There are hidden elves and gnomes at Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Editor’s note: This is part of The Know’s series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).

Crouch down low. Even lower. You might have to get on one knee. There, under and beyond the back legs of a frozen pronghorn antelope, on the right side of a tiny bush with yellow flowers, you should be able to see it. A tiny red-bearded ceramic gnome is looking back at you.

Can’t find it? You’re not alone. It’s not easy to sniff out one of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s coolest — and, perhaps, most unscientific — collections: a series of mythical creatures that artist Kent Pendleton hid inside several of the dioramas he worked on in the 1970s.

Officially, there are eight tiny “hidden elves” (although some of them are clearly gnomes) in the museum’s scavenger hunt, and visitors can pick up a printed guide for where to find them at the information station just after you enter. But unofficial lore posits that there are more than that, plus a variety of other small surprises hidden in exhibits for keen-eyed observers.

Just because the museum gives you a guide doesn’t mean that finding the elves is easy. In fact, it can be infuriatingly, eye-strainingly difficult to root out some of the hidden creatures, which take the form of paintings, ceramic figures or even a digital version in one case.

I grew up in Denver in the 1970s and ’80s, but I didn’t know about the gnomes as a child. And I think that is the way that Pendleton — who called his creatures “leprechauns” — wanted it; he told 9News in 2018 that he never intended for them to be discovered. So, the first time I learned about them was a decade or so ago when I took my own kids to the museum.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to embark on the scavenger hunt again with friends who have a seven-old-daughter — and, yes, it was just as fun for this adult, maybe even more so, than for the kids. It also got me back into the permanent diorama halls, which are still my favorite part of the museum (and always will be), no matter how many glitzy, interactive shows come through.

Part of the joy of finding the elves and gnomes is the knowledge that not everyone who comes to the museum is aware of them. It’s like a not-so-secret secret that you can share. But another part is the absolute concentration it takes to find them, which gives you, or the child you’re with, a little more purpose as to where you wander in and among the halls on all three floors.

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