More Boardwalks Enticing Coloradans
Boardwalks extend trail access to natural areas for the entire spectrum of abilities.
By Jack Cox, Denver Post Staff Writer
Boardwalks are the soft ballads of the pedestrian's world, offering an airy counterpoint to the rough free verse of gravel trails and brittle formality of concrete sidewalks. Their wooden planks (or synthetic lookalikes) invite all who tread or roll upon them to pause and enjoy their measured eloquence, to peek between the cracks that separate them, to count the plunks that mark their presence underfoot.
The enticing promenades are relatively rare in Colorado, which lacks the sandy beaches and coastal marshes that call for off-the-ground construction in seaboard states. But thanks to the federal law requiring that public places be accessible to wheelchair users, plus rising interest in wetlands that can only be reached via elevated pathways, the linear platforms are springing up more often these days.
"Boardwalks are an excellent example of what is now being called universal design," said Carol Hunter, a professor of architectural design at the University of Colorado and director of a nonprofit research group called Partners for Access to the Woods (PAW). "They meet the needs of wheelchairs, but also accommodate baby carriages without any added features. I think that's why they're growing."
In towns of the Old West, boardwalks may have been as common as hitching posts. Today, they are found almost exclusively in parks and nature preserves.
"Trails are the way people see the back country and get out in nature. Boardwalks give people a chance to get out on foot in areas they wouldn't ordinarily get close to unless they had hip waders on," said Stuart Macdonald, trails coordinator for the Colorado state parks system, which boasts one of the best-known boardwalks: a 1,700-foot-long staging point for bird-watching at Barr Lake east of Brighton.
But boardwalks are loved for their form as well as their function. While dirt pathways may be mere routes of passage, the elongated decks can be seen as destinations in themselves-- places to linger, to loiter, to savor the simple textures of the outdoors.
As Denver resident Byron Chappelle put it during one of his daily strolls along a recently reconstructed boardwalk in Hutchinson Park, a quiet patch of greenery just northwest of the Tamarac Square shopping center, "You're kind of out in the country here, even though you can see buildings on both sides."
The walkway, made of 2-by-8 boards laid on stringers attached to posts in the ground, extends for several hundred feet along a creekbed south of Bible Park, past willows, cottonwoods, and Russian olives. "The thing that tickles me," Chappelle said, "is that the robins here are the bravest I've ever seen. They'll land on the boardwalk ahead of you and let you walk right up to them."
Ironically, old-fashioned wooden boardwalks aren't universally popular despite their rustic appeal. Many park officials regard them as high-cost, high-maintenance amenities, since they require far more labor and material to build than dirt or concrete trails, and rot easily if not built with pricey pressure-treated timbers.
In Lakewood, the Foothills Park and Recreation District recently replaced several hundred feet of wooden boardwalk with concrete at Kendrick Reservoir, a park north of W. Jewell Avenue between S. Garrison and S. Kipling streets. "Over the years," parks planner Colin Insley explained, "it created a maintenance problem. The boards warp or splinter and need to be replaced, and clearing snow in the winter, you would always pull up three or four."
Jefferson County used a plastic material called Superdeck in a floating boardwalk at Crown Hill, a park near West 32nd Ave. and Kipling in Wheat Ridge. "When we get a lot of hot weather," said trail planner Mark Hearon, "the surface gets a little spongy. But the good thing is it's cheaper and definitely more maintenance-free than wood."
The floating design lessened the impact of construction on the wetland "because we didn't have to go in with footings," but also gave park managers the option of moving the walkway in the future to adjust to natural changes in the habitat.
A similar synthetic product called Trex, a blend of sawdust and recycled plastic grocery bags, provided the decking for a 300-foot boardwalk on a trail that will link the Western Slope town of Ridgway with the nearby Ridgway State Park. "You see little kids, parents with strollers, grandmother, all kinds of people using it," said Chip Marlow, a BLM staffer who is coordinating the project for the nonprofit Uncompahgre Riverway Inc.
The longest boardwalk in Colorado is Wilderness on Wheels, a wheelchair mecca off U.S. 285 on the east side of Kenosha Pass, about 50 miles southwest of Denver. Open to able-bodied as well as physically challenged visitors, it follows a mile-long route that climbs gently up the mountainside.
But the most spectacular boardwalk is a 1,600-foot gem at the head of the Williams Fork Valley on the east side of Ute Pass, about 20 miles north of Silverthorne. Installed in 1989, it weaves in and out of lodgepole pines, aspen groves and beaver ponds, offering wheelchair-accessible fishing and wildlife watching.
The busiest boardwalk in the state is probably at Walden Ponds, a county-owned wildlife habitat northeast of Boulder. Erected in 1990 for roughly $45,000, the boardwalk meanders for 550 feet along the shore of a large cottonwood marsh, offering startlingly close glimpses of ibis, swallows and yellow-headed blackbirds.
"Basically, this project came out of necessity more than enhancement," said Michael Sanders, senior resource specialist for Boulder County Parks and Open Space. "We have a lot of local schools that use this as a nature lab. Buses would come up and let kids off and they would make their way right through the cattails, doing a lot of damage in the process. The boardwalk has not only kept the wetland from being destroyed, but turned out to be a wonderful educational tool as well."
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Updated March 17, 2007