According to local advice, I’m desperately under-gunned for the four-hour walking tour I’m about to embark on. Starting at the Union Station flagpole in Lower Downtown, I’ll make my way in sunglasses, but devoid of the requisite lip balm, to Coors Field, Denver’s ballpark that’s hunkered down over 300,000 square metres like a low-slung, red-brick slater.
From there, I’ll shuffle along Blake Street in blazing 82 degree heat – with neither a hat nor sunblock – to ‘RiNo’, Denver’s trendy arts district. Just as I start to falter in Denver’s signature thin, dry air, I’ll follow my tour group into one of RiNo’s many top-rate breweries to slug down some craft beer, blatantly ignoring the cardinal rule to consume plenty of water and go light on the booze.
It’s true. The city of Denver, Colorado, is a place with a climate that can quickly get one over you if you’re not prepared. In winter, without vigilance, you risk getting buried alive under random dumps of snow. And, if not snow, the black ice will surely get you, turning your car into the equivalent of a hockey puck as you make your way to work in the morning.
In spring, however, the season I’m in Denver, there’s an entirely different set of warnings to consider. My guide, Kaitlin, of Intrepid Urban Adventure Tours, lets me in on a few of them as she steps out onto Wynkoop Street to get our walking tour under way.
“Here, in Denver,” she explains, sunglasses on; sunviser in place; water bottle in hand, “we’re a mile above sea level. We’re a high altitude city. That means it’s harder to breathe when you exercise, you’ll need to drink about twice as much water as you normally would and you might want to monitor how much alcohol you drink. Some people say they feel the effects of alcohol more acutely in Denver – never mind the Denver sun, which burns you in no time.”
As a Kiwi who sizzles under a gaping ozone hole year-on-year, the irony of being woefully underprepared for this dangerously sunny day is not lost on me. But I adapt. So, trailing behind Kaitlin – as she zig-zags between downtown Denver’s industrial buildings – I plan to slip into the city’s dark shadows every chance I get.
Of course, there’s very little chance of shade as we cross the busy intersection of Broadway and stop outside an empty car lot on Larimer Street to take in the stunning black and white mural before us.
And, with my pumice-dry eyes, I can’t quite make out which animal species Los Angeles artist Woes Martin has painted on the building that doubles as a giant outdoor canvas. But Kaitlin reassures us the swirl of teeth and claws (painted in 2016 as part of Denver’s annual CRUSH WALLS street art festival) belongs to at least one, maybe two, rabid panda.
And, anyway, she says, it’s sure proof we’ve crossed the border into Denver’s River North Arts District (RiNo’s full name) – the main focus of today’s tour.
Ushering us into a sliver of shade, Kaitlin tells us Denver’s arts district sprang to life about a decade ago when a group of artists decided the gritty, abandoned neighbourhood was the ideal place to down sticks and start creating. Today, she says, it’s home to an eclectic community of businesses, art galleries, collaborative working spaces, design agencies, fashion retailers, bookstores, as well as food halls, bars and brewpubs.
“Looking around you’ll see RiNo even has its own logo – a stylised rhinoceros – used to mark cycleways, provide directions and generally create a sense of unity about the place. But what RiNo is best known for is its ever-changing street art,” she says, pointing to another large-scale work on the Volunteers of America building. This one, it turns out, was also painted in 2016 during CRUSH WALLS. Though this time the artist is Denver local Michael Ortiz.
As we head indoors to Portside, a coffee shop on the corner of Larimer and 25th Street for a pulled pork sandwich, Kaitlin tells us RiNo is booming. Buildings are going up everywhere. Walking tours like this one are on the rise. More and more businesses are moving into the trendy precinct.
This year’s CRUSH WALLS festival – the city’s eighth – is promising to be its biggest yet, she says, with more than 100 local and international artists due to descend on the 10-block neighbourhood with their spray cans and paint brushes. According to city figures, it’s arts initiatives like Denver’s annual festival that helped generate $1.8 billion in economic activity in 2016 and create more than 10,000 jobs.
“I’ve only been here three years – I’m from Minnesota originally,” says Kaitlin two hours into our tour. “But I think it’s an awesome place to live. I love it here,” she says, leading us through yet more laneways of street art and, finally, into the comforting darkness of the First Draft Taproom and Kitchen on 26th Street.
I grab a half glass of Russian River Brewing’s golden ale from a tap mounted on the wall and join Kaitlin and my tour group at a long bench table to continue the conversation.
“You can see for yourselves Denver is super vibrant,” she says. “But then it’s a city within this wild, high-altitude landscape, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. To me, you get the best of both worlds – all the things you want from a hip, creative city, as well as a climate and location that offers you all the best – and worst – of mother nature. It’s the best place. But, in Denver, it always pays to be prepared for any kind of weather.”
When to go: Denver is great in all seasons, but go this month to make the most of early fall and to see Denver’s annual street art festival first-hand. This year’s CRUSH WALLS festival is on now. Where to stay: Denver is full of accommodation options from high end hotels to small, low-budget hostels.
The writer travelled to Denver independently.