It’s easy to overlook El Paso County’s open spaces, Ross Williams thinks.
He’s the county’s park planner, aware of a misunderstanding by some residents living around one of his department’s signature properties near the center of Colorado Springs: Bear Creek Regional Park.
“They don’t realize it’s a county park. They think it’s a city park,” Williams says.
While Bear Creek might not be recognized as a county park, it is well-known. Some other county open spaces? Not that much.
Heard about Clear Springs Ranch? Or Drake Lake? Or Woodlake Open Space?
If not, you’re not alone. But you might just find yourself alone on a visit.
“A lot of (the awareness) has to do with where you live in the county,” Williams says. “Folks within Colorado Springs proper, they may recognize (city-owned) Palmer Park and Pulpit Rock and Garden of the Gods and never venture out into the county. So one of our goals is to get the word out there.”
Maybe two new open spaces will do it.
Kane Ranch Open Space was unveiled late last month near Fountain, followed last week by Santa Fe Open Space on the opposite, northern side of the county in Palmer Lake.
That brought El Paso County to 10 publicly available open spaces, defined as lands with only “passive recreation,” hiking, biking and horseback riding — vacant of playgrounds and sports courts, as seen at regional parks like Bear Creek.
It might seem a small portfolio, considering the county’s parks department started 50 years ago.
But “it takes a while to acquire these sites,” Williams says. “It takes resources to acquire and maintain them. And we don’t want to overstress our system; we don’t want to open a site and not be able to manage it.” Which might explain the county’s 950-plus acres of open space that remain undeveloped and closed.
The county doesn’t have the city’s sales tax-funded Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program, annually pumping about $10 million toward land acquisition and maintenance — responsible for the likes of Red Rock Canyon and Stratton open spaces, for example. Similar sales tax programs pump many more millions to open spaces in Douglas, Jefferson, Boulder and Larimer counties. Meanwhile, in El Paso County, general fund support for parks has hovered around pre-recession levels.
With Kane Ranch and Santa Fe open spaces — not to mention Pineries Open Space, which debuted in 2020 — “I’d say we’re sitting at a pretty good capacity,” Williams says.
Here’s a glance at the county’s open spaces:
Kane Ranch Open Space
A lollipop-shaped trail spans about 3 1/2 miles in the grasslands east of Fountain, culminating in a short loop facing the Spanish Peaks far south. Those are seen on a clear day, as well as the hunted Sangre de Cristo range.
Santa Fe Open Space
Visitors can only admire Elephant Rock and Ben Lomand Mountain — the two landmarks sit outside the boundaries. The open space is named for the old railroad line-turned New Santa Fe Regional Trail. A nearly 2-mile circuit weaves around the wooded mosaic, reached in half a mile up the regional trail from Palmer Lake Recreation Area. Rusted equipment around scattered recalls the ranching history here.
Pineries Open Space
This is the county’s second-largest open space at 1,070 acres and has gained quick popularity among equestrians, cyclists and runners. A nearly 9-mile loop tours the pines of Black Forest. A second parking lot is in the works, says Williams. There’s also hope to make a trail connection into Black Forest Section 16.
Black Forest Section 16
It’s a smaller Pineries, with this loop through the canopy closer to 4 miles. It’s equally popular — though perhaps not as popular as the Section 16 trail in the southwest mountains of Colorado Springs.
Deep and high in a pocket of North Cheyenne Cañon, the remoteness and ruggedness made this an unusual addition to the county system in 2015. That’s when the roughly 1,200 acres were conveyed amid a controversial, US Forest Service-led initiative to reroute popular trails away from greenback cutthroat trout habitat. New trails have been proposed as part of a stalled master plan.
Clear Springs Ranch
After Jones Park and Pineries, this is the county’s third-largest open space at 930 acres. In Fountain, it’s a linear park of cottonwoods and meadows, following Fountain Creek along the namesake regional trail. An adjacent, working farm contributes to it as “a really interesting space,” Williams says. “It”s really pretty, too, especially during spring and summer.”
Drake Lake Natural Area
“Whenever we can find open water in El Paso County, that’s a good thing,” a former county official once told us. Drake Lake is a surprise, however small, in the Falcon area near Meadow Lake Airport. “Folks like going out there for bird watching,” Williams says.
This is an idyllic, 92-acre slice of waving grass and wetlands on the eastern plains. It’s explored via 2 miles of the Palmer Divide Regional Trail. Remnants of an old dairy farm add to the nostalgia. The trailhead is at the corner of Hodgen and Woodlake roads, west of Eastonville Road between Black Forest and Peyton.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
It goes by the title of interpretive park “because of the fact there’s something there to see, something very specific,” Williams says. Those are, of course, the colorful rocks that suddenly emerge on the flats near Calhan. They have been widely discovered since the pandemic.
Rainbow Falls Historic Site
It’s historic for its significance to the Ute and for the later, westward hunters and miners bound for the mountains beyond Manitou Springs. A 50-foot cascade plunges into shallow waters tucked within a rocky bowl. The site refreshes in the summer, when it’s open Friday-Monday.