Willow Spring Open Space is a hidden gem in the Denver suburbs. With Willow Creek running through it, providing a riparian environment for water-loving plants and animals, along with dry plains grasslands, it is a great place to study and learn about the local plants and animals!
It is a large open space in the middle of a neighborhood in Centennial, Colorado, which is in the South Metro area of Denver. In addition to the opportunities for enjoying the natural world, it also has trails for running, walking dogs, and bicycling, along with hills for sledding and great sunset views.
I’m lucky to call this natural area my backyard! By exploring this incredible open space and viewing it through the naturalist’s perspective, I’ve been able to make many discoveries here and share them through this website.
This 158-acre area was purchased by the South Suburban Park and Recreation District in 1987 to preserve the land as an open space.
In addition to the many trails leading into the Willow Spring Open Space from the surrounding neighborhood, there is a car entrance at 7100 S. Holly St. Here you’ll find a picnic table and 8 parking spaces.
The Willow Spring Service Center is also located at that entrance and is notable for recycling Christmas trees into free mulch.
Major Features of Willow Spring Open Space
Willow Creek runs year-round through the length of Willow Spring Open Space. The area around it provides food, water and shelter for many plants and animals. There are even beaver dams on the Creek!
On either side of Willow Creek is its floodplain. A floodplain is a low area near a creek or river which can get flooded in the spring when the creek flow is high or after a heavy rain.
The edges of the creek and floodplain create what is a riparian habitat, which is the transition zone between the water and the dry land.
Willow Spring Open Space has well-developed trails maintained by South Suburban, along with some social trails, which are enjoyed by many for running, hiking, bicycling, and walking dogs.
There is a loop trail of approximately 2 miles. It is part of the 6.1-mile South Suburban Willow Creek Trail.
A major feature of the Willow Spring Open Space is the imposing Englewood Dam near the north end, which was built for flood control in the 1930’s and raised higher in the 1970’s. This is an earthen dam, with Willow Creek flowing through a concrete pipe at its base.
If there is a heavy rain, water backs up against the dam and the release of water is limited to what can flow through the concrete pipe, protecting the downstream area from floods.
A trip to the top of this dam is more than worth it. On a clear day, the views of the mountains and the entire open space from the top of the dam can take your breath away! It is an excellent spot for watching red-tailed hawks soaring up on the wind currents, and checking out the beaver dams and mallards in the creek below. Also be sure to look down while walking along the dirt road and notice the hardy flowers and grasses growing there.
For more on the Englewood Dam, click here.
Plains Grassland Habitat
The Plains Grassland habitat in Willow Spring Open Space offers a glimpse into our area’s past. The plains that were in this area before it was developed are too dry for trees to survive. Native grasses and shrubs that we can still find in the open space were able to evolve to take advantage of the abundant sun and thrive in this climate. These native plants are vital to the health and vitality of habitats, offering food sources and shelter for insects, birds and mammals that call these places home.
There are also a wide variety of blooming flowers to be found in the plains area. Click here to read about the white blooms that you can see there.
Willow Spring Open Space is surprisingly a wonderful natural area, even with the alterations people have made through the Englewood Dam and walking trails and being surrounded by suburban homes. Look around to discover the delights of nature at every turn!
Additional Resources regarding Willow Spring Open Space
Tours: Naturalists are available for hire through South Suburban to lead outings for scout troops, garden clubs, or interested parties with Nature-related topics. Call 303.730.1022 for further information. Tours are also available through the South Suburban Parks catalog under Nature & Outdoor Recreation. Select Willow Spring Open Space location on the list on the left of the screen to find events, which in 2023 include full moon walks and a program on coyotes.
Information on plants not included in this website can be found through the Arapahoe County CSU Extension.
References and Further Reading
- From Grassland to Glacier: The Natural History of Colorado and the Surrounding Region, by Cornelia Fleischer Mutel and John C. Emerick, 1992
- Explore Colorado: A Naturalist’s Notebook, by Frances Alley Kruger and Carron A. Meaney with Photography by John Fielder, 1995
- Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a permanent exhibit called Explore Colorado on the 3rd level, which contains wonderful dioramas and information about the Ecosystems found in Colorado