Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 9.4 miles (round trip)Walking time: 6 hours
Elevations: 1,480 ft. gain/loss
Lion Gulch Trailhead (start): 7,320 ft.
Irvin Homestead: 8,600 ft.
Brown Homestead: 8,680 ft.
Trail: Easy, well marked and well maintained trail.
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. There is usually snow on the trail from mid-November through mid-June.
Vicinity: Near Estes Park
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If you are interested in Coloradoís early settlers and want to learn more about how and where they lived this hike will be of special interest to you. Homestead Meadows was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1990, and it is now a protected area managed by the Forest Service. The area contains no fewer than eight century-old homesteads. Many of the original buildings are still standing, and the trails leading to the homesteads are the old wagon roads that residents once used to access their homes. The sites provide a fascinating window into what life on the frontier was like at the turn of the last century.
To make the hike even more interesting the Forest Service has placed plaques at each of the eight homesteads to provide information about who lived there. One plaque describes a teenage girl who rode her horse all the way to Estes Park to attend high school. Another describes how one young girl passed the lonely winter evenings playing dominoes and listening to her father play the fiddle. And still another plaque describes how one of the cabins was used in the early 1950s as a schoolhouse for the four remaining children who still lived in the area. Theirs was a life far different from the life we know in Colorado today.
From the trailhead the trail drops down slightly to cross the Little Thompson River, and then turns west to begin following Lion Gulch up to Homestead Meadows. Initially the trail is in an open forest of ponderosa pines, but when it enters the gulch the scene changes dramatically. Lion Gulch is a beautiful riparian area with more species of green plants that you can imagine. The well shaded path proceeds upward along a gradual grade, gaining 1,080 feet over the next 2.5 miles.
As you near the meadows the trail levels out and heads due west along the north side of the stream. If you are observant you may see the rusted remains of what appears to be a model-T Ford in the bushes 25 feet below the left side of the trail. Then, just 3 minutes beyond the old car, you will come to the first Forest Service plaque, offering a brief description of the 1862 Homestead Act. This act allowed settlers to gain title to 160 acres of land simply by building a small dwelling on the land and living on it at least half the time for a period of 5 years. Alternatively a settler could obtain title to his homestead in only 6 months by paying the government $200.00, but few people had that kind of money at that time.
Soon after reading the first plaque you will come to a trail junction where you must make a decision. The Engert, Laycock, Boren, and Hill homesteads are all on the trail to the left, while the Walker, Griffith, Irvin, and Brown homesteads are all straight ahead. If you want to see all of the homesteads the total round trip walking distance from your car will be 16.5 miles, so unless you are planning the trip as an overnighter you will probably want to see only a few of them. In my opinion, the Irvin Homestead is the most interesting of the eight homesteads, so if you are planning to do this hike in a single day and need to make a choice I suggest you bear right at the junction and see the Walker, Griffith, Irvin, and Brown homesteads.
Five minutes after leaving the junction you will come to the first homestead site, deeded to Sarah Walker in 1914. There isnít much left of the Walker cabin, but Sarah must have been a lady filled with grit and determination. She left England around the turn of the century and moved to Lyons, Colorado, in 1908. Later, after loosing her husband and two children, she settled in Homestead Meadows and lived there until around 1925. She was the only single woman to homestead in the area.
Another 0.2 mile beyond the Walker homestead you will come to the remains of three old cabins on a plot of land that was purchased from the state of Colorado by William Griffith in 1923. Griffith lived there until his death in 1936.
From the Griffith homestead to the Irvin homestead is 1.1 miles along an old wagon road that once served a sawmill on the Irvin property. Along the way you will pass two other trails that branch off to the left towards the Brown homestead. You will probably want to visit the Brown property on the way back.
The Irvin homestead was first deeded to Frank Irvin in 1917 and later owned by R. J. Nettleton. Nettleton operated a sawmill there and also raised rabbit pelts for sale to the US Army during World War II. In the 1960s the homestead was developed as a hunting camp, and there are still at least 7 buildings on the property in various states of disrepair. Unfortunately there is not much left of the old sawmill except an old gear rack and a sledge that was probably used for dragging logs to the mill.
Retracing your footsteps 0.7 mile from the Irvin homestead will bring you back to the beginning of the Meadow Loop Trail that passes the Brown homestead. Turn right here and walk north on Road 120. After 15 minutes you will arrive at a junction where you must turn left onto Road 120A. The Brown homestead is a 5-minute walk from the junction.
The 320-acre Brown homestead was first deeded to brothers Harry and Cloyd Brown in 1917 and 1919, and Harry raised cattle and sold timber from the property until the 1930s. Today the property still has one cabin standing on it. The old cabin contains a number of interesting artifacts including an old-fashion stove.
Road 120A enters private property just south of Brownís Cabin, but 200 feet beyond the cabin the Meadow Loop Trail departs from the road and heads out through the trees for 0.6 mile back to the Irvin sawmill logging road. When you reach the road you must turn right to retrace your steps back past the Griffith and Walker homesteads and down Lion Gulch to the trailhead.
The Engert, Laycock, Boren, and Hill Homesteads
You can visit these homesteads by turning south at the trail junction below the Walker homestead. A visit to these four additional sites will add another 7.1 miles, round trip, to the length of the hike.
After you have walked 0.2 mile from the junction you will meet another old wagon road. Bear left on this road and continue for another 0.1 mile to another will marked road on the left that goes to the Engert Cabin. The distance from the second junction to the Engert property is 0.9 mile.
Charles Engert received his deed to this land in 1921. Unlike the other settlers in the area, however, he considered the cabin to be more of a vacation home than a residence. He had a job as the postmaster of Lyons, and he was able to fulfill the Homestead Actís 6 months/year residency requirement only by leaving his wife alone on the land for long periods of time during the summers. The cabin is falling down now, but you can still see some of the chairs inside where Mrs. Engert spent her lonely evenings reading or knitting.
From the Engert cabin it is a 1.6 mile walk on to the Laycock homestead. Walk back 0.3 miles west of Engertís property to a secondary road that branches off to the left. This road joins the main road after 0.8 mile, where you must turn left for the last 0.5 mile to the Laycock homestead. Just before you reach the Laycock property you will notice another road branching off to the right. Disregard this road and continue straight for another 100 yards down a narrow path to the Laycock cabin.
William Laycock was the first settler in Homestead Meadows, receiving his certificate of patent in 1889. But it was a later resident, William Turner House, that had the greatest impact on the meadows. House, a grandson of the Engerts, lived on the Laycock homestead from 1933 to 1952, longer than any of the other settlers. He was heavily involved in ranching and logging, and he eventually enlarged his holdings by buying five other homesteads. The House family grew hay for their cattle in the field south of the cabins, and you can still see a few pieces of broken farm equipment in the trees on the edges of the field.
The Boren Cabin, 0.7 mile beyond the Laycock homestead, was home to Robert Boren and his two young daughters, Mina and Joel. They were one of the few families who lived year round in the meadows. Mina, who was 13 when her father received the deed to the property in 1906, spoke disparagingly of the cold lonely winters spent feeding the cattle, chopping wood, and shoveling mountains of snow. But in spite of their isolation the Borens were a gregarious people who often invited travelers to stay with them in their mountain home.
A 20-minute walk north from the Laycock homestead on Trail 1007 will bring you to the last of the Homestead Meadows homesteads: the Hill homestead. This property was homesteaded by Clayton Hill in 1916. He received his certificate of patent in 1921 and promptly sold his holdings to a lady named Daisy Baber. Although Baber resold the land after just a few years, in 1952 she published a book about frontier life in Colorado titled Injun Summer: an Old Cowhand Rides the Ghost Trails. Perhaps some of her inspiration for the book came from the time she spent in Homestead Meadows.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Homestead Meadows area
Cache la Poudre (Trails Illustrated, map #101)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS