And thus began my "winter hiking season". Not being partial to skiing or snowshoeing, I opt for low-elevation hikes in the winter. It is a good excuse for getting acquainted with the often overlooked mountains and peaks that lie below 10,000 feet.
Steep Mountain (called a "hill" by High Country Names) forms the southern border of Moraine Park. While it seen by millions of people every year, because of its short stature (9,538ft) it is often overlooked by hikers. This is unfortunate, because it is one of the best spots in the park for viewing scenery.
My day began around 8:30 when I arrived in the empty Hollowell Park parking lot. Before I even stepped out of my car, the underlying theme for the hike was apparent -- wind. However, it was (somewhat) warm out. Can't have everything, sometimes.
The hike begins across the flat and wonderful Hollowell Park. There is a picnic spot near the trailhead, and even from there Hollowell Park is pretty. Not 30 seconds into my hike, I had my first wildlife sighting -- some deer running across the opposite side of the park, on the eastern flank of Steep Mountain.
There is some debate as to where Steep Mountain got its name. One legend tells of Indian children chasing a buffalo heard up the side of the mountain. According to High Country Names, it was likely named by a developer who used the mountain as a landmark for his subdivision description.
It only took a few minutes to cross Hollowell Park. The trail is well groomed and obvious. Apparently this is a popular spot for horses, as well. At the western end of the park, I met up with Mill Creek, and entered the forest.
Mill Creek was used around the turn of the century for -- you guessed it -- lumber milling. Wood from this area was used in Estes Park, Loveland, and as far away as Cheyenne. Now, the creek is lined with Aspen, which is generally one of the first species of tree to grow in a cut area. Aspen line the trail most of the way to Mill Creek, where even more lumbering took place. Now, Mill Creek was mostly frozen. One spot along the trail gave me a nice view of a frozen over pool in the creek.
I didn't stay in the forest long, however. I found my first clear chance at climbing straight up Steep Mountain (now to the north of me), and I took it. I learned very quickly how Steep got it's name. I soon crested upon a shelf area. Lo and behold, an animal trail crossed here. Actually, it looked more like a highway; it was such a good trail it almost looked maintained. Not doubting animal wisdom, I took it for a ways, to a nice overlook across Mill Creek Basin.
Mill Creek Basin lies in a small, yet quiet valley, bordered by Steep, Mt. Wuh and Bierstadt Moraine. The valley is positively hidden, unless you go there. I had other ideas, so I continued upward.
I crossed the first of many false summits, into a saddle area. Here I crossed some minor patches of snow, and found... human footprints? Up here? They looked to be a day or two old, but sure enough, another hiker had the same idea as me. They were taking another wildlife highway trail. I followed it a bit to a ridge, then followed the ridge upwards. Along the way I crossed some interesting rock slabs -- almost class 3, but still pretty easy. The wind was getting ferocious. And, the ridge was getting thinner -- just a few feet wide in places, with a large drop to the west and a small drop to the east (maybe 3-5ft). I made my way over a few more rocky false summits, crossed a very sandy area, and reach a grassy slope that ends at the summit. Here the geology changed, the rock became a very deep red color, almost like a volcanic rock. In places it had the same color as old mine tailings -- very iron rich.
I found a cairned route, and took it up the slope. A large cairn marks the summit ridge, but it is about 30-40 feet south of the highest point (actually, a tree is the highest point). The summit was very open, with only 1 or 2 trees atop it. The wind was blowing incredibly hard, and I had some troubles breathing while facing into the wind. Luckily, the highest point is shielded by a tree. It was a good spot to rest and take in the view.
The view was tremendous. Unfortunately, Mt. Wuh blocks the view towards the Knobtop area, and Tombstone Ridge blocks the view up Forest Canyon. However, the rest of the park was looking incredible (much better than the view atop Mt. Wuh). And, as a bonus, I could see a ways up Spruce Canyon -- there are very few areas in the park that offer such a view in that direction. A line of clouds was trying to rise over the divide, but could not make it. I could see large cloud masses waft across Glacier Gorge, though I wasn't in a good position to photograph it. A large cloud was wrapping itself around Sprague Mountain. And, Stones Peak looked entirely tremendous from this vantage point. Also, Moraine Park looked glorious from this angle (again, much better than from Mt. Wuh). I could easily see the meanders of the Big Thompson River across the meadows over a thousand feet below me. However, the wind took its toll, and I was soon descending.
I decided to descend to the north, as (topographically) it was the easiest way. I had a few interesting adventures on some rocky slopes, but soon I found a snow-covered animal trail (complete with prints), and followed it into the forest, hoping to meet up with the Mill Creek/Cub Lake trail.
The forest here is interesting. There is little ground vegetation, and the ground was covered by 2-3 inches of snow. The forest was somewhat open, and more than once I had the feeling I was inadvertently crossing the trail without realizing it. I did find a rock outcrop, and atop it I was able to get my bearings. I soon found the trail, and took it back to Mill Creek Basin.
Mill Creek Basin is a little park in the valley. It was pictured as the October 1996 photo on RMNP's calendar. I even found the spot that the photo was taken. However, the trails in the area were a bit confusing. After watching an elk in the trees and taking some pictures, I left, following a trail that paralleled Mill Creek.
On my way back, I finally saw others. By the time I reached the trailhead, mine was one of 4 cars there. Once again, a pretty quiet day. On the way back I stopped to photograph a rock along the old route of Bear Lake Road that has an early advertisement painted on it (mostly worn away, and not visible from the current Bear Lake Road). The hike was short, maybe 3 hours total. However, it was still a fun hike, even for such a "short" peak.