While in Estes Park, you’ll find numerous hikes that lead you deep into the Rocky Mountains and its surrounding wilderness. However, right in the heart of downtown Estes Park, there’s a brief yet captivating trail that takes you to the Birch Ruins, a century-old historic site.
In the following guide, I’ll provide you with detailed instructions on exploring the ruins and cabin while offering insights into the history you’ll encounter during your journey.
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What are the Birch Ruins in Estes Park?
The Birch Ruins are well-preserved remnants of a stone bungalow built in 1907 and owned by Albert ‘Al’ Birch, the editor of the Denver Post.
Starting in 1903, Birch spent his summers in Estes Park and after a few years, he developed a deep affection for the place and commissioned stonemason Carl Piltz to construct a small bungalow on this rocky outcropping, offering a scenic view of the town.
Unfortunately, in 1907, the bungalow was destroyed by fire, leaving behind only the stone ruins, which can still be explored today.
Admission is free to explore the ruins and only a short and easy hike is required to see them.
Where are the Birch Ruins in Estes Park?
The Birch Ruins are located in the Knoll-Willows Open Space, which is a 100-acre park right in the heart of downtown Estes Park. There are two different trailheads that you can use to explore the Birch Ruins, one on the north and one on the south.
On the south side, just behind the City Hall/police station you’ll find a creek running and it’s from this vantage point that you can look up and see the ruins perched atop the rocky knoll. You’ll also see a bridge crossing the creek and a sign indicating the beginning of this trail head which will wrap around the side of the hill and then take you up to the ruins.
Then, on the north side, there is the trailhead with a reasonably sized parking lot. I suggest beginning from this side as you can conveniently access the middle trail that leads to the Birch Ruins. Afterward, you can descend to the side where you can visit the cabin, which was constructed after the ruins.
Additionally, there’s a third path branching off from the trailhead that takes you along the east side of the hill, providing views of Lake Estes. This is a good route to undertake after you’ve explored the ruins and the cabin. Along the way, you’ll find benches where you can simply relax and take in the scenery.
Visiting the Birch Ruins
We arrived at the ruins on a lovely sunny day in Estes Park with our dog, only to discover that pets are not permitted on the trail. Sadly, we had to take our pup back. It’s worth noting that bicycles are also prohibited.
As mentioned earlier, we began our journey from the north trailhead, which can be accessed directly from E. Wonderview Ave. However, it’s important to note that the turn-off can be easily missed, so keep a lookout for it.
From this side, you have the option to choose from one of three trails, and I highly recommend taking the middle trail that leads directly to the top of the hill. Each of these trails is relatively short and has a minimal amount of elevation gain. For reference, we followed the middle trail, descended via the side trail to the cabin, and partially hiked the third trail, resulting in a total distance of 0.69 miles with an elevation gain of 75 feet. Therefore, this hike is definitely suitable for families.
Here is the map of our hike to help you makes sense of our path:
As you start the trail, it’s incredibly peaceful. Towering pine trees greet your path, creating a serene atmosphere that transports you away from the business of Elkhorn Avenue, which lies just beyond. While parts of the trail offer shade, there are also open stretches where the sun shines brightly, so it is highly advisable to apply sunscreen for protection.
As you make your way up, there will be some benches that you can relax on, some of which were part of Estes Park’s 2017 Centennial. The centennial project brought many upgrades to the area including installations around the beautiful River Walk and things like the pika scavenger hunt.
Once you near the top, there is a little spur off the trail that you can use to take in some of the views. The terrain is not bad at all, but if it’s wet, some of the rocks could be a little slippery. I always recommend wearing hiking boots, even on very short hikes, because they can help reduce ankle twists or slips when dealing with trail conditions. However, if you only have sneakers, those should not be a problem.
Before long, you’ll reach the ruins, overlooking downtown Estes and with the magnificent Front Range mountains as a backdrop. It becomes clear why Birch chose this spot to build his cottage — it’s truly a breathtaking location.
The ruins exemplify the rustic architectural style, incorporating natural materials such as rough-hewn wood and local stone. The use of these raw and unrefined elements lends the structures an organic appearance, blending seamlessly with the surrounding environment. This is especially true when viewed from the ground — it almost camouflages perfectly!
Inside, you have the opportunity to explore, thanks to the steel railing and flooring that has been installed at the original patio level.
Just make sure to resist the urge to channel your inner mountain goat and climb or step on any of the ancient structures. You don’t want to be the tourist known for damaging any of the structure which is over 100 years old!
Inside, you’ll find interpretive panels to give you some insight on the structure as well as the culprit of the fire: the large fireplace.
If you look very closely at the rocky remains you’ll find little clues about the interior, including hinges on the doorway, notches for wooden beams, and reinforcements below the floor.
One of the main attractions of the ruins was undoubtedly the breathtaking views, which can be experienced by gazing through the numerous remaining windows.
Utilize the viewing scopes to get a closer glimpse of the stunning mountains in the distance, including Longs Peak, or observe the happenings in downtown Estes Park. There’s even a viewing scope specifically designed for younger children. The best part is that these scopes are free to use, so there’s no need to worry about bringing any quarters!
The ruins are relatively small, allowing you to explore every nook and enjoy the panoramic views without taking up too much time. We managed to visit all the sites within just under 30 minutes, making it a convenient addition to your itinerary, even if you have other activities planned for the day.
After taking a few minutes to appreciate the ruins the we then made our way down the side of trail towards the cabin.
The trail is adorned with majestic pine trees, and on your left, you can hear the soothing sound of a flowing stream.
And then you will shortly come up to the cabin, where you will also find an outhouse and small shed.
After the bungalow burned down in 1907, Al Birch decided to rebuild lower on the knoll in 1908, which would give him better access to the downtown area and bring him closer to Black Canyon Creek.
The cabin is another great example of rustic style architecture and made with local ponderosa pine logs. The Birch family used the cabin as a writer’s retreat and a summer house up until the 1980s.
The cabin has been very well preserved but unfortunately you cannot go inside of it, so you’ll just need to admire it from its exterior. However, if you could enter you’d see built-in bookcases, a large living and dining area, and windows with views of Black Canyon Creek.
While the cabin did not have the views of the bungalow it was still situated in a very idyllic spot with quaking aspens and pine trees rising above. This 20-acre parcel is now owned by the Town of Estes Park in 2001 and was named the Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows in 2017.
The entire space is currently maintained by the Estes Park Museum in collaboration with the Town of Estes Park and the Estes Valley Land Trust. Both the Ruins and cabin appear on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. Sometimes, the museum offers free guided tours.
After checking out the cabin within made our way back to the trailhead via the trail that runs along the willow-lined Black Canyon Creek. This is sometimes used as a calving ground for elk so make sure to maintain some situational awareness as you go through here. You can also be on the lookout for beaver, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and other birds.
We then ventured a little bit on the more eastern trail. This trail is more exposed to the sun but has some decent views of Lake Estes and the surrounding mountains.
You also have a view of the Stanley Hotel, although it is largely obscured by trees. We had just visited the hotel while doing a Shining Tour which was a really cool experience and so I enjoyed seeing it from this perspective as it’s such a beautiful historic property.
The Birch Ruins in Estes Park are definitely worth a visit. They are free to explore, and you won’t need much time to appreciate both the ruins and the historic cabin. Set in a serene natural environment, the site offers breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks, making it a perfect spot for photography enthusiasts and anyone seeking a peaceful place to unwind.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.