Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead Broke

Just killing time downtown?  A few minutes on the Internet can fill your day with free fun!

Imagine you find yourself downtown in a major city, with time on your hands, a family to entertain, but no money in the budget for expensive activities.  How can you fill this time with an adventure?    Have you tried geocaching?

Geocaching is commonly described as a “high-tech treasure hunt.”  You find a description of a geocache and the geographic coordinates of where it is located, from a webpage (www.geocaching.com).  Navigate to the location and hunt for the cache, often a container with a logbook to sign, and trinkets to trade.  Then log back on to the website, go to the cache’s page and click “found,” adding to your growing list of successful geocaching adventures.

You no longer need specialized GPS receivers to geocache.  Apps allow your smartphone to double as a GPS.  If you are new to geocaching, please see my quick start guide to geocaching.  It will explain how to bring up a geocache on your phone and begin seeking your first cache.

I’ll use my hometown of Denver as an example.  Let’s say you have the app on your handheld device with a map interface showing your position at Broadway and Colfax, the very center of Denver.  The map interface shows several icons – each a geocache.  Click on one and go.

But look where you are standing – Civic Center Park.  Pillars, gardens and Greek theaters abound, but would someone actually hide a geocache here?

Urban Geocaching

The unique aspect of urban geocaching is the difficulty in finding a secure spot to hide a container.  The Civic Center hosts numerous events that attract tens of thousands of people to the park.  A container that is easy to spot will quickly be “muggled.”  The nooks and crannies where one could hide a cache might be trimmed, pruned or removed by park maintenance or landscape workers.  So the chances of a cache disappearing are high.

More importantly, public spaces – particularly near government buildings – have heightened security.  It is not always a good idea to hide and seek small containers in areas where police are on alert for suspicious activities.

There are a couple of strategies available to the cache “owner” to create challenging and interesting geocaches in busy, public spaces.  One option is a container-less cache.  This is a geocache that will lead the cache hunter to various places to gather clues or answer questions (from the cache description) to earn the cache find.  You “find” the cache by sending the answers to the cache owner via email.

A cache can also be a “puzzle” or “multi-stage” cache.  In both cases, the cache hunter may visit a series of crowded places without having to scrounge about suspiciously, searching for a container.  A common practice is to require the cache hunter to decode the final coordinates one step at a time, by answering a “number” question at each stage of the cache.  Once all the numbers are in place, you punch them into your handheld, then use compass or map interfaces to navigate to the coordinates.  The cache container may be located in a quiet spot some distance from major attractions.

I spent one afternoon with my family (the Wulff pack) doing just that.  The only cost was parking downtown, which can be avoided if you bike or walk to the Civic Center, or visit on Sunday when metered spaces are free.

Map of Denver showing cache locations (smiley faces indicate "finds"

Map of Denver showing cache locations (smiley faces indicate locations of my “finds”)

We searched for three geocaches:

  • A container-less earthcache (Denver Stones)
  • A multi-stage cache (Allen True’s Murals)
  • And a multi-stage puzzle cache (Hassle at the Castle)

Each is discussed below, with their corresponding GC code in brackets.

Denver Stones Capitol Earthcache (GCPK40)

An earthcache is a special type of cache that can be submitted by any member of the geocaching public, but is reviewed and approved by the U.S. Geological Survey.  Earthcaches are always container-less and highlight some unique aspect of geology that can be observed at that location. To claim this type of cache, you must visit the site(s) and answer questions, or take photographs, to prove you were there.

The center of a major city is an unusual place to find an earthcache, but let me explain.  The Denver Stones Capitol Earthcache features the rock exteriors and marbled interiors of many historic buildings in Denver.  In essence, it is a tour of rock formations from all over Colorado and the world, compressed into a few city blocks.

Buelah Marble in the State Capitol

One of the highlights of the Denver Stones Capitol Earthcache is the State Capitol building, specifically the Buelah Marble which clads the capitol’s interior walls.   The rock, actually an iron-stained limestone, is interesting for many reasons.  For one, the capitol used the entire known supply of Buelah Marble, so this is the only place on earth to get a glimpse of this stunningly beautiful stone.  What really makes this stop interesting, however, is the texture of the rock itself.  Within the kaleidoscopic swirls of the mineral fabric are the faces and profiles of famous historical figures, including George Washington, W.C. Fields and the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown.

We were wandering around the capitol halls, gazing wide-eyed at the slabs of polished stone.  This naturally caught the attention of a capitol worker who asked if we were in need of help or directions.  When we mentioned we were looking for the “faces,” her expression changed from one of polite concern to enthusiastic pride.  “Do you want me to show you George Washington?  I show him to the school tours all the time!”  We had a personal guide to four or five faces on the first floor, with an offer to see the second, before her cell phone rang to alert her to a previous appointment.

Allen True’s Murals (GC2K60X)

Multi-caches provide a unique opportunity to create your own “mini-tour” of the art, architecture or history of a person or place.  This geocache highlighted the varied works of Colorado’s most-celebrated muralist:  Allen True.

The State Capitol contains a number of Allen True’s murals, so this is where we began our tour of this artist’s works.  Allen True painted a series of murals in the capitol building from 1934 to 1940, as well as other prominent public buildings in Denver.

This cache is a multi-stage cache with 7 stages.  At each stage, you must answer questions about the works in order to obtain the coordinates for the final cache.  Very much an intellectual scavenger hunt.

BrownPal-Airplane copy

Above the Elevator in a Famous Building

Part of the fun is seeing the wide range in these works of art – not just the span of history they recreate (from the days when Indians had free reign of the plains, to the era of air travel), but also in size and in location.  The murals in the capitol are sweeping and prominent, while others are tucked away in outdoor porticos or perched above elevators and your discovery of them seems private and surreptitious.

DPL Series:  Hassle at the Castle (GC3J1E3)

scoobyCan anything be more fun than doing overlapping earthcache and multi-stage caches in one frantic afternoon?  Yes.  Throw in a multi-stage puzzle cache at the same time.  “Hassle at the Castle” is an entertaining puzzle cache that takes you to outdoor art installations and through the Denver Public Library on the south side of Civic Center Park. Hassle in the Castle is presented as a mystery to be solved, by gathering a clue at every stop.  Its target audience is children in the Scooby-Doo demographic (about 8 to 12 years of age), but its engaging storytelling style in the cache write-up makes it entertaining for adult Scooby alumni too.  You’ll meet a variety of characters as you try and find the ghost that has been scaring library patrons.  Unusual props and devices make it memorable for anyone who enjoys creativity in caches.

Three caches in the center of a city, each offering unique challenges and rewards.  The overlapping tours make for a fun logistical challenge in trying to do all in an efficient manner.  Not only do you get a free tour of at least 10 major Denver landmarks but you will walk about 2 to 3 miles before it is all done.  Allow 3 to 4 hours to do all simultaneously.   Then retreat to your home, or hotel, and order in.  You’ve earned it!