When we were wandering up and down Elkhorn Avenue, exploring the gift shops, art galleries, candy stores, and restaurants along Estes Park’s main street, I spotted the ruins of an old stone building on a rocky cliff overlooking the town. It was a beautiful sight from the loud, touristy shopping destination and one that I wanted to explore.
While Carter was collecting pressed pennies from one of the penny machines we found, I googled the ruins and discovered that they’re not only part of a public nature preserve and open space park, but easily accessible by a short, public trail. We didn’t have time to hike to the ruins that day, but I saved the directions to the trailhead just in case we found time later in our vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Luckily, the park crowding and closure of Bear Lake Road caused us to extend our final day in the park from a half day to a full day. We ended up with a few hours of extra time and decided to use it to visit the Wild Basin area of the park, stop by the Chapel On The Rock, and hike to the Birch House Ruins at the Knoll-Willows Open Space.
Centennial Open Space At Knoll-Willows
The Knoll-Willows Open Space is a 20 acre park behind the Estes Park Town Hall, Estes Valley Public Library, and police station complex with amazing views of the town of Estes Park and Lake Estes, and in the distance, Longs Peak and Colorado’s Front Range Mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The town of Estes Park purchased the land in 2002 to preserve its critical natural habitat and remarkable heritage. A conservation easement permanently protects the open, natural character of the wetlands and rocky crest. Originally named the Knoll-Willows Open Space, the area was rededicated as the Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows during the Estes Park Centennial Celebration in 2017. Today the park is home to two historic structures: the Birch Cabin and the Birch Ruins.
Knoll Willows Open Space Trail
The Knoll-Willows Open Space Trail is a 1.0 mile, dirt, loop trail with a spur short trail.
There are two trailheads for this beautiful trail:
- The South Trailhead in the municipal parking lot
- The North Trailhead south of East Wonderview Avenue between the entrance to the Stanley Historic District and MacGregor Avenue
We began our hike at the bottom of the park, leaving the police station and library parking lot, crossing a small bridge over Black Canyon Creek, and following the dirt trail through the willows to the Birch Cabin.
After passing the cabin, we continued to follow the creek toward the North Trailhead and views of the historic Stanley Hotel. As we hiked up to the crest of the knoll, we reached the Birch Ruins, overlooking Estes Park and Elkhorn Avenue, the town’s main street.
From here, the trail travels back to the cabin, where you can follow the creek through the willows back to the South Trailhead.
About Albert Birch
Albert Birch, who enjoyed a long career at the Denver Post, first visited Estes Park in 1902. Two years later, he purchased land with a tall rocky cliff that overlooked the town. He hired a stone mason to build a bungalow on the edge of the cliff and a steep trail leading directly to the business district. In 1907, a fire that originated in the fireplace tore through the bungalow. Birch tried to get help, but the home was a total loss. Birch could not afford to rebuild and instead built a log cabin below the ruins.
The Birch family owned the land until 1983 when daughter Briana Birch sold the property in the hopes that it would become a protected open space.
The Birch Ruins sit high above Estes Park on a 75 foot tall rock outcropping in the Knoll Willows Open Space.
The ruins of Albert Birch’s bungalow features stone walls and the remains of the massive stone fireplace, the source of the fire than burned the home down on a bitterly cold night in December 1907. From the trail and through the windows of the ruins, you can see the town of Estes Park and amazing views of Longs Peak and Colorado’s Front Range Mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Just two weeks after the devastating 1907 bungalow fire (Birch Ruins), Albert Birch began building a cabin in the willows below the ruins. He used native ponderosa pine logs to build the cabin — with the bark intact on the exterior and peeled on the interior. The three-room cabin features built-in bookcases and a copper-lined sink, as well as a storage shed and outhouse nearby. It was used by the Birch family as a summer retreat until the 1980s.
Know Before You Go
- The Birch Ruins are located at 300-396 MacGregor Avenue, Estes Park, Colorado 80517 in Larimer County in the Centennial Open Space At Knoll-Willows.
- The 1.0 mile Knoll-Willows Open Space Trail provides access to the Birch Ruins and Birch Cabin.
- It is free to visit the Knoll-Willows Open Space, Birch Cabin, and the Birch Home Ruins.
- The Knoll-Willows Open Space Trail south trailhead is located behind the police station, library, and town hall, while the north trailhead is located across the street from the Stanley Hotel.
- Stay on the viewing platform at the Birch Ruins and off the historic stone steps, as they are unstable and dangerous.
- The Birch Bungalow Ruins and the Birch Cabin are both listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Places.