Three of us are clinking pots and pans, talking, fixing breakfast at our camp at the edge of a meadow near tree line when we look up to find a young male moose not 30 feet away. We freeze, all staring at one another for at least a minute. Finally, the moose breaks the spell by walking directly into the middle of our camp. “What the …” The three of us scatter behind trees and make some noise, but the moose is not frightened, only curious, and saunters on into the meadow to stick his nose into each of our tents, poking around, oblivious to the squawking visitors who have set up their camp in his front yard.
Colorado is home to some of the best wilderness areas in the country. The Mt. Zirkel Wilderness east of Steamboat, the Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, and the Weminuche Wilderness in southern Colorado, come immediately to mind. My favorite is the Rawah Wilderness north of Cameron Pass on the Laramie River Road, because it is so close to Fort Collins and so often overlooked. Rawah is pronounced Ray’-wah and is said to be a native American word meaning “wild place.” Moose were introduced in the 1970s, and at many times of the year it is possible to see more moose than people in the Rawahs.
But, not, as it turns out, on a recent holiday weekend, when my hiking partner, Chuck Bell, founder of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, and I ventured into the Rawahs from the West Branch trailhead to clear trees off some of the more popular of the 85 miles of Rawah trails. In a three day period, we counted over 100 forest visitors, nearly 80 of them backpackers intent on spending multiple days in the wilderness. They planned to hike, fish, climb peaks, and photograph wildlife and magnificent vistas alike. Most, on this day, appear to be headed in the direction of Twin Crater Lakes, a place where I nearly always see bighorn sheep or moose. This is either base camp for an assault on the 12,650 foot South Rawah Peak, or the first night of a three or four day loop over Grassy Pass to the four Rawah Lakes, then back to the West Branch trailhead via Camp Lake. If you fail to catch fish or see a moose at Camp Lake, then something is seriously wrong.
The Rawahs form the southern end of the Medicine Bow Mountains that extend north into Wyoming. Its nearly 75,000 acres of steep, glacier-carved cirque valleys and peaks range in elevation from 8,500 to nearly 13,000 feet. The Rawahs are bordered on the west by the Colorado State Forest, which together provide a haven for bighorn sheep, moose, bear, elk, deer, and mountain lion. Cutthroat, rainbow, brook, and greenback trout of generous size fill the 26 named lakes in the Wilderness. The Hermit Thrush, Warbling and Solitary Vireos, the Western Wood-Pewee, and several species of warblers fill the clear air with music. The Dusky Grouse will surely scare the living daylights out of you when it jumps up in front of your feet. Because of the abundance of wildlife, the Rawahs are heavily used by hunters in the fall.
Some of the best and most scenic trails in the Rawahs are often overlooked. If you are looking for a true wilderness experience, it is hard to beat the almost neglected upper portion of West Branch Trail that follows the West Branch of the Laramie River up to Island and Carey Lakes. The beautiful meadows near the junction of the Blue Lake Trail, full of columbines and other wildflowers on this holiday weekend, are perfect for viewing wildlife (we saw a moose and a calf there on this trip) or just for relaxing in a serene environment. If you want more exertion, hump your pack up the steep upper part of the trail, and camp off-trail near timber line for easy access to the lakes and great fishing. Camp fires are prohibited above 10,500 feet in the Rawahs to protect the fragile alpine tundra, but excellent camping spots can be found off-trail in the timber below. Check the local fire restrictions before you go. Recent drought conditions often result in county-wide open fire bans. And take a look around before you set up your camp. The pine beetle has hit this area hard, and you want to be clear of dead trees waiting to fall in windy and rainy conditions. For even more solitude, try any of the trails in the northern half of the Wilderness.
One of the more interesting features of the Rawah Wilderness is the old Rawah Ditch, which the Camp Lake Trail follows for several miles. This was part of an irrigation scheme in the early 1900’s to divert water from the Laramie River through a tunnel to the Poudre River and then to downstream irrigators in Fort Collins and Greeley. Much effort was expended digging this ditch with pick and shovel, but the ditch was never used because Wyoming challenged the diversion in the US Supreme Court and won a ruling that the ditch would divert more water out of the Laramie River than Colorado had a right to use. The ditch was abandoned in 1922.
There are plenty of places to camp in the Rawah Wilderness but, ironically, most of the obvious places should not be used. Modern wilderness regulations require you to be 200 feet from the nearest trail or water, but this is usually interpreted to mean being out of sight of other people. This is done to preserve the wilderness experience for everyone and to allow popular sites to recover from past overuse. Walk another 150 feet into the forest, and you find even better sites.
Dogs are welcome in the Rawahs, too, as long as they are on a leash. There are many horse riders on these Rawah trails, and occasionally you will encounter llamas. Loose dogs can be a problem for both riders and dog owners when they encounter an animal they are unfamiliar with. And, if your dog takes off after one of the many moose calves in the area, it will likely end badly for the dog and maybe for you, too. Protective female moose are unpredictable and dangerous. You should avoid provoking them at all cost.
The best time to visit the Rawah Wilderness is in September or early October, when those beautiful Indian summer days and cool nights are so prevalent and the bugs are gone. There aren’t many places in this country where you can be in complete wilderness in less than two hours from your urban home. The Rawah Wilderness is one of the many reasons Fort Collins is such a great place to live. You owe it to yourself to spend a night or two under the stars in this jewel of a wilderness in our backyard.
This essay was originally published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper.