Off Trail Delights in the Rawah Wilderness

A three-day, mainly off-trail, backpacking weekend in the Rawah Wilderness of Colorado


There are many reasons why I backpack.

The simplicity. The sheer delight of being outside. The overwhelming beauty. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t also revel in the physical challenge.

Climbing steeply up to a ridge, my heart beating at fast and steady rhythm and then seeing all the lakes and valleys before me as I crest the ridge.

Fording a stream and being exhilarated at the cold, snow melt fed stream washing over my knees.

Walking for many miles and knowing to my core that I pushed myself physically and that sleep will come quickly and thankfully.

And most off all..I love the challenges of off-trail hiking where if I have to read a map and see if my route is possible. Where no one goes and is seen. Slower and more difficult than walking the beaten path…but the rewards are so many: Alpine lakes all to myself, walking a ridge for miles and having only a large herd of elk for company and having the satisfaction of knowing that my footsteps are leading to place few people see.

And then doing it all solo…where everything just seems to intense.

This past 4th of July weekend, I went to the Rawah Wilderness outside of Ft. Collins and bracketed by the Poudre River.

I have not been to this area in ten years. It was time to return.

Given a free pass by my other half, I was going to revel in a solo trip.

I enjoyed our time together on previous trips ..but I wanted (needed?) a trip more to my liking. I looked at the map and pieced together a loop that was at least half, if not more, off trail. A few areas with close contour lines that would prove to be ah, interesting…and more stream fords than I bargained for..but oh..what a trip!!!

The trip started off among gentle trail and streams on my way to Blue Lake and Blue Lake pass. The wildflowers were abundant…




I could not believe my good fortune with weather…with the blue skies and the lingering snow pack still on the mountain side, it looked like something out of glossy outdoor photo magazine….minus the ads, bullet point articles and models better looking than I.  






I made my way up the trail and turned away from the beaten path to the relatively seldom visited Carey Lake

From there, I made a snowy traverse to just above Twin Crater Lakes

From this point on, the rest of the day would encounter several of these alpine lakes. The the trails were not overly crowded..all the lakes had people camped around them.

I decided to continue my off trail theme and left for Sugar Bowl Lake. Only a little bit off trail…but just enough for me to have it all to myself.

The lake in the morning light made it one of my most memorable campsites ever.

That morning, the majority of my route would be off trail..culminating on a ridge walk that saw me among a herd of elk that was just as surprised to see me as I was to see them!

I later joined a trail again for a little bit. After the ridge walk, I had dropped into the Colorado State forest with its multiuse trails. I saw one lone MTBiker who I leap frogged with. The terrain was a bit on the gnarly side with steep and rocky trails. She passed me on the flats..I passed her on the uphills. I didn’t mind this leap frogging….she was a rather cute blonde with a winning smile and in obvious athletic shape. I may be in a committed relationship…but that does not mean I’m dead.

At Kelly Lake, the lone MTBiker and myself chatted. When I mentioned my intent to hit Vern’s the following morning (a well known breakfast place just outside of Ft. Collins), she produced a cinnamon roll from there! She split it with me and said something I can look forward to in the morning!

At the top of the pass above Kelly Lake, I looked down into Hidden Valley…and (with the exception of Ms. MTBike Beauty), had it all to myself. The lone MTBiker quickly passed me on the downhill..and that would be the last I saw of anyone on this trip. (And she was the first person I saw since leaving the trail at 5pm the day before)

I continued on my way and made my way steeply up another ridge that I had to climb over. I was somewhat concerned about going over the ridge and back in the Rawah Wilderness as the lines on the map made it look steep..and the slope was north facing. I banked on one obvious line being not too snowy…

As I made my way to the top of the ridge, a low lying cloud moved in. I could not see very far in front of me! It was also 7:30 at night. The wind picked up and made my descent, er, interesting. I shot a compass bearing and hoped it would take me in the right direction of the drainage.

I did a few strategic but slides and kicked steps in the soft snow (I did not want to wait until the following morning as the snow would be rock hard!) and after a while I realized I was on relatively level ground with grass and flowers! Someone I made it to where I wanted to be. Made a late (8:30 pm!) camp and realized I had been on the trail since 6:30 am. Phew…….

I woke up in the AM, took one last look back where I had been and could not help by be impressed with the wide open valley and the mountains behind me.

From there, I followed the creek down the drainage, forded a few times, hooked onto an old X-country ski trail, forded the rather deep stream one last time and made it back to my truck.

A most excellent trip (with a most excellent breakfast) and one I will remember.

Next weekend the girlfriend and I are going to the Snowy Range just north of where I was this weekend. The time will be enjoyed. Sharing something I am so passionate about with a woman I care for deeply….

But there are times where I’ll need the long days, big miles, challenges and reveling it all in by myself.

Here’s to more times in the mountains… With loved ones, friends and sometimes even by myself.

All the photos

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Craig Townsend
Craig Townsend
8 years ago

Hello Paul … Since I can’t seem to locate it on the topographic map … In relationship to Twin Crater Lakes where is exactly is Sugar Bowl Lake?