The smokestacks and the smell. The junkyards and rundown bungalows. The fast food joints and liquor stores. You’ve probably caught glimpses of these things as you’ve sped by on Highway 270, safe in the cocoon of your Subaru. You’ve seen the ugliness, the industrial yards and the truck stops. It’s not a place you’d ever stop. Ever.
But why not? That’s what makes Commerce City so interesting: It is home to haunting monuments of America’s industrial past and also more diverse than most think, with more than 700 acres of parks and more than 25 miles of trails, many of which link to larger systems like the Sand Creek Regional Greenway. But as compelling as the greener parts of Commerce City are, it’s the industrial underside of Commerce City — a no man’s land of refineries, gaping pits and feral junkyard dogs — that makes cycling here a 180-degree departure from the bubble that is Boulder. And with easy access, no crowds and plenty of urban decay (in an attractive Mad Max kind of way), it’s well worth an adventure, particularly if your idea of adventure includes mountain biking where urban meets industrial meets the prairie.
A loose collection of former farming and industrial towns, with names such as Derby, Dupont, Irondale and Rose Hill, Commerce City was incorporated in 1952 and achieved home rule almost 20 years later. The place has lived up to its moniker with a pro-business bent and industrial zoning that has attracted major companies. Take, for example, ConocoPhillips, which was the original owner and operator of the most visible manifestation of the area’s industrial bent (the refinery just west of 270) before selling the facility to SunCore Energy in 2003.
It’s the refinery, of course, that gives most people their primary impression of Commerce City’s industrial charms. But when seen in the right light from the bike path that runs along Sand Creek, it’s strangely beautiful, a mysterious collection of pipes, towers and tanks that gleam in the early morning sun. Past the refinery, slivers of green along the creek hold secrets of their own: foxes, egrets and other birds nestle undisturbed in the undergrowth.
The multi-use trails that take you past the refinery also lead to other, hidden gems. It’s possible to access humble neighborhoods on the edge of the prairie, small bungalows on dirt roads, with American flags in the windows and pickup trucks in the driveways. Remnants of an agrarian past, they’re not too far removed from the small towns that dot Colorado’s eastern plains. And with the protected landscape of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (home to more than 250 species of birds and a colony of endangered black-footed ferrets) to the east, it’s possible to catch glimpses of the great emptiness of the plains stretching into infinity past the backyards of these humble abodes.
Past the neighborhoods, there’s the opportunity to rack up endless miles. The Sand Creek Trail connects to the South Platte Trail, allowing easy access to the heart of Denver as well as a maze of other attractions — quiet back roads, nicely banked concrete walls and funky double track provide the perfect ingredients for urban mountain biking adventures. Jumbled piles of debris test agility and balance and, for the most part, have never been ridden before. It seems that nobody has attempted to ride a bike to the top of that pile of dirt and asphalt slabs that bakes in the sun next to Sand Creek. Why not be the first?
That’s reason enough to go to Commerce City. No one is going to care about where you ride your bike or how you are riding it in Commerce City. And there’s nothing fake or plastic about the landscapes here. Rough and tumble, it’s a part of Colorado’s Front Range that most people frequent only if they have to. While hipsters on the West End of Pearl hit the latest organic dining experience, you can be cruising through a part of Colorado that’s unique and has its own hardened beauty, with no crowds, no attitudes and a surprisingly good trail system.
With stark industrial landscapes, winding bike paths and neighborhoods that hint at simple, honest living, Commerce City is a premier urban adventure destination, a funky place that feels about a million miles away from the spandex-clad masses in the Pearl Street Whole Foods parking lot. A good thing that thankfully won’t be changing anytime soon.