A Trail Less Traveled: Hollowell Park to Mill Creek Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s official – we have been away from Rocky Mountain National Park for far too long! But the count-down is on because we reserved our cabin for a trip at the end of May. In anticipation, I’ve been taking a look back through our family’s hiking journal and came across a hike that I haven’t shared before.

Hollowell Park

Back in May of 2016, we ventured to Hollowell Park because it was an area in RMNP that we had never explored. We hoped it would be a good place to hike with our toddler during the spring season when some higher altitude hikes are still covered in ice and snow. The Hollowell Park turnoff is approximately 8,300 ft in elevation according to the park’s website. In comparison, Bear Lake is 9,475 ft.

I took a picture of the sign at Hollowell Park to give myself a visual of all the destinations you can hike to including Cub Lake, Bierstadt Lake, and Bear Lake. Hiking from Hollowell Park is not the most direct route to these popular attractions, but it could be a good alternate route to avoid some of the crowds during peak visitor season.

Hikes from Hallowell Park in Rocky Mountain National Park

Mill Creek Basin

We decided to hike to Mill Creek Basin, which is a less popular destination in the park. Our hike was 1.9 miles each way which began in an open grassy area and climbed an additional 600 feet of elevation through towering pines.

The trail followed a mountain stream called Mill Creek. Several snowy patches remained on the trail along with muddy portions caused by recent snow melt. We crossed over a small wooden bridge to get to the Mill Creek Basin, a meadow with aspens which I imagine are even more beautiful in autumn.

Hallowell Park in RMNP Rocky Mountain National Park
Hollowell Park – Open meadow with views of Rocky Mountains
Deer in Rocky Mountain National Park's Hallowell Park
Deer on the hillside
Mill Creek flows in Rocky Mountain National park
Mill Creek
Hallowell Park trails to Mill Creek Basin, Bierstadt Lake, Bear Lake and Cub Lake.
Trail signage points to Mill Creek Basin, Bierstadt Lake, Bear Lake and Cub Lake
Wooded trail leading to Mill Creek Basin
Towering Pines
Small wooden bridge crossing Mill Creek
Small wood bridge crosses Mill Creek
Mill Creek Basin
Mill Creek Basin
Mill Creek melted snow
Snow in May

Avoid Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park

If you are interested in additional trails that we think are good for avoiding crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park, I wrote a post about the Glacier Creek trail here.

Spring Hiking in RMNP

Spring can be a tricky season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park because the weather varies day-to-day. Here are some additional lower elevation hikes you might consider:

Best Hikes Under 5 Miles

The hike to Mill Creek Basin was just under 4 miles round trip. When we plan hikes for our young family, we typically aim for hikes that are similar in length. We broke down some of our favorite family-friendly ‘short hikes’ with details to help plan your adventure in the pages linked below:

Rocky Mountain Animal Game

I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.

Animal Game Rules:

1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points.
2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points.
3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.

We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.

Mountain Lions – 100 Points

We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.

Bear – 50

My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.

Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25

A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.

Male Bighorn Sheep – 25
& Female Sheep – 25

A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO

Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.

Coyote – 25

A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park
A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park

We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.

Fox – 20

One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.

Marmot – 20

A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks
A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks

We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).

Pika – 20

A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra
A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra

Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.

Eagle – 20

An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO
An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO

It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.

Owl – 20

If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.

Snake – 10

Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers
Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers

To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.

Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5

Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park

It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.

Elk rut in Estes Park, Colorado
During elk rut season in Estes Park, Colorado the bull elks duel

Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.

Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5

Deer standing right outside our front door in Estes Park, CO

Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.

Chipmunk – 5

Chipmunk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.

Hummingbird – 5

Hummingbird near Big Thompson River in downtown Estes Park, CO

Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.

Hawk or Turkey – 5

Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO
Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO

We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trout – 5

Trout swimming in The Loch

Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.

At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.

Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?

Government (is still) shutdown

I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.

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A Winter Walk in Moraine Park That’s Worth Freezing For

Earlier this month we took a winter trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Little did we know, a few weeks later the national parks would be affected by the current government shutdown. Unfortunately, that means visitors can’t drive into the park. Based on articles I’ve read, this hasn’t had a big impact on the local economy yet because winter is typically a slower season. With that said, I hope that the situation is resolved soon!

Moraine Park

During our December trip, we enjoyed a brief but beautiful hike in Moraine Park beginning at the Cub Lake trail head. We chose this area because at 8,080 ft of elevation there is substantially less snow compared to areas of the park with higher altitude.

Frozen river in Moraine Park

I was excited when this picture was featured on the instagram feed @visitestespark where over 930 people liked it.

The first stretch of the hike is in a valley where there is little protection from blasts of freezing wind, but the scenery is worth bundling up and getting out of your cozy cabin for. The Big Thompson River was mostly frozen and seem to glimmer against the blue sky and snow covered mountain backdrop.

rocky mountain national park

Luckily, you don’t have to walk far before tall trees and surrounding rock formations block the wind. Our four-year-old daughter veered off the path to scramble up boulders to join her sister and dad taking in the peaceful views.

view of moraine valley rocky mountain national park

Beautiful views are not the only reason to visit Moraine Park, it is also a great place to encounter wildlife. Last fall we wrote, Cub Lake Trail – a Wildlife Hotspot in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Toddler Friendly Hiking

toddler friendly hiking in rocky mountain national park

Our nearly two-year-old insisted on hiking in her pajamas, wearing socks as gloves, and borrowing my hat. She held on to my husband’s hand in icy patches, but wanted to show off her independence by walking at her own pace. This led to our decision to cut the hike short. The trail to Cub Lake is 2.5 miles each way. We wrote about this hike in more detail in a previous post, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Cub Lake.

log bridge in moraine valley near big thompson river

New Year Goals

As we look forward to a New Year and new outdoor adventures, our goal is to have the girls walking rather than riding in kid-carriers during many of our hikes. We are excited to discover new hikes in the Rocky Mountains and the Ozark Mountains which are located near our new home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We will write about all of them in our family hiking journal and also look forward to sharing with y’all too!

Crossing the Divide—Bear Lake to Grand Lake Traverse

A Trip Report from Eric’s hike over the Continental Divide with friends on August 19, 2018

I’ve been visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with my family since I was a young child, and have always been simply drawn to the mountains and the adventure that awaits out in the alpine wilderness. Kelly and I have been consistently coming out to Estes Park together since 2012, and have been on a number of adventures of varying difficulties. Often after a long day of hiking, I’ll turn on the television to the local “Channel 8,” which features productions from Estes Park legend Nick Molle, as well as (of course) plenty of advertisements for the in-town businesses. One of Nick’s productions that still loops from time to time is a show called “A Walk in the Park,” which features some of the great hikes in Rocky, along with commentary from guide-book author and former park ranger Lisa Foster. Their special on Long’s Peak still captivates me as I re-live my first trip up that mountain with friends back in 2010, and recall how under-prepared I was for that journey! However, another hike that I had read about in Lisa’s guide book had been tugging at me as the next challenge I had to try—hiking from Bear Lake, the start of some of the most popular trails in the park, all the way over to Grand Lake on the other side of the park. When an episode of “A Walk in the Park” featured this journey, I was convinced that someday I needed to give it a shot.

We’ve been up Flattop Mountain and over to Hallett Peak numerous times, as its one of our favorite hikes (without carrying our children). 

Ftattop Mountain view
View near the summit of Flattop Mountain, from a prior trip

However, continuing the hike on to Grand Lake always seemed to be a bit of a stretch, both due to the distance, and just the logistics of arranging transportation back and forth over the mountain (at over 17 miles, it wasn’t a hike I wanted to turn around and repeat the next day). As we’ve had the truly immense joy of adding two beautiful young girls to our family in the past 4 years, some of these more difficult hikes had been shelved in favor of more kid friendly (or at least kid-carry friendly) destinations. Kelly is the best though, and after hearing me talk about this hike so much (probably to the point of driving her nuts), she finally told me that I needed to just plan the trip with some friends and make it happen. In August this year, we did just that.

A couple of general facts about this hike:

-Hike begins at the Bear Lake trailhead, which is extremely busy in the summer and fall months. Parking can be difficult to come by, but the early start required by this type of undertaking usually will guarantee a space.

-There are a few local shuttle services that will provide transportation back and forth from Grand Lake, but there are no park shuttles that go over Trail Ridge road, so individual arrangements must be made. We opted to drop a car off the night before over at the North Inlet trailhead (end of our hike) in Grand Lake. To leave a car overnight anywhere in the park, just make sure to get a free wilderness permit at one of the ranger stations (we obtained ours at the Kawaunechee Valley Visitors Center).

-As I’ll detail below, weather can be a wild card anytime you are heading above the tree-line, so a wide range of cold/wet weather gear is critical. Total elevation gain from Bear Lake to the summit of Flattop is roughly 2,850 feet, followed by a descent of roughly 3,800 feet to Grand Lake.

-Many people break this hike into a 2-day affair, camping at one of the numerous backcountry sites that are available on the second half of this trail, but we opted to travel more lightly and knock it all out in one day (which I honestly think is the easier approach given all of the elevation gain and decline involved).

-Though steep in a few places, this route is entirely a class 1 hike with no material amount of exposure to steep drop offs. Still, a poorly timed turned ankle 8-10 miles in would make for a rough day, so gear to survive overnight if needed is never a bad idea.

-We carried all of the water that we needed (roughly 3L per person) but there are plenty of places on the descent where a filter could be used to replenish supply.

On to the journey itself…

We set out for the trailhead at roughly 6:30am, hoping to get started shortly after 7:00. Everyone in our group had at least some high-elevation hiking experience, but you never know how altitude may impact aperson on any given day. After a bit of grumbling and the cynical remark “This is considered recreation, and fun, correct?” from one party member during the initial mile or so, everyone seemed to settle in to a comfortable pace.

hike begins at Bear Lake
Catching our breath early on the trail

Three of our group of five had been on the first several miles of this hike up to Flattop multiple times, so for us there were plenty of familiar landmarks along the way, but most notably the Dream Lake overlook at approximately 1.7 miles, and then the Emerald Lake overlook at roughly 3.5 miles in.

Emerald Lake lookout, on a clear day.
Emerald Lake lookout, on a clear day

Unfortunately, we did not have the best of luck with weather for the early part of our trip, as we were hiking through a dense fog and some mist for the majority of our ascent. At approximately 4 miles in, we reached the hitch rack near the summit of Flattop, and took a more extended break with some snacks and plenty of water, knowing that the conditions were likely to be less than favorable for the next several miles up on the tundra. A little over two hours and twenty minutes into the hike, we reached the “summit” of Flattop mountain

Final approach to “summit” of Flattop
Final approach to “summit” of Flattop
Clouds quickly rolled back in at the top
Clouds quickly rolled back in at the top

I always warn people that tell me they are heading up to Flattop, that as the name implies, the summit is very flat and thus the views are somewhat limited unless you make the extra .5 mile climb over to Hallett Peak. On this day, however, it would definitely not have been worth the extra work/scramble, as the fog was quite persistent. For comparison, here is a photo of the views that can be had from Hallett on a clear day—I took this picture just a few weeks before when I was training/researching the hike beyond the summit of Flattop.

Summit of Hallet on a clear day
Summit of Hallet on a clear day

From the summit of Flattop, we followed the clearly marked path to the North Inlet Trail Junction—which is identified with another sign and large cairn just a few tenths of a mile later. 

North inlet trail junction

While I was disappointed for the group that we did not get to experience what I had anticipated to be sweeping views of the horizon as we continued onward across the Tundra on the North Inlet Trail, it was mystical in its own way to follow the seemingly endless trail through the fog with cairns marking the way in the distance. 

into the abysss
Into the abysss

We made relatively good time over this smooth terrain, as we were all a little chilly from the cold fog and mist. Thankfully there were no thunderstorms to contend with, as the time exposed dangerously above the tree line is significant during this portion of the trip. At roughly 6 miles / 3 hours into the hike, the terrain started to change slightly, as we got closer to the steeper descent down towards Grand Lake.

change of terrain
Terrain begins to shift

At approximately 6.8 miles, we crossed a stream and then began the section of the hike that I had been most anxious about: a mile of steep switchbacks. 

entering the switchbacks
Entering the switchbacks

I’d kept my trekking poles stowed thus far on the trip, but they were definitely a life-saver as we progressed through this somewhat more tedious but beautiful segment. Here we passed several other hikers carrying camping packs and heading in the other direction, which frankly looked brutal (all that weight and a quick 1000+ ft elevation gain). 

Looking down the switchbacks, hikers approach from the other direction
Looking down the switchbacks, hikers approach from the other direction

At approximately 8 miles in, we crossed Hallett Creek, now fully back under the protection of the tree-line. While it was damp, our weather generally continued to hold, so we paused again for a bit longer of a break/re-fuel.

Hallett Creek
Hallett Creek

I’d been keeping an eye on the time and our pace with my Garmin GPS watch, and knowing that it was “all downhill from here” gave me some relief that we would be able to complete the trip and arrive in town well before the evening. The lack of elevation gain made it a lot easier for ourgroup (who had been largely quiet due to either lack of breath on the way up or chattering teeth walking across the tundra) to liven up and have the sort of silly debates/discussions that you undertake when you are together for 10+hours without much else to do. We almost missed this majestic bull elk along the trail as we plodded through the miles of well-groomed trail. 

Elk in the meadow
Elk in the meadow

At around 6 hours/12 miles in, we stopped for our last extended break and got out “the good food” (apples, cheese, and summer sausage). At this point, all of us had tired legs but were generally in good spirits, even though we knew we still had another 5 or so miles to complete.

through hike Rocky Mountain National Park
An extended break

As we slowly descended into the valley, we ran into more and more day hikers, or others coming in to camp for the night. It was a pleasant leg of the trip, with the river running next to or near to us for much of the time. We passed Cascade Falls, a place I’d like to revisit sometime when we have more time to linger. At this stage, everyone was impressed, but not terribly interested in further exploration/deviation from the trail. Finally, as we neared the end of our journey and began seeing signs of civilization, we started discussing the most important part of the trip: where we would find the best pizza and beer in Grand Lake to celebrate.

Meadows open up near the trail’s end
Meadows open up near the trail’s end

My GPS hit 17 miles, and I’d hoped that meant we were almost finished. Unfortunately, between a bit of wandering and perhaps some inaccuracy, it was off by about a mile. 

17 mile hike in rocky mountains
False hope of the journey’s end

While that final mile was steady, easy terrain, it definitely felt like the most difficult of the trip, because even I was ready for this hike to be over. At last we emerged at the North Inlet trailhead, 8 hours and 28 minutes and (according to my watch) 18 miles later. 

North Inlet Trailhead, Grand Lake Colorado
North Inlet Trailhead, Grand Lake

We all piled into my Explorer and headed into town for that long-desired pizza and beer at White Buffalo. While our journey was complete, I knew I had to keep my head on straight, as I had to drive us back over Trail Ridge road to pick up the rental car at Bear Lake, before we finally made it back to the condo for our full celebration. This was an epic trip for me and my friends. While it wasn’t nearly has harrowing as an exposed scramble on Long’s Peak, it was a great endurance challenge and incredible way to experience some of the more remote areas of the park (at least remote and trail accessible). If you are like me and incessantly research hikes like this before you undertake them, and have any questions that I didn’t address here, please don’t hesitate to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them!