Not everyone got the memo about heavy snow conditions in the Rawah this year. Normally, the Fourth of July weekend is the start of the hiking season (if not the mosquito season!) in the Rawahs. Last year, for example, my PWV partner and I ran into well over 100 backpackers and day hikers on the West Branch trail alone. This year I decided to see how the Rawah North trail was doing over the holiday weekend.
My son and I got up there late (World Cup soccer, of course), but there were 36 cars parked at the West Branch trailhead and 15 more at the Rawah North trailhead when we arrived. It was hot and sunny when we started up the trail in early afternoon, but having been turned back from Emmaline Lake the previous weekend by deep snow, I wasn’t entirely optimistic that the trail was going to be dry its entire length.
Sure enough, once we hit 10,000 feet elevation, we began to encounter lingering snow. At 10,500 there was probably more snow than trail. Drifts were 3-4 feet high in most places. We made it as far as Rawah Lake No. 1, which was pretty much surrounded by snow. We talked to a group of backpackers who had come over Grassy Pass from the Twin Craters Lakes area. They said the four miles on Grassy Pass “was the worst four miles of trail we have ever hiked in our life!” The snow is soft and slippery. Walking on it makes for heavy, slow travel.
Quite a few backpackers left the Rawah North trail to head up to Lost Lake, where there was less snow. I heard from a couple of groups that the fishing was pretty good up there. We definitely saw big fish cruising in Rawah Lake No. 1, but I had forgotten to pack my Tenkara rod in the excitement of World Cup soccer. (Forgot my hat and hiking poles, too. Sheesh!)
There were a number of dogs on the trail, as there always is on a holiday weekend, so we didn’t see much wildlife. We saw a couple of deer, a big snowshoe rabbit, and three moose, including a cow and calf in the big meadow near where the trail heads up the Camp Creek drainage.
The ground is extremely wet above 10,500 feet. The trail is muddy when not snow packed. The wet conditions are perfect for breeding mosquitoes. Of course, there are a lot of them. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t seem terribly ferocious. Maybe the snow was making it too cold for them. I didn’t bother with insect repellent, although my son, in his shorts and short-sleeve shirt, seemed to be spraying himself liberally. Maybe there was enough spray in the air to keep them off me, too.
We cleared the trail as much as is possible with a 21-inch hand saw, but there are still a dozen large trees across the trail. We have made most of these passable by hikers, although horses may have more of a problem with them. I hear a trail maintenance crew will be in the Rawahs this week clearing these big trees. I don’t imagine they will get too far beyond the lakes, though, as snow is too deep and is covering some of the trees they need to remove.
We encountered 30+ backpackers on the trail over three days. Surprisingly, probably a third of these people were carrying lightweight packs and were wearing hiking shoes, rather than boots. This is a BIG change in my experience, and the great pleasure I have in racing by the 20-something year olds with their massive packs may be coming to an end. It’s clear lightweight backpacking is catching on with backpackers, even though mainstream retail outlets are still slow to jump on the trend.
Several bridges in the Rawahs are washed out or damaged. The streams are running high and cold. The Camp Lake ford is about mid-thigh high. It didn’t look inviting to me, but we did encounter a couple who had crossed it with their dog. They threw the dog half way across, where he swam for his life to make it out. They held onto each other for support as they crossed. They said it wasn’t the worst stream they had ever crossed. Both looked invigorated when we found them sunning themselves on the other side.
Between the snow, melting snow, and afternoon rain the first two days, my feet where pretty much continuously wet for the three days we were there. But, you know, there is nothing like putting on a pair of cold, wet socks in the morning to get the blood moving and the coffee going. Always fun to be in the Rawahs!