Wild Country

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

August 2013

The perfume of high-mountain pines wafts through the car windows as we reach the Upper Poudre Canyon—some 26 miles west of Fort Collins, where we turned off Highway 14 and drove about 16 more miles to the Emmaline Lake trailhead in Pingree Park. We’d compared bunches of hikes by browsing the website, which provides hike descriptions and tons of trip beta for the many paths accessible from the Poudre River corridor. Some, such as the approximately 6.5-mile (one-way) Big South Trail, follow cascading streams that feed into the Poudre; the popular Blue Lake Trail climbs for seven miles to reach the Rawah Wilderness’ alpine tundra. Shorter hikes were compelling as well: The three-mile (one-way) Trap Park Trail, the primary northern entrance to the stunning Neota Wilderness, has wild raspberries growing along the trail in late August and September.

After settling on the Emmaline Lake trailhead for its off-the-highway location and veiled access to Rocky Mountain National Park, we pulled into the tiny, four-car parking lot and headed up the path. Colorado State University maintains a field station for biology research here, and parts of the campus appeared from among the pines as we started hiking.

The first two miles felt easy, thanks to the forgiving grade of an old roadbed that led us to the junction with the Mummy Pass Trail. There, we faced a decision: We could continue through a known moose-spotting zone to Emmaline Lake, which sits beneath a picturesque alpine cirque—or we could hike to Mummy Pass and enter Rocky Mountain National Park. Emmaline would’ve made for a shorter hike, but with fair weather predicted and our legs feeling eager, we opted to play in the park.

A steep, rocky trail for the next two miles dimmed some of our enthusiasm, and the lack of vistas through the green tunnel of trees made us wonder if Emmaline wouldn’t have been a better choice after all. But suddenly the trail left the cover and leveled out, giving us a long-range look over the rounded summits to the northeast. Another mile or so farther, we passed the sign marking the boundary of the park. From there, views of towering, treeless summits accompanied us all the way to Mummy Pass and its 360-degree panoramas of the Mummy Range, a series of bladelike thirteeners that make this one of the most beautiful corners of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Back at the trailhead after eight hours of hiking, we felt grimy enough to consider a dip in the icy Cache la Poudre River. We drove to Poudre Falls, about 10 miles northeast of the summit of Cameron Pass. We parked at the pullout and scrambled down the loose hillside to the water’s edge. Having spotted a deep, calm pool below the falls, we plunged in for a bracing bath that shocked my lungs and reinvigorated my muscles. Heat treatment came next as we sprawled on the sun-warmed rocks lining the water.

Exhausted—and looking forward to a post-hike brew—we pointed the Subaru toward Kelly Flats Campground, 22 miles downstream from the falls, to pitch our tent at one of its 29 riverside sites. We considered grabbing a burger and a slice of pie at Glen Echo Resort, six miles west of Kelly Flats. Instead, we grilled our own burgers over a campfire, savored a beer, and followed dinner with a sunset fishing session before crawling into sleeping bags to enjoy a watery lullaby.

With the morning light glittering on the river’s riffles, we met up with Jin Choi, a fishing guide who operates out of St. Peter’s Fly Shop in Fort Collins. Most people fish the Poudre without a guide, but we’d sought Choi to help us hook into fish in the wake of last year’s High Park Fire, which burned portions of Lower Poudre Canyon. But upstream near Kelly Flats the trees were uncharred, and Choi confirmed that much of the Poudre remained unaffected and the fish were feeling fine. A tug on my hare’s-ear nymph confirmed that the trout were indeed flourishing. As we landed the eight-inch rainbow, I rejoiced: “It’s going to be a good day.”