Denver Beginner Running Guide: Wash Park, Cheesman Park, and City Park loops

cheesman park pavilion at sunset with beds of flowers in the foreground

Denver has no shortage of amazing running routes, mostly thanks to the ginormous parks around the city.

Washington Park (Wash Park to locals), Cheesman Park, and City Park are three of the most popular running destinations in Denver. Each has a crushed gravel path that’s great for running in addition to paved paths and loops of varying distance. All are beginner-friendly, but each have their own pros and cons. Keep scrolling to pick the one for you!

Cheesman Park

Location: Capitol Hill, between 13th and 8th (north/south) and Humboldt and Race (west/east).

Distance of Gravel Loop: 1.43 miles

Bathrooms: Port-o-potties in the southwest corner and by the pavilion (looks like the Lincoln Memorial) during winter; additional port-o-potties during the summer on the western side of the park along the paved path. Bring hand sanitizer!

Water: No public water fountains (that I’ve found).

If you want to run to Cheesman, you’ll be running uphill there and downhill on the way back no matter what direction you’re coming from. If you’re starting your run at the park, the east side is the high point (the side next to the Botanic Garden with the by the Lincoln Memorial-looking pavilion).

It’s also uphill in both directions around the park. I recommend running counter-clockwise (when you’re looking at the park on a map) because it’s slightly easier. In my experience, running clockwise felt like a longer, steeper uphill (and running counter-clockwise lets you cruise down that instead).

You’re treated to mountain views at the high point in the park as well as views into the Botanic Garden. This is especially cool during the holiday season when they have the Blossoms of Light displays lit up after sunset. You get to run through a grove of massive pine trees, which my husband and I love so much we chose it for our wedding and maternity photos (two separate occasions, to clarify how much we like it).

Cheesman Park’s biggest perk is that it has no bodies of water. Hear me out, I know how pretty lakes are. But lakes bring geese. And geese bring poop. Plus I’m kind of scared of them. At Cheesman, there’s no poop and no birds. It’s great.

Cheesman is also very easy to find your way around if you take the gravel exterior loop (1.4 miles). There is only one way to go if you follow the gravel. The interior paved loops can be a little more confusing, but overall the park is small enough (the smallest of the three in this post) that you can easily figure out where you’re headed.

Occasionally, the city closes the park to car traffic, but don’t bank on being able to run on the road at Cheesman. The park has a lot of cars cutting through it as well as a bus route. Stick to the sidewalks and gravel path to be safe.

If you’re training for longer distances, combining Cheesman and City Parks will get you to 6.2 miles (a 10k). Combining Cheesman and Wash Park gets you to 8 miles. Distance assumes one lap around Cheesman at the beginning of the run.

City Park

Location: City Park is also the name of a neighborhood. The park itself is located between 17th and 23rd (north/south) and York and Colorado (west/east).

Distance of Gravel Loop: 3.1 miles

Bathrooms: Actual bathrooms at the pavilion in the middle of the park (may or may not be open year-round).

Water: Also found at the pavilion.

City Park’s Mile High Loop is a nice even 5k on a crushed gravel path. However, following the gravel path to get to that even 5k has been incredibly challenging for me. Even after years of running in the park, I still find myself on the wrong loop (there are tons of interior looping paths). Do your best to follow the very short concrete markers that say Mile High Loop.

For reference, I took this photo squatting on the ground.

It’s especially tricky to stay on course by the Museum of Nature and Science. Turn left off the sidewalk onto the gravel path before you reach the entrance of the museum. You should be running along the south side of the museum and end up at the back of it. You should also be running along the backside of the zoo, not the front.

The north side of the park is higher than the south side. I’ve run around the park in both directions and don’t find one more difficult then the other, but running north along either Colorado Boulevard or York Street will be uphill. The downside of City Park is having to run along those two segments since both roads have a ton of traffic. You can always make your own loop to avoid these once you’re more familiar with the park!

Parts of the interior road around the park allow cars. The road around the lake does not, but everywhere else is open to cars and there is a far amount of traffic cutting through the park. I stick to the gravel path for this reason.

In the summertime, be mindful of City Park Jazz (Sunday nights June-August). The park is completely packed, so make sure you’re out of there well before 6 pm on summer Sundays. If you’re looking for a post-run pick-me-up in the morning or afternoon, stop at Cafe Miriam just across from City Park’s entrance on York Street.

If you’re training for longer distances, combining Cheesman and City Parks will get you to 6.2 miles (a 10k). Distance assumes one lap around Cheesman at the beginning of the run.

Washington (Wash) Park

Location: Wash Park is also the name of a neighborhood. The park itself is located between Virginia and Louisiana (north/south) and Downing and Franklin (west/east).

Distance of Gravel Loop: 2.5 miles

Bathrooms: There’s a port-o-potty by the north entrance to the park outside of the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado office. There’s also a port-o-potty between the boathouse and rec center that are in the middle of the park. If you have a Denver rec center membership, you can use the bathrooms at the Wash Park rec center.

Water: I’ve never stumbled upon public water fountains, but you should be able to find some at the rec center.

For some reason, Wash Park’s loop feels like the biggest to me even though it’s not. Like City Park, you get amazing mountain views on the east side of the park. Unlike City Park, the gravel loop is easy to follow and just goes around the perimeter of the park.

Wash Park also has the largest non-vehicle road, which can come in clutch in the winter time. You do have to share with bikes, rollerbladers, etc, but the loop is only .25 miles shorter and won’t be muddy. There is one short segment of the road by the rec center that does allow cars (so people can get to the rec center) but otherwise it’s really nice to have a totally car-free loop!

Wash Park does seem to attract the masses more than the other two. Cheesman and City Park certainly get busy, but for some reason I’ve always seen the most people at Wash Park on the weekends. There’s also seemingly always a 5k happening there, so be prepared to run into that on Saturday mornings year-round.

I’ve only run counter-clockwise around the park, and the entire loop is pretty flat. There’s a very slight incline on the southern end if you’re traveling east, but overall this park doesn’t have any big hills like Cheesman or sustained uphill like City Park.

If you’re training for longer distances, combining Cheesman and Wash Park gets you to 8 miles. Distance assumes one lap around Cheesman at the beginning of the run.

The bottom line

Cheesman is the hilliest, Wash Park is the busiest, and City Park is the biggest (and hardest to find your way around). All three are part of every Denverite’s running routes for good reason! Enjoy your run, and as always, let me know in the comments if I missed anything.

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