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West Elk Wilderness: Cut Short on the Mill-Castle Trail

Saturday, August 13, 2022

This weekend Diane was able to get away from her clinical rotations for a bit so she could go on an overnight backpacking trip with me into the West Elk Wilderness. We planned to take it easy by hiking up the Mill-Castle Trail along Mill Creek and thought that maybe we could make it up to the top of Storm Pass for an overlook of The Castles before returning the same way back to the trailhead. Unfortunately, this time we didn’t made it much further beyond the nice waterfall in Mill Creek and ended up turning this backpacking trip into a day hike. This was an amazingly scenic canyon and we both really enjoyed the shorter hike, so we will definitely need to return here again in the future!

After breakfast on Saturday morning, Diane and I loaded up the Jeep and took a nice scenic drive through the West Elks over Kebler Pass and Ohio Pass to the Ohio Creek Valley. It took us about two and a half hours to reach the Mill-Castle Trailhead and we were on the trail around 10am.

The views in the Mill Creek drainage started off great right from the trailhead.

Trailhead View

Needles and Spires


Diane hikes ahead of me along the Mill-Castle Trail. It was warm and humid when we started the hike in the mid-morning, but would cool off quickly in a little while after the first storm passed through.

Mill-Castle Trail

The views were amazing when we reached a large meadow in the valley. Castle View is the peak in the shadow in the distance.

Mill Creek Meadow

Mill Creek View

After leaving the meadow it wasn’t long until we officially entered the West Elk Wilderness.

West Elk Wilderness Sign

As the clouds continued to build around us the light on the surrounding towers was looking good.

Tower Light

Looking up at the impressive towers above Mill Creek, Diane thought the bright green tundra looked like a putting green.

Mill Creek Towers


There were more great views when the trail broke out of the trees for a short distance and climbed to the top of a rocky cliff.

Mill-Castle Trail View

Mill Creek Wall

As we continued up the trail it started to lightly rain a little and then it started to rain pretty hard for a while with some on and off graupel, too. We found shelter under some trees along the trail and got our rain jackets and pack covers on, but we still got pretty soaked. Once the rain started to finally let up we continued up the trail again.

Once we reached the overlook of the waterfall we started looking for a campsite.

Mill Creek Falls

We found a great campsite just above the waterfall. I was going to wait to set up the tent until the ground dried up a bit, but the mosquitoes were pretty bad so we set it up sooner as a bug screen. Diane was feeling tired after the hike and fell right asleep for a while.

Waterfall Camp

A couple steps away from our tent was this overlook above the waterfall, looking down the canyon with Fossil Ridge in the distance.

Camp Overlook

This unusual and precariously perched boulder was right below our campsite, too.

Boulder Below

One more view down the canyon from right above the waterfall with Mill Creek below.

View From Camp

While Diane was taking a nap I realized that I had signal on my phone and decided to check the weather forecast for the rest of the day and night. Things weren’t looking good with some big storms headed our way and possible thunderstorms predicted overnight. When Diane woke up I let her know about the forecast and she right away said that she did not want to spend the night if there were going to be thunderstorms since she didn’t want a repeat of our night at Powderhorn Lake last year, and I agreed with her. That was a scary night and I think we both have a little PTSD from the experience. It was almost 5pm and we still had plenty of time to hike down to the trailhead before it got dark out, so we quickly packed up our gear and headed back. It would rain lightly for much of the hike back to the trailhead and the sky was overcast the entire time.

We passed this patch of wildflowers along the trail.

Little Wildflowers

Hiking back down the trail in a light rain.

Down The Trail

Of course, once we reached the trailhead the sun came out again…

Storm Light

We drove home via the Kebler Pass Road during sunset, so I stopped for a couple of photos.

Break Free

West Beckwith Evening

West Beckwith Evening

Last Light in the Raggeds Wilderness

Last Light in the Raggeds Wilderness

>> Mill-Castle Trail Photo Gallery


  1. SteveR
    SteveR August 17, 2022

    Impressive scenery! I hear you about the decision to pack up, as I’ve also had what seems like more than my share of scary sleepless nights, camping out in the midst of lightning storms.

  2. SocraticGadfly
    SocraticGadfly August 31, 2022

    I aborted climbing Wheeler Peak last month. Too much steady monsoon rain on scree field. No real lightning, but the trail went on the actual scree rock more than any 14er I have climbed.

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