Wild Country

This summer, plan a trip to Cache la Poudre River Canyon, an underrated paradise for hikers, anglers, and campers.

August 2013

It was a quintessential colorado moment: Treeless peaks poked up through the landscape all around me, their rocky fingers delineating a turquoise sky that stung my eyes and lit up the lingering snowfields like opals. It was breathtaking, but what had me reeling—even more than the 11,000 feet of elevation—was the solitude. My husband, Ben, and I had this immense swath of high-alpine gorgeousness all to ourselves. And we discovered it along the oft-crowded Front Range—in Rocky Mountain National Park, no less—within an easy two-hour drive of Denver. Our stroke of genius had been entering the park through a back door of sorts: the untrafficked wilds of Poudre Canyon.

Offering little-known access to Rocky Mountain National Park’s northern boundary, not to mention other spectacular outside-the-park hikes and idyllic fishing along the Cache la Poudre River, this 40-mile-long gash cuts through the mountains east of Fort Collins to divide the Never Summer Mountains from the Medicine Bow range. State Highway 14 follows the river for most of its length, passing campgrounds, trailheads, and not much else. Although it lacks a national park designation, this is untamed country in its own right. Four wilderness areas flank the two-lane highway, which is hemmed in by scarred cliffs where bighorn sheep roam. Even the water here is undomesticated. The Cache la Poudre is Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River, a federal designation that prohibits federally funded dams and other forms of development on waters deemed to have extraordinary scenic value.

The Poudre surely merits such federal attention, Ben and I thought as we steered our Subaru around the river’s curves, rubbernecking as we passed frothy waterfalls, narrow gorges, and boulder-rimmed pools where trout surely hid. Occasionally we glimpsed a house or a roadside restaurant, but because most of the canyon lies within the Roosevelt National Forest, development is scant. Finding little more than a handful of convenience stores, we felt glad we’d stuffed our cooler with all the food and drink necessary for an unplugged weekend in some of the state’s most unheralded terrain.