The 5280 Trail: Designing a Mountail Trail Mentality Within the City

Case Studies

5280 Trail Rendering

A trail is a path set through a wild environment, a guiding route to navigate you through and connect you to points of interest and destinations. It is typically defined by its edges and by the environment that surrounds it. The trail serves as the vehicle to get you out into these environments, exploring a specific place, often in new and different ways than you’ve experienced before. The same can be said of The 5280 Trail in Denver, a new safe and intuitive way to explore the wild urban fabric by foot or bike. Defined by the six neighborhoods that it threads together, the trail gets people out to experience these neighborhoods in new and different ways, with new perspectives.

There are clues about the 5280 Trail’s design philosophy within its name. The design team was inspired by Colorado’s outdoor lifestyle and by the mountain trail mentality that is so present here. We wanted to create something in the city that mimics this mentality—that mimics the simplicity and clarity of being on a mountain trail. There’s a notion, after all, that you’re never lost when you’re on the trail, and we wanted this urban loop to feel equally comfortable, inviting and reassuring. The idea of creating a trail through the urban jungle became the driving force of our designs.

Consistent Links: You're Never Lost When You're On the Trail

Denver is well-known as the Queen City of the West, sitting between the Rocky Mountains and the high plains with numerous distinct downtown neighborhoods, each with its own culture, personality, and aesthetic. The 5280 Trail links six of them: Capitol Hill & Uptown, Golden Triangle, La Alma-Lincoln Park, Auraria Campus, Wynkoop Street-LoDo, and Five Points-Ballpark-Arapahoe Square. We sought to create a design language that would thread these places together and guide you through them.

Like a mountain trail, the 5280 Trail’s design is primarily horizontal, focused on the ground plane, so the look and feel of the trail itself—the path upon which people will walk, bike, skateboard and jog—is paramount. We wanted to distinguish the trail from typical urban elements of asphalt and concrete, so the 5280 Trail is designed with custom 3”x3” pavers with earth tone coloring. Not only does this size and pattern create a fine grain-like aesthetic in the city, it also has its advantages by making it easier to pull up and put back down sections of the trail during common projects like roadwork or plumbing repairs, or adjacent construction, without wasteful breakage.

5280 Trail Rendering

There’s also a ribbon element in the paving, which ranges from 2’ to 4’ wide and meanders through the center of the trail (which ranges from 10’ to 24’ wide in various sections), alluding to a single walking path. The ribbon has the same pattern of 3” pavers, yet they have slightly different coloring and a more polished finish. This is one of my favorite design elements of the 5280 Trail: the ribbon’s finish reflects light and—because it absorbs less rainwater than the standard paver—creates a subtle sheen when it’s wet, resembling a creek.

In addition to the consistent pavers used through the 5.280-mile loop, elements like furnishings, signage, and light bollards are consistent throughout the trail. Signage is designed to resemble a typical trail map you’d see on a mountain, with trailhead markers and right-of-way indicators where people and horses might intersect—or people and bikes in our urban trail. Crosswalks at the dozens of intersections between the trail and the existing urban grid also stand out as wayfinding elements. The 3” pattern of pavers is consistent, but intentionally varied colors and finishes note critical decision points along the path and minimize safety concerns where different modes of transit (including cars) might come together.

It’s not unusual for conventional city elements to feel a little harsh, so our overarching design intent has been to soften the city, figuratively by making parts of each neighborhood more inviting to explore or gather within, and literally by using natural, softer materials as much as possible. Improving and/or creating more green space with native plant material and vegetation is a big part of that. Native grass mixtures and flowers will increase seasonal interest and attract birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. The aesthetic is less urban and more grounded in nature—in that outdoor lifestyle that inspired us.

5280 Trail Rendering

Unique Places: Celebrating People, Health, Culture and Nature

The 5280 Trail is a series of links and places. Links are the trail itself and the consistent ribbon that weaves along the trail. Places are the specific parts of each neighborhood that the design helps to connect and call attention to by forming new neighborhood centers and gathering places through the use of unique, neighborhood-specific design elements. For example, previously proposed festival blocks near Coors Field are realized through the implementation of the 5280 Trail. An alley along Santa Fe Drive transforms into an outdoor gallery and gathering space, to celebrate the neighborhood’s personality as one of Colorado’s most vibrant creative districts. Sunken Gardens Park benefits from park enhancements to increase usability and attract new users to this historic park. And on Sherman Street in Capitol Hill, an old idea of a civic promenade is revived and connected to the greater downtown area through the trail.

A system of urban “cairns” is proposed to help guide people to and through these neighborhoods. Like the mound of stones you might see as a landmark on a mountain trail, on the 5280 Trail these cairns could be unique sculpture-like elements that reflect each neighborhood’s personality and indicate where you are in the city. They’re intended to be the most dramatic vertical elements on the trail—intended not only to be noticeable as landmarks and guideposts but also to add a little whimsy along the route.

New Perspectives: Changing Your Mental Map of the City

As a system of links and places that celebrate and connect neighborhoods, the 5280 Trail has the power to change your mental map of the city. You can now see and experience connections and proximities that you didn’t realize were there. As Chris recently wrote, the trail “makes Denver feel a little smaller and more intimate, and you immediately understand why connection can be so powerful.” The trail also levels the playing field for Denver’s diverse populations to share in this outdoor experience together. Biking is my own primary way of getting around this city, and it’s apparent when I’m out on my bike how many other bikers appear a little uncomfortable, as if the current means of integrating bikes and cars and pedestrians doesn’t feel 100% safe. When the 5280 Trail is completed, you’ll be able to walk it or bike it with your family. It’s designed to feel welcoming, accessible and safe for all, and as a designer, it’s been immensely gratifying to help envision this.

Our plans and designs set the tone for The 5280 Trail, and recommend typologies and configurations without prescribing specifics. This is why you’ll see a lot of sketches in our designs in addition to renderings. We wanted to be honest about the project’s status as a work in progress that will be implemented over the years ahead by a mix of design firms and contractors.

One of the many spaces that I look forward to experiencing once the trail is built is in the La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood. This is one of the few places on the trail where you have unobstructed views to the front range of the mountains to the west, even as you’re still firmly planted in a decidedly urban neighborhood. To celebrate this, we’ve proposed elevated landforms and a sky bridge—we dubbed “Loop Skywalker”—where the city and mountains are both visible and the connection between them feels very tangible. This duality of urban culture and nature is what brought me to Denver years ago, and no doubt many others have felt the same calling. I look forward to seeing The 5280 Trail bringing all of them—all of us—together.

5280 Trail Rendering

Did you know? This November, Denver residents will vote on several components of City Council’s infrastructure bond package, including measures to invest in civic resources such as The 5280 Trail. Contact us if you’re as passionate as we are about parks’ critical role in the health of cities and of people.

Meet the Author

  • Jason Newsome