Downtown Aspen and its messy vitality get a lot of press. There’s no shortage of places to eat and drink, no limit to the amount of money a person can spend on expensive clothes, jewelry and artwork.
Venture a short walk away from the city’s core, if you can, to discover a real treasure: the expanded John Denver Sanctuary, which features a man-made wetlands area that serves as a stormwater filtration system. Those who are unfamiliar with the spot will find it by walking north of the Pitkin County Courthouse and past the Rio Grande Park playing field. It also lies next to the Theatre Aspen tent.
What will you find there? For starters, there’s an abundance of wildlife: birds, butterflies, small insects, maybe a chipmunk or two. Three separate streams take the city’s stormwater and snowmelt through a natural filtration process of sand, soil, rock and vegetation and deposit cleaner water into the Roaring Fork River.
There are new walking paths that allow people to see the process up close. Picnic tables placed strategically throughout the area offer a peaceful place to lunch or snack. Boulders along the way feature engravings of various quotes about water and nature from learned men and women, designed to spark thought and reflection. There’s also a small beach where kids can play in the water (and hunt for bugs) and a few bridges and overlooks where adults and kids alike can take a big-picture view of the scenery.
The wetlands area — historically a dumping ground for local industry and, more recently, snow — is separated by a small berm from the John Denver Song Garden, where lyrics from some of Denver’s best-known songs are prominently etched into small boulders. In fact, the entire area, the wetlands and the song garden, pay tribute to the late singer’s environmental legacy.
The eastern side of the new wetlands area is finished, and the western side is still under construction. Volunteers will be asked to help plant vegetation in the newest area next month. Project planning got underway about a decade ago, and the actual work began in 2011. If all goes well, everything will be finished later this summer.
The estimated $2.5 million price not only includes the wetlands work but also the new state-of-the-art, environmentally conscious bathroom facility near the park; the pump station that garners gray water to irrigate the Rio Grande playing field; the underground vaults that filter solid materials from the stormwater and move it into the wetlands area; utility-line relocations and replacements; and other costs.
Give credit where it is due: the city of Aspen’s leadership for having the vision and spending the money to bring the project to fruition; the city of Aspen’s Parks and Engineering departments for seeing the job through; the city workers and contractors who combined forces to make it happen; and the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund, Theatre Aspen and the John Denver Aspenglow Fund for partnering with the city for financial support.
The expanded John Denver Sanctuary: It’s a cool place that serves a real purpose.