Chris Englert is a founding member-owner of the Walk2Connect Cooperative. She is the author of Best Urban Hikes: Denver and operates two walking adventure companies: Denver by Foot and Eat Walk Learn. Here, she tells the story of how she envisioned, created and brought people together around the 71-mile High Line Canal walking series that so many people in our community enjoy. Read more about Chris’ personal walking journey on Walk2Connect Stories.
In 2014, I had just gotten back from traveling around the world. I had done a lot of walking and thinking, and I decided that when I got back to Denver, I wanted to get to know it by foot. That’s when I met Jonathon Stalls and found Walk2Connect.
Having just moved to Denver, I didn’t know the city very well, and I thought that if I was going to start leading walks, I needed to legitimize myself and walk Denver. So, I got out a map and saw what I now call the “Nine Creeks Loop,” which is a 42-mile loop incorporating the Sand Creek Greenway, the High Line Canal, Cherry Creek and the Platte River. They were four trails that I thought made a nice loop.
I contacted the City of Denver Parks Department and asked them if the loop was a recognized route, but nobody knew anything about it. The four trails had no existing relationship to each other. I decided to walk them all and learn all I could about them. I discovered that there were different nonprofit organizations associated with each trail, which I didn’t know when I started. I decided to go talk with people at each organization, tell them what I was doing and ask if they would somehow sponsor me for the 42-mile walk. I thought maybe they would give me a t-shirt or snacks or some cash. I didn’t really know what I was asking for, but I was offering something of great value: I was going to walk all the trails, document them and illustrate how the four systems connected.
At the time, the Sand Creek Greenway was in a leadership transition and had a different focus, so they just wished me luck. Then, I got hold of the High Line Canal Conservancy. I asked Jonathon to go with me to a meeting with the Conservancy, and he and I met with the executive director in 2015. I didn’t really know how to talk about Walk2Connect, I just knew how to talk about what I was doing, creating the Nine Creeks Loop. We had a great conversation. Jonathon talked about the walking movement and walking for connection. The Conservancy director thought it was a great idea to hire us because she liked the way our program focused on connecting and not on distance or calories or steps or other metrics. She thought our connection focus would be a great platform to help people start learning about and building community around the High Line Canal trail.
The High Line Canal is a 71-mile trail that starts in Waterton Canyon in the south and goes to Green Valley Ranch in the north. The southern portion is well-used and well-loved around the Littleton/Centennial area, but when it starts getting into the Denver/Aurora area, it is not as well used or cared for. The High Line Canal Conservancy director saw Walk2Connect as a way to build connections all along the trail.
At the start of our contract, we decided that we would design 11 unique walks along the canal: a bird walk, a history walk, and other themed events. That approach didn’t quite hit the mark. I then proposed that we simply walk the whole trail in 11 manageable sections of five or six miles each (some were 8 miles). I had to scout out good trailheads and endpoints where people could park and carpool from. That took the most time – discerning easy-to-find and legal parking places for up to 20 cars.
In the summer of 2015, we hosted the first walk. We had 26 people total show up over the course of the entire 71 miles. Of that 26, seven completed the whole route. For those who finished, it was a life-changing experience. There were people who joined us who didn’t know how long the canal trail really was. There were people who walked with us who had never walked that far before, they didn’t think they could do it, and they didn’t even realize how far they had gone until they received their 71-mile tokens at the end.
After feedback from that first experience, we determined there were too many segments that were too long. We then broke the trail into 14 segments, ranging from four to eight miles, with the longest segments in the middle so people could work up to them. The High Line Canal Conservancy has been very happy with the amount of publicity and support for the canal that has resulted from our walks and the community that has built up around them. This year marked our third summer and our seventh “tour” of the canal. We offered two versions of it this summer: one at a fitness pace of 2.5 to 3 miles per hour, and one at a gentle pace of 1 to 2 miles per hour.
After our first High Line Canal series, I connected the Conservancy to the University of Denver Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program through a contract with my personal business, Eat Walk Learn. I offered the High Line Canal walk to OLLI participants, and the Conservancy gained access to more than 100 new people through that relationship. We have also grown and adapted the contract to add some themed walks and walks focused on the history-rich but not particularly active segments in places like Aurora.
There is a community developing around people who have finished the trail. People have volunteered to help others complete missed segments. We now have 25 or 30 Walking Movement Leaders who have emerged from the High Line Canal program. Many people who have completed the High Line have walked all over the region with Walk2Connect now, from the Sand Creek Greenway to the Boulder Walk 360 and more. These are folks who love series walks and like the challenge of completing a commitment. Racking up miles is a side effect of what happens – the attraction is mostly getting to come out week after week with the same people and completing a big accomplishment.
The High Line was the first big series of walks that we offered, but it spawned an interest in many more, and it gave me a framework for developing similar contracts to build the walking movement around the region.