Homestead Meadows is probably my favorite history hike in Colorado. The Homestead Meadows area protects seven homestead plots just a few miles south of Estes Park, off U.S. 36.
Most people get to Homestead Meadows via the Lion Gulch trail (8 miles south of Estes Park, on the side of U.S. 36). However, I thought there might be a short cut, via Hermit Park Open Space and there is (directions below). The bad news? There is a fee to park at Hermit Park, in 2013 it was $6.
The hike starts at the Homestead Meadows connector trail at the end of the Hermit Park road. A sign here says it's about one mile to the Forest Service boundary. That's right and it's about two miles to the first homestead. It's three miles to the first homestead via the Lion Gulch trailhead.
The Hermit Park trail to Homestead Meadows starts on a road next to protected wetlands. You may have traffic here, because visitors staying at two cabins on this road/trail are allowed to drive to their cabins. Otherwise, there shouldn't be any traffic after the gate.
Hike along with wide road, past the two cabins. When the road splits, follow the trail signs. A few steps away, the road ends and the trail becomes single-person wide through the grass and trees. A sign here points the way to Homestead Meadows.
The trail gets a bit steeper as it winds through the forest. At 0.75 miles, hikers come to another sign that says Homestead Meadows is 1.5 miles away. Maybe now is a good time to talk about "Homestead Meadows."
Homestead Meadows is a large meadow with two old homesteads -- the Walker and Griffith homesteads. There are no buildings left at Sarah Walker's homestead, you'll need to use your imagination. There's 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. A sign explains Sarah Walker of England was the only woman to homestead in this area. She moved here in 1908. She didn't have a horse so she would hike to the highway to sell her eggs and cream.
The Griffith homestead is about a quarter mile from the Walker ruins. The Griffiths weren't homesteaders. They bought their land from the state of Colorado in 1923. There are several buildings at the Griffith's plot, but most are falling down. There are the remnants of a log home next a much larger home or bunkhouse that has mostly collapsed. Across the way is chicken wire, so we assumed that was the old chicken coop. There's another building, likely a home. We saw the remnants of a chair inside and possibly some wallpaper on the walls.
From the meadows, hikers can go east to see the Engert, Laycock, Boren and Hill homesteads. (Note: The Engert homestead burned in the Big Elk Fire in 2002.) Or they go west to see the Brown and Irwin homesteads. Seeing ALL of the homesteads requires a hike of about 16 miles. Most people hike the 3 or so mile to the meadow, see the Brown and Griffith homesteads and leave for a hike of about 6 miles. I'm sorry to see that because the Irwin homestead is my favorite. That's why I wanted to find a short cut. The trail from Hermit Park offers that short cut.
When you reach the sign that says Homestead Meadows is 1.5 miles away, the first homestead, the Brown homestead is about 1.25 miles away. The "meadows" with the Griffith home is about 2.25 miles away. But for now, let's keep going.
About a quarter mile past the sign, the trail drops down a steep grade to a fence that says private property. So turn right on Special Service Road #120. The road starts flat, but starts gaining elevation up to a meadow. Hike around a fence with a sign that says, "Welcome Foot Travel." (I'd had never seen that before.)
A short distance from here, you'll come to a trail/road split. Turn right and hike around the meadow 0.2 miles to the Brown homestead. A sign explains that the Brown family ran a cattle ranch and occasionally cut timber to make a living. Walk 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 floor inside is not safe and the roof is falling down, so it's best to enjoy the homestead from the outside.
After visiting the Brown Homestead, I hiked back 0.2 miles to the last trail/road split with the signs that said 120 and 120A. This time I went the other way. The road winds its way past several meadows and through the trees about 0.8 miles to a signed split. Turn left here for the Irwin homestead. Note the sign also says sawmill, but I never found the sawmill. The Irwin homestead is less than a half mile from the split.
When you arrive at the Irwin homestead, the first thing you'll see is the barn, but stop at the sign first to learn more about the Irwins and the others who lived here over the years. Likely because this property was used as a hunting camp in the 1960s, there are more buildings here than at the other homestead sites.
Next, walk to the two story barn that still has part of its second story. Look inside at the equipment left behind.
Then walk to the main house which still has its porch/entry way, kitchen and living room with stone fireplace. Continue behind the house to the outbuildings, including a bathhouse with a tub down by the river. There are more outbuildings including a bunkhouse with 4 bunks, an outhouse and even a building that may have been a general store of some sort.
After you're done exploring, you may want to go looking for that sawmill. If you find it, send me a picture! I like having lunch here imaging what it was like to live, work or visit this remote place 50 or more years ago.
On the way back, at the split to return toward Hermit Park, the sign says "Meadow Loop." From here, it's about a mile to Homestead Meadows to see the Griffith and Walker homesteads. Just watch where you turn so you can find your way. I just hiked to the Irwin and Brown homesteads on the day I visited.
If you want more hikes, check out this list of 200+ great hikes in Colorado.
Details: The hike from the Hermit Park parking area, to the Brown homestead, then the Irwin homestead and back is 6.65 miles with about 600 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.
Directions: From Denver, take U.S. 36 through Boulder, Lyons and toward Estes Park. Around mile marker 4, about four miles from Estes Park, you'll see the entrance sign for Hermit Park Open Space on your left/west. Go to the entrance station or Visitor's Center to pay. Take the park's main road three miles to the end for the parking lot for Homestead Meadows.