Distance: 6.5 to 17 miles RT depending on how many homesteads you visit. We did 11 miles.
Elevation: approx 1,200 feet from trailhead to upper homesteads
Location: Between Estes Park & Lyons
Trailhead: Informational signs, pit toilet
Dogs: Welcome on leash
It probably seemed liked a great offer, 160 acres for just a small filing fee. But like most great offers, there was a catch. Homesteaders had to live on their land for 6 months of every year for 5 years. They had to build a home and improve the land.
That's just what several families and one woman agreed to do in an area now known as Lion's Gulch. The Griffith, Brown, Irvin, Engel, Laycock, Boren and Hill families and Sarah Walker moved here between 1889 and 1923. 15 miles of trails now wind between what was once a neighborhood of homesteads.
The trailhead for Homestead Meadows is at Lion Gulch on Highway 36 between Lyons and Estes Park. Thousands of people drive by this parking area on the side of the road every day and probably have no idea why there are so many cars parked here.
The trail starts with a drop down to a stream, then a climb up the gulch. Trail guides and signs vary on the distance from the trailhead to the meadow, from 2.7 miles to 3.4 miles. My GPS said 3 miles. The trail crosses a nice stream several times. We crossed on 3 bridges, several logs and occasionally just the rocks. One log was quite loose, so test each log before putting several people on it.
It was peaceful listening to the sounds of the water as we hiked up the gulch. The trail has some steep sections that can take your breath away and there are sections that are fairly level. Expect to climb about 1,000 feet to the meadow. Consider taking this hike in mid-September to mid-October when the leaves are turning, there are a lot of aspen trees in this area.
This hike has a lot of signs. There is a sign at the first stream crossing explaining the homestead act, there's a similiar one near the meadow. At a trail split in the meadow there are two mileage signs. Continue straight ahead for the Walker, Brown, Griffith and Irvin homesteads. Turn left for the Engert, Laycock, Boren and Hill homesteads. (Note: The Engert homestead burned in the Big Elk Fire in 2002.)
My goal today was the northern group of homesteads. The sign says it's a 1/4 mile to the Walker homestead, I'd call it a .1 of a mile. Honestly, there's not much left at Sarah Walker's homestead. Look for a stove, the metal springs of an old mattress, a pile of wood that may have been her home or a cellar and several other artifacts in the area. While there's not much to see, there is much to imagine.
A sign explains Sarah Walker of England was the only woman to homestead in this area. She moved here in 1908. There are conflicting stories on whether she moved to the area after seperating from her husband or after he died. All sources agree she lived in this homestead by herself. Imagine being alone trying to build a home and make a living. Sarah had a garden, a milk cow, chickens and a spring. She didn't have a horse so she would hike down to what is now Highway 36 to sell her eggs and cream. She would hitchhike to Lyons for supplies. Walker lived here for 15 years, then moved to Lyons. The property changed hands several times and was even used a schoolhouse at one time. Read about Sarah's life, explore the area, then return to the main trail.
The walk to the Griffith homestead is about a quarter mile. Along the way you'll pass a corral in the meadow. And you may spot another abandoned stove.
The Griffith weren't homesteaders. They bought their land from the state of Colorado in 1923. The sign here tells a sad story of how William Griffith complained about feeling dizzy and partially blind one day but still went out to fix fences. A neighbor found him dead the next morning. That was 1936.
While the Griffith's story is sad, their property is fascinating. There are several buildings that are easy to see here. The first appears to be a log home that had a front door. We found several pieces of glass, metal and other objects laid out on the wooden logs. As always, take only pictures, leave the artifacts for the next visitor to enjoy.
A few feet away, we found the remnants of a much larger building, possibly a home, possibly a bunkhouse. Just part of one wall is still standing. It appears someone propped it up. I looked back at a photo from the area in 2006 and found the same section of wall was still standing then.
Across the main trail from the bunkhouse, we spotted some remnants in the grass. Look closer. We found wads of chicken wire, so we assumed this was the old chicken coop. Down the main trail you'll see one more bulding. It appears to have been a home. We saw the remnants of a chair inside and possibly some wallpaper on the walls. In photos from 2006, the building was still standing upright, it's now falling down. Very sad to see what time does to these historic places.
After exploring this last building on the trail, we continued in the same direction. We hiked through the grass looking for a trail. We found an old road that passed some private property and started to loop back the way we came. Don't go this way! After visiting the last building at the Griffith home, go back to the area between the first log home and the bigger home/bunkhouse. There is a trail here. (There's a trail sign if you look closely) Take this trail if you want to continue on.
I found a map from a group called Poudre Wilderness Volunteers. I'm not sure I agree with the distances on the map, but the map was a big help.
The trail winds through the trees to another trail split. Turn right at the split, on to an old road. (Take a good look at this trail split so you'll remember to turn here on the way back) As you travel on this old road, you'll come to a turnoff to the Brown homestead. If you plan to see both the Brown and the Irvin homesteads, go to the Brown first. If you're only going to the Brown or the Irvin, choose the Irvin. (On this sign, it's listed as the sawmill.)
The trail to the Brown home from the trail split is about a mile. Just when you spot the house to your right, you'll come to another trail split. I think going left may take you to the fairly new Hermit Park Open Space. We turned right to explore the Brown's homestead. Just before the house, you may see a spring. It's piped to a large bucket.
The Brown family ran a cattle ranch. The sign here explains Harry Brown raised Hereford cattle and cut and sold timber to be used in mining. In 1915, he married. Harry and his wife built a second home on Highway 36. The Brown's raised their two daughters in that home.
Make sure you walk all the way around the Brown homestead and peak in the windows. Inside we saw an old stove with several pots rusting away as if waiting for the lady of the house to return to cook the evening meal. There are lots of metal items scattered on the floor from food cans to cisterns to a large barrel. The best advice is to stay outside and try to look carefully through the windows, the floor here is very unstable. While it may look easy to walk inside, it's a lot harder to get back out safely.
Several trail descriptions called this area a "meadow loop" so we didn't turn back, we continued on the trail. At the next trail split we trusted our map and took a big right turn. That was the right way. After hiking about .75 mile we came to another trail split. This one had a sign pointing to the Irvin homestead and sawmill. It said it was .75 miles. It felt much shorter.
The Irvin's homestead is the best one we saw all day. It has several buildings to explore. The first one is a two story barn that still has part of its second story. Inside we found 4 stalls, a possible grain bin and other items. It was in remarkable shape compared to some buildings we had seen.
Our next stop was the main house. (see photo are top of article) On its covered porch/entry way we found built in shelves. The next room was the kitchen. You could stand in front of the old stove and imagine the lady of the house looking out the window at the barn waiting for the family to come in. Looking in other windows we spotted a room with a stone fireplace.
Behind the house was what appeared to be an outhouse with a fence around it. One of my hiking partners found a chicken coop/rabbit hutch on the other side of the house. The sign at the entrance to the property said the owner's daughter raised rabbits. The pelts were used to line military coats in World War II.
Behind the house, we spotted a stone path down to a spring and the bathhouse. Inside was a sunken tub! The piping system on the wall supposedly heated the water before it filled the tub.
Contining down the hill we came to three more buildings. The first, a main building of some sort with a porch. Inside there was a counter, an old chair and shelves with supplies left behind. We found a pair of shoes, coffee can, some sort of orange drink mix and several pans.
The other buildings were a two sided outhouse and a bunkhouse. You could still see 4 bunk beds with the metal spring mattresses.
This was such a fascinating place, we spent quite a bit of time exploring the buildings and trying to imagine life here. After a lunch break, we went searching for the sawmill. We found some equipment, but no buildings. If you've found the sawmill, I'd love to see a picture of it and get better directions for finding it.
After that it was time to head back for the main trail, back to the meadow and back to the trailhead. While I hiked more distance than I planned, it was worth it to explore around the homesteads. Now I'll have to go back and explore the 3 homesteads in the other direction.
If you have any questions, comments or other homestead trails I should check out, just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directions: From Boulder, take U.S. 36 to Lyons. At the light in Lyons, turn left on U.S. 36/Highway 66. Drive through town (obey the speed limit signs). Turn right toward Estes Park on U.S. 36. About 12 miles from Lyons, you'll see the trailhead on your left. (It's 8 miles from Estes Park) The trailhead is a large parking area that almost looks more like a pulloff. There is a forest service sign saying "Roosevelt National Forest Trailhead Lion Gulch".