Decoding Douglas County's Parks and Open Space

Treasure-hunt type program aims to get people outside


Douglas County's population may be aging, but it's not slowing down.

That's according to Randy Burkhardt, Douglas County's assistant director of parks, trails and building grounds. The county has shifted its focus in recent years when it comes to providing parks and recreational activities based on changing demographics, he said.

Not only are residents getting older — the county expects a quarter of residents will be older than 60 by 2030 — but their definition of parks and recreation has evolved. People don't want soccer, baseball and football fields alone anymore, and they're staying active much later in life, he said.

That's one reason the county developed its treasure-hunt-like program Decode Douglas County Outdoors. It's designed to accommodate residents of any age, so grandparents can participate alongside grandchildren, for example, and it's doable no matter a person's physical fitness level.

The main goal is to get residents outdoors to parks or open spaces they may not have tried before, in addition to their favorite sports complexes.

“That's what we're trying to introduce people to,” Burkhardt said. “The fact that there's more to Douglas County than baseball, football and soccer, as far as parks are concerned.”

The program is designed like a treasure hunt. To complete it, residents must pick up a Decode Douglas County booklet that guides people to different parks and recreation sites. At each location, people collect one number by locating a post with an embossed plaque they use to create a rubbing in their booklet.

Players must visit eight park and open space locations, which they find through clues in the booklet, to form an eight-digit code. They then use the number to open locks on a “treasure chest” at their final destination. The last last step is submitting a completed booklet in the chest. From there people are entered into a drawing for prizes.

The program is annual, running from Jan. 1 through Dec. 1. Each December, the locations and codes change. People can play multiple years but only one booklet is allowed per person in a given year. More information on the program is available at

The length of time it takes to complete is up to the participant. Some people spread the excursions over several weeks. One resident, an ultra marathoner, completed the challenge in a single day, county staff said.

There are locations in Parker, Lone Tree, Franktown, Castle Rock, Larkspur, Louviers, Sedalia, Highlands Ranch and more. Some are parks, some are open spaces. All boast an attraction staff say residents should know — the best views of downtown Denver from Douglas County, good fishing holes, tubing locations or hiking trails.

“I think that it provides an additional form of recreation,” said Scott McEldowney, Douglas County's assistant director of open space and natural resources. “And it gives them a targeted activity, so a purpose to be visiting places where they wouldn't normally go or get a little farther down the trail than they would normally go.”

In 2018 the county saw 173 people complete the program, 92 children and 81 adults, between July and November. Seventeen people have finished so far in 2019. McEldowney said the program hasn't driven a large increase in the use of parks or open space, but it did diversify the age range of users.

He notes the Lincoln Mountain Open Space location in the challenge as a lesser known spot but one that's “absolutely beautiful.” The property features an old working ranch, he said, with an “incredible view of Pikes Peak.”

Douglas County's program was inspired by a similar program in Larimer County. That program first launched in 2016 in recognition of a local open space tax's 20th anniversary. The Larimer County Passport to Your Open Spaces program was also modeled on similar programs, but like Douglas County's, customized to the local area.

Larimer County's ended in late 2018 but garnered just shy of 500 participants, said Teddy Parker-Renga, Larimer County community relations supervisor. Their youngest participant was 1 year old and the oldest 80.

Parker-Renga said he was happy to help Douglas County create their program, giving a tour to staff of Larimer County locations.

“I was pretty impressed with how they took our basic concept and put their spin on it,” he said of Douglas County's version. “I think it's fantastic. All of the various departments and agencies who are involved in outdoor recreation across the Front Range of Colorado and even beyond have similar goals in mind.”

Reporter Jessica Gibbs will be completing the Decode Douglas County Outdoors challenge. She hits the trail this month. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaLeeGibbs as she reports along the way.


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