just past the hot air balloon launch site (look for the windsock), the trail crosses Perimeter Rd again.
Moving around Chatfield Reservoir
Now on the west side of Chatfield Reservoir, the trail continues, heading southwesterly. At the south end of the reservoir, it turns to the east. After crossing the S. Platte River, the course begins to climb again as it meanders near the shoreline. There are a few interesting sights on this segment.
First, wildlife viewing platforms provide good views of the reservoir and an opportunity to look for the great blue herons that nest in this area. One platform is covered and just next to the trail. A short walk down to the reservoir gets to the second viewing area.
Next, take a minute to walk around the Slocum Cabin. It won’t take long, as it’s only 10 feet by 12 feet (3 m x 3.6 m). Reputedly the oldest building in Colorado, it is named for Thomas Truxton Slocum, who moved into the cabin with his family in 1859, nine years after its construction. It has been repaired with modern materials and moved here from its original location. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing and thought-provoking structure.
After passing the cabin, the trail passes between the lake and the park’s campground area, followed by the marina. At this point, the Plum Creek parking lot is in view, and it’s a short distance to finish the loop.
The total distance for this long loop hike was 11.3 miles (18.2 km). I rate this hike as moderate because of the length and the climbs and descents on the dam. The total elevation gain was 334 feet (102 m).
Map of the Chatfield Reservoir Loop Hike
I saved my route on AllTrails:
Don’t see the map or want to see the original? Click here to go to the map page on AllTrails.
There are many ways to get into or out of the park on foot or by bike. It’s worth noting that there is no fee to enter the park without a vehicle.
- The Chatfield Trailmark Trail leads into the park at a traffic light on S Wadsworth Blvd, south of the main park entrance. This access is convenient to Two Brands Trail in Hildebrand Ranch Park, the open space that surrounds the Trailmark neighborhood.
- Near the park’s northern border, the C-470 Trail, also known as the Centennial Trail, runs beside the highway of the same name. Only a short portion of this 36-mile (58 km) long trail is within the park.
- The C-470 Trail in the park also connects to the Columbine Trail via a tunnel under the highway.
- Another tunnel under the highway connects the C-470 Trail in the park to the Mary Carter Greenway. The Mary Carter Greenway (also known as the South Platte River Trail) follows the South Platte River to downtown Denver and beyond.
- The Waterton Link and Wetlands Connector Trails feed into the Denver Audubon Nature Center in the southern part of the park. From here, an unnamed trail leaves the park and passes next to the parking area for access to the Waterton Canyon Trail. This 6.2 mile (10 km) trail is a wide gravel road following the South Platte River. Waterton Canyon is also the start of the Colorado Trail, a 567-mile (912-km) trail that terminates in Durango in southwestern Colorado.
- One final trail worth mentioning is the High Line Canal Trail, Denver’s unique 71-mile (114-km) long “linear park.” The AllTrails maps show a connection between the Chatfield Dam Trail and the High Line Canal Trail, but I don’t think this is legitimate. Plus, you’d have to walk over train tracks to get to it.
Older maps show an unnamed trail exiting the far south part of the park to get on the High Line Canal Trail near the South Platte Reservoir. Newer maps do not show this connection, so I can’t recommend trying this route either.
On the other hand, there is a trailhead for the High Line Canal Trail with parking and restrooms right outside the park’s south entrance on Roxborough Park Rd. Go there!
More about Chatfield State Park
Other things to do
Almost all activities in Chatfield State Park revolve around the reservoir. Options include motorized boating, sailing, fishing, jet-skiing, and other water sports.
In the summer, the Swimbeach is open for swimming.
Chatfield is the only state park with a hot air balloon launch site. It’s located on the west side of the park, visible after passing the main entrance gate. Multiple vendors provide balloon rides. To only watch the balloons launch, fly, and land, arrive at the park extra early.
One other uncommon feature of the park a model airplane field, complete with runways!
Food and Drink in Chatfield State Park
Seagull’s Restaurant is a sit-down restaurant at the Chatfield Marina, open during boating season. The Marina Store may also carry food items. Check the website for operating hours and more information.
Multiple day-use areas throughout the park have picnic tables for the bring-your-own crowd.
Chatfield State Park Accommodations
Chatfield State Park has almost 200 campsites. A limited number are open year-round for camping in all seasons. The Camper’s Services Office building contains a retail shop, and showers and laundry facilities are available. The Chatfield Internal Trail loops around the campground, making it easy for campers to get a hike in. On my spring hike around the reservoir, the campgrounds seemed busy.
The majority of the campsites have full hookups, but there are 51 wth electrical only. Additionally, there are 10 group camping areas, and 12 sites are handicap accessible.
Colorado State Park camping must be reserved online in advance at the CPW shop. Check the reservations page for fees specific to this park and site type.
Chatfield State Park Fees
Daily Vehicle Pass: $11
Annual Affixed Pass (for one vehicle): $83
Family Annual Pass (one address, any vehicle): $123
Dog Off-Leash Area Passes
Daily Pass: $3
Annual Pass: $25
For more information on these passes, multiple vehicles passes, or other specialty passes available (such as 64+, disabled, veteran, or military), see the CPW Park Pass page.
Getting to Chatfield State Park
The park’s Maps and Directions page warns against searching for “Chatfield State Park” in map apps as the directions will be wrong.
The main park entrance is a 30-minute drive from downtown Denver and about 45 minutes from Denver International Airport.
The Chatfield State Park entrance is one mile (1.6 km) south of State Highway 470 (C-470) on S Wadsworth Blvd. Use the approximate address of 9700 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Littleton, 80128 for navigation and look for a brown sign pointing the way just before a traffic light. Don’t be faked out by the light at Deer Creek Canyon Rd just south of C-470–this is not a park entrance.
The south park entrance is close to S Santa Fe Dr. and Titan Rd. To get here, use 11500 N. Roxborough Park Rd., Littleton, CO, 80125 as the address.
Audubon Nature Center
The Nature Center address is 11280 Waterton Rd., Littleton, CO 80125.
The Colorado State Parks Passport
The Colorado State Parks Passport is a fun way to keep track of visits to Colorado State Parks. I picked up my Passport book here, as this is the state park closest to my home base and one which I visit often. Each State Park uses a unique stamp to record a stop. The symbol for Chatfield State Park is a cyclist.
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What trail will you take in Chatfield State Park? Leave a comment below!