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Waterton Canyon lands Gold Standard Site designation

Denver Water facility reaches thousands of visitors with Leave No Trace education.

Waterton Canyon on the southwest edge of the Denver metro area draws about 100,000 visitors a year. 

They walk, run and bike up a winding dirt road that ends where one of Colorado’s iconic backcountry treks, the 567-mile Colorado Trail, begins. They stop for picnics along the South Platte River, cast a line to catch fish in the river, and watch for the wild bighorn sheep and other wildlife that live in the canyon.

Waterton Canyon, home to all kinds of wildlife, draws thousands of hikers, bikers, runners and walkers every year is one of Denver Water’s operational facilities. Photo credit: Denver Water.

It’s the perfect place to use the principles of the national Leave No Trace program that aims to teach people what they can — and should — do to protect the wild places around them, said Danielle Compton, a Denver Water recreation ranger assigned to Waterton Canyon. 

“It’s about seven miles to the top of the canyon, and there are seven principles in the Leave No Trace program,” said Compton, who’s worked for Denver Water since 2020.  

“Waterton Canyon is an operating Denver Water facility, and it’s also a perfect location to educate people on ways they can recreate responsibly outdoors to ensure healthy watersheds and environments for generations to come. We’re so proud to partner with Leave No Trace as we work to protect the canyon, keeping this important watershed wild, beautiful and safe for humans and wildlife alike,” she said. 

Danielle Compton, a Denver Water recreation ranger assigned to Waterton Canyon, with one of the moveable information signs she uses in Waterton Canyon to teach people about responsible recreation. Photo credit: Denver Water.

On Oct. 25, Waterton Canyon was awarded Leave No Trace’s Gold Standard Site designation, joining an elite group of sites nationwide, including four other sites in Colorado, that have earned the honor. Waterton Canyon is the first public utility site to receive the designation.

“Leave No Trace is thrilled to announce Waterton Canyon as a Gold Standard designated site,” said Dana Watts, Leave No Trace’s executive director. 

“The hard work of staff and local community stakeholders means that Waterton Canyon is a leading force in the Leave No Trace movement nationally and an example of how effective the role of education is in protecting our public lands,” Watts said.

Leave No Trace also offers an introductory online “101 Course” that teaches people about the minimum impact steps they can take when spending time outdoors — anywhere. 

Know before you go. Check to be up to date on potential closures at specific Denver Water facilities.

Compton, who began working to bring the Leave No Trace program to Waterton Canyon in 2019 when she was an intern at the site, said she appreciates that the program teaches the “why” behind the actions, helping people better understand how to take care of other parks. 

For instance, the program stresses the importance of staying on existing trails in the canyon and existing campsites along the Colorado Trail while also teaching about the consequences of going off-track, including the impacts of erosion, habitat destruction and wildlife disturbance. 

Support from the many volunteers who help inform and guide visitors, and Sally Anderson, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife volunteer at Roxborough State Park who started that park’s Leave No Trace program, was key to bringing the Gold Standard designation to Waterton Canyon, Compton said. 

“Having a conversation is a great way to teach people to care for nature. What they learn here at Waterton Canyon they can take to any wilderness area — and even their neighborhood park,” she said. 

Learning the principles of the Leave No Trace program helps protect other parks and wild areas far beyond Waterton Canyon. Photo credit: Denver Water. 

She’s also noticed behavior changes in visitors, as more people have learned to keep at least 25 yards — about 2 bus lengths — between them the bighorn sheep herds that regularly travel the canyon. 

“Before, I’d regularly have to use the speaker on my truck to tell people to ‘Please back up’ from the sheep herds. Now, I’m often thanking people for keeping their distance, and they’re telling me they saw the educational signs we put along the road and knew to keep their distance,” Compton said. 

The "7 Principles" of the Leave No Trace program are: 

  • Plan ahead and prepare.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  • Dispose of waste properly.
  • Leave what you find.
  • Minimize campfire impacts.
  • Respect wildlife.
  • Be considerate of others. 

In order to be designated as a Leave No Trace Gold Standard Site, a location must meet the following criteria:

  • Demonstrate successful implementation of Leave No Trace outdoor skills and ethics into management, programming, outreach and education efforts at the site.
  • Formally train staff and community partners in Leave No Trace and outdoor ethics.
  • Include Leave No Trace language and messaging on signs at trailheads, as well as in pamphlets, maps and other distributed materials for visitors.
  • Facilitate Leave No Trace interpretive programs, including ranger talks, youth programs and trail outings for visitors.

In addition to Waterton Canyon, Colorado’s Leave No Trace Gold Standard Sites include: Roxborough State Park, Barr Lake State Park, Castlewood Canyon State Park, and Colorado Springs’s network of regional parks, trails and open spaces. 

In October 2023, the national Leave No Trace nonprofit organization designated Waterton Canyon a Gold Standard Site for its work to educate visitors on how they can best protect public lands. Pictured from left: Brian Good, Denver Water Chief Administrative Officer; JD Tanner, Leave No Trace’s director of education and training; Danielle Compton, Denver Water recreation ranger; Sally Anderson, Colorado Parks and Wildlife volunteer at Roxborough State Park; Brandon Ransom, Denver Water.