The Sand Creek Regional Greenway is a 14-mile (22.5 km) urban trail with an odd personality. Following Sand Creek, the trail crosses suburban parks, bucolic natural settings, and urban wasteland near heavy industrial facilities and interstate highways.
In the winter of 2020, I walked the whole trail to see the state of the Greenway. I found lots of surprises and many noteworthy features along the banks of Sand Creek, but these things were not always surprising and noteworthy in good ways. So is this 14-mile (22.5 km) urban hike worth it? Keep reading to find out what the Sand Creek Greenway has to offer.
About the Sand Creek Regional Greenway
The trail passes through three cities in the northwest Denver metropolitan area following Sand Creek: Denver itself, Aurora, and Commerce City. It is not related to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in the southeastern part of Colorado near the town of Eads. It’s also distinct from six other waterways in Colorado named “Sand Creek.”
The non-profit Sand Creek Regional Greenway Partnership (SCRGP) takes care of Greenway, protecting, maintaining, and improving this trail corridor they’ve dubbed “Wilderness in the City.”
The Sand Creek area has an unfortunate history of industrial pollution of the air, water, and soil. Contamination likely began in the 1940s from pesticide and herbicide factories and oil refinery operations, to name a few. It was once considered for federal Superfund status but was removed from the list in 1996 following a decontamination effort.
Yet, there is still work to do in this regard. For example, as recently as 2020, PFAS “forever chemicals” were found in the creek water at high levels. In addition, chemical contamination of the air and creek from an adjacent oil refinery seems to happen semi-regularly.
Origin of the Trail
So why is there a trail here? Part of the planning for the construction of Denver International Airport (opened in 1996) included a vision for a network of connected parks, open space, and trails in the airport surrounding areas. This “Emerald Strands Plan” contained the possibility of a Greenway along Sand Creek to connect the High Line Canal Trail and the Platte River Trail.
In 1994, planners proposed an overall strategy for the trail and its environs. Besides developing the Greenway trail, these plans included enhancements to the natural environment, such as expanding wetlands and other habitats for wildlife and revitalizing the creek. With massive work and coordination from multiple local, city, state, county, regional, and federal groups and agencies, the project was completed in 2007, thirteen years later.
Since then, the SCRGP has continued its mission to protect and improve the trail. Even as of this writing, some new pavement is going in.
Urban Hiking on the Sand Creek Regional Greenway
Many options for short or long urban hikes can originate from the Sand Creek Greenway. The trail is easy to access with multiple trailheads and 14 miles (22.5 km) of trail passing through parks and residential neighborhoods. In addition, numerous intersections with other trails connect the Sand Creek Trail to the rest of the Denver Metro area. See the custom map below for more details. I originally planned to do the entire trail in two trips, walking seven miles (11.3 km) out and back on each visit. Unfortunately, icy trail conditions foiled this plan on the first try, so I ended up completing the trail in three parts.
The First Leg-A Rough Start and a Truncated Hike
On a cold winter day, I headed to the Aurora Sports Park to explore the Sand Creek Trail. The Park hours indicated an 8 AM opening, but the gates were closed as I approached. Rather than wait and hope, I drove to the next parking lot at the Triple Creek Trailhead. My hiking partner disliked the high visibility of parked cars from the road here, so we set off again and parked at the Morrison Nature Center at Star K Ranch.
Finally at a starting point, things were looking up as a few deer meandered through trees next to the parking lot. Once on the trail, we headed for the soccer fields.
One of the highlights of this trail section was an open area with large cottonwood trees in the distance. At least a dozen eagles flew between the trees and sat on the high branches during our walk.
As we reached the soccer fields in the Sports Park, we saw cars making U-turns at the still-locked entrance gate, just as we had done over an hour earlier!
The soccer fields were covered with snow and had cutouts of coyotes planted at intervals, likely to deter Canadian geese and possibly other “nuisance” animals. Apparently, “wilderness in the city” has limits.
The trail terminated shortly past the soccer fields, and as we turned around to head back, surprisingly good views of the Rocky Mountains greeted us. Our late start, along with ice and packed snow underfoot, made for slow going, so we abandoned the idea of covering half of the total distance on this visit. Instead, we ended the hike back at Star K Ranch after 6.7 miles (10.9 km) total.
The Second Leg-Star K Ranch to the Mural
The trail conditions had improved quite a bit on my second visit to the Sand Creek Greenway. Now familiar with the area, I drove straight to the Morrison Nature Center to continue northwest from there. Having close to 11 miles (17.7 km) of the trail to complete, I planned to cover roughly half of this distance, leaving the other half for my third visit. (That meant walking about 5.5 miles (8.85 km) out and back on this leg.)
In this direction, the path slowly moved out of the riparian woodland of Star K Ranch and into a more residential area. Next, the creek and path crossed under interstate 225, then into Sand Creek Park, an open space with a few of its own trails. When crossing over the creek near the Peoria Street underpass, I came across a sight that, to my mind, conveyed the Sand Creek Greenway in a nutshell: old tires in the water and on the creek bank. Nature marred deliberately or by carelessness is not a good look.
As the trail approaches the Central Park (formerly Stapleton) neighborhood, it passes the Bluff Lake Nature Center. The center’s modern new sign was welcoming. But, on a mission to complete this leg, I didn’t stop in.
A short distance later, my urban hike conveniently ended just past the Smith Road Trailhead at one of the trail’s best features–a concrete wall with a 275-foot (84 m) mural! This concrete wall once supported a runway crossing over Interstate 70 at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. The new mural by Colorado artist Yulia Avgustinovich includes depictions of plants and animals found along the Greenway. I spent more than a few minutes here admiring this impressive artwork.
After a few photos, I headed back to Star K Ranch. My total mileage for this leg of the trail was about 11.8 miles (19 km).
The Third Leg – Smith Road Trailhead to the End
On my third visit to the Sand Creek Greenway, I started from the Smith Road Trailhead and walked to the trail’s end at its intersection with the Platte River Greenway.
This trailhead had ample parking but no restrooms. It’s not difficult to get to since the access is just ahead of where Smith Road dead ends, but it doesn’t look inviting. Starting here, I walked past the mural that was the ending point of the previous hike toward the western end of the trail.
I’ll be honest and admit that these were my least favorite miles of the walk. On the plus side, the best features included mountain views and wide-open spaces, such as the Wetland Park area (which, disappointingly, had a locked restroom).
Some other aspects of the trail are more of an acquired taste—for example, a retaining wall bounds one part of the trail. Sand Creek Drive, effectively a frontage road for Interstate 270, is at the top of this wall. Here, it felt a little like walking on a ledge. There was also something uncomfortable about not seeing the cars passing above. Similarly, the trail passes under two interstate exchanges and a set of light rail tracks. These features may appeal to civil engineers but not so much to nature lovers.
Even more less-than-desirable views await past the Dahlia Street Trailhead. These included construction sites, possible homeless camps, trash piles, a storage area for highway structures, a sewage treatment plant, and an oil refinery, to name a few.
The End of the Trail
The trail ends at its intersection with the Platte River Trail. Although not aesthetically pleasing, I did stop here to think about the interconnectedness of the metro Denver trail system. From this point, I calculated that I could get to my house in southwest metro Denver taking only trails for a distance of about 29 miles (47 km).
With this thought experiment complete, I backtracked past the oil refinery, the trash piles, and the other trail highlights to my starting point at the Smith Road Trailhead. My total mileage for this final segment of the trail was 11.8 miles (19 km).
The 14 Mile “On Your Own” Challenge
To promote the use of the Greenway, the SCRGP instituted a challenge to walk, run or bike the entire length of the trail. To complete the challenge, provide SCRGP with information on activity dates, start and stop locations, and answers to trail-specific questions. More information is available here. When I completed this challenge, SCRGP sent me a commemorative sunflower patch.
Cautions on the Sand Creek Regional Greenway
I walked the entire Sand Creek Regional Greenway without incident. Still, it could have been a better experience if I had had complete trail information. Following are things I wish I’d known before heading out on this trail.
Be aware that the SCRGP website is not quite as informative and up-to-date as it could and should be. Try to double-check all reported construction, closures, addresses, and amenities.
The trail is reasonably easy to follow, but signs marking the Sand Creek Regional Greenway are infrequent. The course also lacks mile markers.
While my morning urban hikes were safe, I would recommend only taking this trail in daylight and going with a friend. Some parts of the trail were poorly trafficked, and certain commercial and industrial areas seemed somewhat sketchy. In addition, it would be difficult to exit the trail in the event of an emergency in many spots.
Furthermore, the restroom situation needs improvement: most restrooms are on the eastern parts of the trail.
- No restrooms at the following trailheads: Dahlia Street, York Street, and Smith Road.
- There is also a restroom at Wetland Park, but it wasn’t open on my visit, possibly because of flood damage.
- Bluff Lake Nature Center states that they have portable restrooms and handwashing stations, but I didn’t see these as I walked by.
- There are portable restrooms at the Star K Ranch parking lot.
- The Morrison Nature Center has restrooms, but check the hours of operation.
- The Triple Creek Trailhead has a restroom.
- Finally, the Aurora Sports Park has restroom facilities. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to leave the trail to find them, and there are no guarantees that they will be open in the off-season.
- Map out a route with distances in advance–use the custom map below as a starting point.
- Have a backup plan.
- Know the location of the next restroom and trailhead.
- Walk with a friend and/or let someone know of your urban hiking plans and estimated completion time.
- Be on alert for cyclists on the trail.
Sand Creek Regional Greenway Trail connections
The Sand Creek Regional Greenway trail connects to other trails that travel to the far reaches of the Denver metro area.
Star K Ranch Trails
Star K Ranch has a few miles of trails that intersect the Sand Creek Regional Trail.
High Line Canal Trail and Triple Creek Greenway
Toll Gate Creek Trail
In Sand Creek Park, the Sand Creek trail intersects the Toll Gate Creek Trail at its terminus.
Westerly Creek Greenway
The Westerly Creek Greenway intersects the Sand Creek Trail at the Smith Road Trailhead. This trail cuts through the Central Park (or old Stapleton) neighborhood. Don’t confuse it with the trail with a similar name in nearby Aurora.
Platte River Trail
Sand Creek is a tributary of the South Platte River, so it makes sense that the Sand Creek Trail terminates at its intersection with the Platte River Trail. The Platte River Trail is a 20-mile (32 km) long, paved path stretching from Denver’s northern suburbs to the south suburbs. At that point, the trail continues under the name Mary Carter Greenway for another 8 miles (12.9 km) before entering Chatfield State Park.
Custom Map of the Sand Creek Regional Greenway Trail
I created this map on AllTrails to summarize all of the access information to the Sand Creek Regional Greenway in this post.
Don’t see the map or want to see the original? Click here to go to the map page on AllTrails.
Other Trail Information
|Distance||14 miles (22.5 km) one way|
See the custom map below for trailhead addresses and information.
|Difficulty||Easy (total elevation gain, 138 feet, 42 m)|
|Trail Type||Point to Point|
|Trail Surface||Paved and natural surface|
|Besides Walking:||running, cycling|
|Links||Official SCRGP Trail Maps |
Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) Page
|Closest Cities||Denver, Aurora, Commerce City|
The Sand Creek Regional Greenway is an urban trail corridor years in the making. Following Sand Creek through riparian and wetland areas, the greenbelt’s residential, commercial, and industrial developments sometimes overshadow its natural features. Yet, the SCRGP is committed to constantly improving this “wilderness in the city.” My best walks on this trail surrounded the Star K Ranch, and the mural near the Smith Road trailhead is not to be missed.
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