In Colorado, lots of backpack trips take place in the wilderness, involving hiking up to higher elevations to seek the isolation and beauty of the bountiful mountain ranges. Most of my trips are of this variety.
Find a wilderness area, look for some cool peaks, or perhaps climb and plan a route to get in there and explore.
We live very close to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), and in the past few years, we’ve backpacked into portions of this huge area far removed from the flocks of tourists who invade the park every summer.
We’ve found isolated areas far in the interior, flanked by huge peaks and expanses of tundra. We hike up peaks and passes to look to the other side and notice some very interesting and enticing terrain. Mental notes are made to look into these areas.
One such area was a long flat valley in which the Cache la Poudre River flows.
Finding the Poudre River from the Wilderness
I hiked the Lawn Lake trail to camp at the lake for a few nights. Up the drainage feeding the lake, a climb takes you to a broad pass between Hagues Peak and Fairchild Mountain.
Overlooking to the north and west, I noticed a huge green area below and behind Desolation Peaks, known as the Cache la Poudre River valley. At this point, I thought it would be excellent to camp there for a few nights.
The “Poudre” flows from RMNP to the east in a large canyon, extremely popular for various recreational activities, like kayaking and fishing.
However, tucked back here in RMNP, I found a long stretch of trails in relatively flat terrain, more or less hovering at 10,000 feet. The river runs through a broad and open valley, flanked by forests on both sides.
There are lots of options for exploration off the beaten path and some nice side creeks leading to further isolated valleys and more mountains.
Planning a River Hike Backpack
My original plan was to start the trip from the headwaters of the Poudre, near Milner Pass, off Trail Ridge Road. In four days and three nights, we’d hike down the river all the way to the north, where the river reaches Highway 14, along the Big South Trail, the western edge of the Comanche Peak Wilderness Area. However, due to time constraints, we had to cut one day off the trip.
A word of caution here – if you do plan to hike this full stretch, at some point near Peterson Lake, an old bridge crossing washed out, requiring a river crossing. Since I’ve never been to this point, I can’t tell you about the difficulty of this crossing.
I’ve heard it can be quite powerful. In the beginning part of summer, keep in mind the stream flow can be quite high.
Through the power of maps and the internet, a trip was planned to fit the schedule. Instead of starting at the beginning of the Poudre, we decided to start at Chapin Pass Trailhead on Fall River Road. In RMNP, it’s a requirement to obtain overnight permits for camping in the backcountry.
We selected two nice campsites, the first being “Cache,” located near the confluence of the Poudre and Chapin Creek. So, we start on this trail, and for three miles, we hike along the Chapin, mostly bushwhacking. This was excellent, as we were thrust into the wilderness in a short time.
For the second night, our destination was a camp named “Flatiron” along Hagues Creek on an unimproved trail, which is like code for a lightly traveled trail. More isolation, very nice!
Let the Hiking Begin, and Watch out for That Moose!
Another great reason for this style of backcountry travel besides the lower elevation: Lots of wildlife. Hiking along waterways provides ample opportunities to observe wildlife. In our particular realm, it’s mule deer, elk and moose.
Backcountry trips provide a great level of anticipation regarding wildlife. You never know when or what you’re going to see.
We’ve reached the Cache campsite. It’s close to the Poudre, not quite a river, as it widens at most about ten to fifteen feet. It’s shallow and runs through a broad and lush valley covered in grasses, willows and moraine.
Hiking in this area affords views of amazing greenery, forested hillsides, and mountain peaks. We did see a ptarmigan upon arrival to the campsite. Later in the late afternoon, some elk chanced to browse within eyesight, unperturbed by our presence. So far, so good.
To reach Flatiron, we hike down the river along the Poudre. It’s “downhill” from here, but the loss in elevation is imperceptible as we walk. The river becomes noticeably wider as side streams add to the water volume.
As we approached the trail for our next campsite, we came upon a moose and her calf feeding along the river. The calf ran away into the woods, and the momma stood her ground, keeping a wary eye on us, the intruders.
We gave her a wide berth, trying hard not to cause undue stress. This is a massive creature and not one to make angry! Please be careful of all wildlife.
The Flatiron campsite is along a trail in between Mummy Pass Trail and Hague Creek. We’re in another wide-open valley. One mile up, and we’re at the camp, one of very few in RMNP allowing a real fire, and this one includes a nice fire ring and a pile of wood to burn.
During our stay at this site, we saw mule deer, elk, and another moose during a day hike up the creek valley.
Benefits of a Mellow Hike
This short trip is one of my most memorable backcountry experiences. It was close to home, yet it provided me with a real wilderness experience. The hiking was not steep or easy on the body; no creaking bones when I came home.
The wildlife sightings were phenomenal. For anyone looking for something different, if they are used to hiking higher elevations, I recommend this sort of trip. You don’t realize how much terrain is back in here until you’re actually there.
The ability to explore a lot of areas will keep you occupied for quite some time. If you’re looking for a wilderness experience, this is definitely the place to find it.