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  • Mary Thompson

History and Future of the High Line Canal

Within the next few years, one of the longest linear parks in the country, the High Line Canal Trail in Denver, Colorado, will be nearing completion. At the present time, Calibre Engineering is involved in design and construction of several of the final segments of the trail in Adams County, which will bring the trail length to 71 miles.

The HLC Trail begins on the west side of Douglas County in Waterton Canyon, winds through lower foothills, residential neighborhoods, golf courses, industrial areas, and parks of the Denver Metro Area, and ends in Northeast Denver. The trail follows the High Line Canal, a water utility that brings water from the South Platte River to contract holders for South Platte River water. From wide-open vistas of the lower foothills, through shady, cottonwood-lined walkways, the canal follows the contours of the terrain, providing a valuable recreation resource. Over 350,000 residents live within one mile of the canal, and that number grows as each new segment of the canal trail is improved and opened for recreation and commuter use.

The trail is primarily concrete and asphalt, with some packed gravel segments. The trail has been connected to numerous other trails in the Metro Area, providing access to over 1500 miles of trails for bicycling, walking, running, and in some areas, horseback riding. The trail has also been linked to other parks and recreation areas and is a well-loved and well-used resource for enjoying the blue sky and sunshine of the Colorado outdoors.

The canal was built in the 1880’s to bring water to a proposed agricultural project on the plains east of Denver. Due to water right disputes, the project was never completed, but the canal was used to irrigate over 20,000 acres of other agricultural land through 165 headgates. The canal was acquired by Denver Water in 1924 and is still in use during times when there is sufficient water in the South Platte River, primarily in the spring and early summer. The canal serves customers along its length and as of 2011, Fairmount Cemetery was the final customer at mile 48. Denver Water occasionally sends water through beyond this point to water the cottonwood trees along the banks.

There are several other trails in the area with “high line” in their name because high line canals are named after the engineering principal on which they are built. The “high line principle” requires that the canal be built to follow the contours of the land with a minimal decline per mile, thus allowing the water to flow by the pull of gravity rather than by pumps or other methods. This creates many twists and turns in the canal as it follows the ridges and valleys of the terrain it traverses.


In the 1970’s, Denver Water lifted restrictions on the canal, and began to form agreements with various municipal agencies to improve and maintain the recreational trail alongside the canal. The canal passes through 11 different governmental jurisdictions, who all continue to work together to maintain and improve this valuable open space and recreational resource.

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