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Five free things: Denver, when you’re not skiing

DENVER -- Free festivals, movies, music, hiking and biking abound in Denver in the summer, but those passing through the Mile High City on the way to the mountains for Colorado's famed powder skiing can also find plenty of free things to do. Here's a sampling:

BUFFALO, BOTH LIVING AND DEAD: Oddly enough, the city of Denver owns its own buffalo herd -- direct descendants of the last wild buffalo herd in America. They're kept behind fences about 20 miles west of town on Interstate 70, where an overlook near Exit 254 offers great opportunities to photograph the creatures with the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. Legend has it that the beasts come closer to the road and are best seen in cold weather, but year-round shots are possible.

On your way there, stop by the gravesite of famed Western entertainer Buffalo Bill Cody. The showman's grave overlooks Denver and is an easy and picturesque stop off Exit 256. A nearby museum charges $5 for displays about Buffalo Bill's career, but your Buffalo Bill nostalgia money is better spent on a drink back in Denver. Linger, at 2030 W. 30th Ave., is a bar and restaurant with a fabulous rooftop patio at the former site of the mortuary where Buffalo Bill's body reportedly spent six months after his death in 1917 while heirs argued over where to bury the famed bison hunter.

16th STREET MALL SHUTTLE, STATE CAPITOL, DENVER MINT: A ride through downtown's 16th Street Mall on the free bus shuttle is a ride through Denver's past and current scene. At the northwest end of the shuttle, there's a panoramic view of the Denver skyline and Rocky Mountains, with old Union Station in the foreground -- the Queen City's main travel hub when railroad was king. At the southeast end of the shuttle ride there's a short walk to the state Capitol with its gold leaf encrusted dome and a mile-high marker on the west steps from which the city gets its nickname. In between there are changing exhibits of public art, including cutouts of buffaloes and upright sidewalk pianos for anyone to take a turn improvising a tune. Free tours of the Capitol include a walk up a staircase where cannonballs used by the Colorado militia during the Civil War cap the ends of banisters.

Another short walk from the southeast terminus of the shuttle and you're at the Denver Mint, one of two located out West. The federal government found it necessary to establish mints in Denver and San Francisco after the gold rushes and population booms that gripped both cities in the mid-1800s. Tours of the mint are free, though reservations are strongly recommended, and include a short exhibit about the history of currency. Also a short walk from the 16th Street Mall: a sample of makers of beloved, homegrown Colorado craft beer. Wynkoop Brewing Co. (co-founded by Gov. John Hickenlooper) and Great Divide Brewing Co. (near Coors Field) offer free tours of their downtown operations.

DENVER SKATEPARK: Denver's skate park is one of the premier parks of its kind in the country, featuring 60,000 square feet of concrete terrain. Use of the park is free, but you have to bring your own gear or rent it from nearby shops. Adults who want to try boarding, blading or biking on extreme terrain as well as children who are just learning can enjoy various bowls that accommodate all skill levels. There are rails, gently shallow basins and nearly vertical walls inspired by early skaters' affinity for abandoned backyard swimming pools. Best times for beginners are Saturday and Sunday mornings. Regulars start showing up around 1 p.m.

SLOAN'S LAKE: Get a panoramic view of the mountains and a good hike without leaving the Denver sunbelt at this 177-acre lake on the far western edge of Denver. The city lies in the rain shadow of the Front Range of the Rockies, which means that even if it's snowing at higher elevations it's often sunny and dry down below. The path around Sloan's runs 2.5 miles. For about half of that distance you are treated to a front-row view of the Rockies. To the far right (north) sits 14,259-foot-high Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Below that are a chain of serrated 12,000- and 13,000-foot summits known as the Indian Peaks. The panorama ends with the broad, hulking mass of 14,265-foot Mount Evans.

Sloan's is also an urban oasis, full of Rollerbladers, bikers, joggers and families picnicking and fishing on the lawns that flank the lake. For even more strolling opportunities, the residential Highlands neighborhood to the north is lined with graceful Victorians and full of cafes, bars and restaurants. Or walk other iconic Denver lakes in Washington Park or City Park.

TATTERED COVER BOOK STORE: You wouldn't know it from the marketing materials decorated with skiers and beer, but Denver is one of the most highly educated and literate cities in the country. That much is obvious inside Tattered Cover, a celebrated independent bookstore with two Denver locations (and one in the suburbs) that dwarf most superstores.

The downtown branch is housed in a bulky brick warehouse, while the one on Colfax Avenue occupies an airy, converted theater. Both are chock-a-block with fully stocked shelves, knowledgeable staff and plenty of plush oversize chairs for a relaxing, free read. They also boast bustling coffee bars and plenty of additional browsing and people-watching opportunities nearby -- either in Lower Downtown's shopping and entertainment district or, on Colfax, in the adjoining independent record store Twist & Shout, another local icon.


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