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People from other parts of the country often have some misconceptions about Denver. Possibly the most common is that the city is in the mountains. It's actually easy to understand that one, because we tout ourselves as being a mile high. And we really are! The second step on the west side of the gold-domed State Capitol Building is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. But the nearest foothill to that capitol step is about fifteen miles away—and the first real mountain peak is probably twenty miles beyond that.
Denver is really on the high plains, just east of the Rocky Mountains, which form a majestic backdrop for the city, and make for some incredible summer sunsets. To the north and east, the land is almost as flat as parts of Texas. It's a bit hilly to the south though, because the Rockies wend eastward for a few miles as they rise to the south. Pikes Peak, over 14,000 feet high, is due south of Denver.
The Queen City is, in fact, lower than most of the surrounding terrain, because it lies in the valley of the South Platte River. Only to the north is the nearby terrain lower in elevation.
Another myth is that Denver is surrounded by evergreen trees, and wet with snow much of the year. Actually, it's dry here. People flying into the city for the first time may wonder why the pilot is landing in the desert. Then when they get down, they remark how green are our streets and parkways. Well, we have green lawns and trees because we water them with runoff water from those big hills to the west. Denver's annual precipitation is only about 15 inches. That's only about an inch and a half more than Phoenix, which really is on the desert. Grass plants on the open plains naturally grow about ten inches apart. Trees naturally grow only next to rivers and creeks. Many of the creeks only flow with water in the spring. Yeah, It's dry.
Well, maybe in a couple of museums or parks. I had a neighbor in the late eighties who had recently moved here from New Jersey. He had shipped his car by train, because he didn't know if there would be roads he could use to drive all the way here. He was serious. The truth: pioneer days have been over for more than a century. There are no horses on the streets, except for tourist rides downtown. We have electricity, and running water everywhere. There are Indians here—as there are throughout the U.S. They walk, talk, dress, eat just like visiting tourists. Downtown Denver looks about like Downtown Anywhere, except you can look to the west and see those gorgeous mountains.
I worked for a few months one winter in Seattle. I'd go to a party or reception where people might learn I was from Denver, and they'd often say, "I'll bet you're glad to get away from those awful winters." Get real! That day it had probably gotten to 45 or 50 degrees in Seattle, with humidity of 80% or so, and no sun—not much fun. I'd been on the phone to my Denver office that afternoon, and it had been 65 degrees and sunny, with humidity about 25%. That's shirtsleeve weather—It really is. And we get many days like that in December and January. Our record high temperature for January is 73!
Of course we get snow. Most of our storms last less than a day, often only a few hours. And the sun usually clears the streets within a day—two at the most. Are there exceptions? You bet. We usually get one or two nasty storms in a year, but not always. The snow from those might be on the streets for four or five days.
And once in a while we get 15 or 20 inches of snow. That'll last a week or so. Occasionally we get a couple of storms like that in one year. Many winters we get none.
Then, there's the exceptional year. Four or five of the sixty plus winters I've been here, we've had storm after storm, one every few days, with snow that accumulates and stays. When those happen there's only one defense: business trips to Phoenix!
© J. C. Adamson, 1996, 2012