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How Jefferson County Open Space (Colorado) Tamed and Transformed an Off-Leash Dog Park

arrow Also see Something to bark about in Springfield, MO


New trail system brings success to Jefferson County's dog park

Jeff Golden and William Lebzelter, Jeffco Parks Communications Team

photo of people with dog

A new trail at Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area

The Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area (DOLA) is where fun is unleashed in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Denver. People and pooches, together but untethered, enjoy long hikes amid old-growth ponderosa pines on natural-surface trails, short jaunts on a crusher-fine loop with views of 14,264-foot Mount Evans, and the chance to romp and socialize in two fenced areas.

What’s become a 107-acre canine wonderland— one of the largest off-leash park in the nation— has humble roots. In the early 1990s, responding to citizens’ requests, JCOS set the property aside as an informal training area, separated from the rest of 1,657-acre Elk Meadow Park by a public road. A neighbor, concerned over the safety of off-leash dogs near a busy road, collaborated with a local fencing company to fund a 1-acre fenced area in 2001. The fenced area came to be known as “Bark Park.” JCOS expanded this to six acres in 2005.

Because dogs must be leashed in the rest of the Elk Meadow Park and throughout the JCOS system, the DOLA became an attractive option that rangers and volunteers could offer to leash law offenders. As word of the DOLA spread and interest in dog parks boomed, visitors from the foothills and Metro Denver area fanned out across the property in great numbers. Several issues emerged. Miles of unsustainable paths criss-crossed the park, creating heavy erosion, hazards, and confusion for visitors. Nearby landowners complained of trespassing, trash, and conflicts between dogs.

photo of man speaking with slilde show

Tom Hoby, Director of Jefferson County Parks and Open Space,
at a public meeting to present the dog park improvement concept


In 2011, JCOS committed to making substantial improvements. JCOS is supported by citizen tax dollars, and community input is essential to any major park development. Through a series of site visits and an open house, staff benefited from park visitors' insights and opinions. Trail and park management plans were developed to provide for safe and enjoyable experiences while protecting natural resources and respecting neighbors' privacy and property rights. A four-page newsletter with park plans was sent to all on a “Friends of the Dog Park” e-mail list, posted online and printed as a park hand-out.

At the outset, a park inventory documented 5 miles of informal, erosive paths with 11 stream crossings. To study user patterns, motion-sensitive wildlife cameras were installed along a path that closely paralleled private property lines and near the border of adjoining JCOS land with a wildlife conservation easement, where unleashed dogs are not allowed. The day after the path along private property was closed, wildlife returned to the area. Trails staff shared these results at an annual meeting of the Colorado Open Space Alliance.

In the eastern section of the park, a 0.8-mile crusher fine trail was designed to steer visitors away from private property and provide a gentle trail experience with astounding views. The trail meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards with grades of 5 percent or less.

photo of people working on trail

An accessible 0.8-mile crusher fines trail provides a gentle trail experience


Before construction began, a natural resources crew cut tress with dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant that plagues the Rockies, and thinned trees. Trails staff cut more trees in the corridor with chainsaws and a brush cutter, excavated the alignment with a SWECO traildozer, then began compacting nearly 700 tons of gravel. Rockwall construction was necessary at the first switchback to maintain ADA grade. Volunteers pitched in to groom the trail, which opened in 2011.

The bulk of trail construction and park rehabilitation took place in 2012. The trails crew winnowed 11 haphazard stream crossings to three safe, visually appealing crossings that meet stormwater regulations. The loop trail in the western section, popular with avid hikers, was realigned to extend more than 300 feet from the conservation easement, reducing wildlife encounters. The Trail Stewardship Team, which employs county youth to build and maintain trails and establish a stewardship ethic, contributed more than 2,000 hours of hard labor.

Trails staff were empowered to innovate as situations dictated. Trails Supervisor Kim Frederick freed Team Lead Brian Conty to apply his 13 years of trail experience and background as a corporate project manager.

photo of dog on wood stairs

The "Grand Staircase" solves an issue with topography


Seasonal staffers Lisa Sabella and Matt Woodhull were instrumental in trail alignment, while Trails Specialist Eric Fields and Seasonal Kaleb Anzick led the charge in excavating the final, “deep-woods” phase of construction. Where the grade reached 40 percent, Trails Specialists Chris Barker and Joel Miller directed construction of a pair of winding staircases, 22 and 79 steps each. Visitors have taken to getting their workout in by running up and down the longer staircase, built from 6 x 6 pressure-treated timbers. For visitors with more limited mobility and slower paces, Park Services built log benches and installed them throughout the park.

Many informal paths remained open until the additional 2.4 miles of designated, sustainable trails were completed and signed. When the new trails opened, visitor compliance and satisfaction were very high; erosion and instances of trespassing, drastically reduced.

Visitors are pleased with other improvements. A decommissioned well was retrofitted to provide drinking water for dogs at the trailhead. The fenced areas include innovative three-way gates for convenient leashing/unleashing entry and exit. The parking lot was expanded and resurfaced with crushed alsphalt donated by Lafarge North America, in a test case of the material. This permeable material has withstood all weather conditions. The entire park meets County Animal Control requirements for water, fencing and shade.

Public information is vital to good park conduct. The trailhead kiosk was expanded to two panels to include messages about stewardship, safety and responsible dog ownership, as well as a quick-response (QR) code to access the park map, a dog park YouTube video and more.

photo of young people working on the trail

Working on the trail system

The community has been engaged all along the way. Visitors contributed suggestions for the names of new paths, which came to be known as Waggin' Trail, Bone-anza and Stagecoach Hollow Loop, a tribute to the land’s past as an old stagecoach route.

Jefferson County Animal Control's "There Is No Poop Fairy" marketing campaign received national attention when it was featured on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Building on that momentum, Open Space asked visitors to craft a creative message that discouraged leaving bags of waste along the trail. Winners included "Trash the Poop, Not the Park" and “Nobody Likes Unfinished Business,” and have been displayed on kiosks system-wide and on the park website.

The volunteer effort at the DOLA uses an innovative approach. After completing special training, volunteer park patrollers are permitted to bring a dog with them. Volunteers and rangers hand out “Companion Animal Stewardship” gift certificates from a local pet store to owners displaying exemplary behavior.

Today the DOLA offers visitors 3.2 miles of sustainable trails, an upgraded 6-acre fenced "Bark Park” and all the amenities a visitor could desire—all completed 2 years ahead of schedule.

“The enhancements made to the Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area exemplify the strong relationship between Open Space, our staff and the community,” said Parks Services Supervisor Matthew Cox. “We listened to the concerns and worked together with the public to come up with solutions that satisfied all the vested parties, and now that the off-leash area is completed, the community support has been overwhelming.”

But don’t just take our word for it. On top of the positive comments that staff hears in the park and by e-mail, one visitor was moved to stop by the JCOS office with a hand-written note.

“I stopped by to personally thank you and all your crews for an outstanding job on the Elk Meadow Open Space dog park,” Eric Bakke wrote. “It's a thing of beauty. The two stair features are a piece of art. As frequenters to the park since the early '90's, we are thrilled to experience the park daily with our mutts.”


For more information:

Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area:

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