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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.
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 poudrewildernessvolunteers.org 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.”
“It’s always a good day on Mother Poudre,” replied Choi, who’d grown up fishing this tumbling river. “Some people say the Poudre’s tough fishing, but I’ve never found that to be true,” he explained. It figures that a professional guide would catch plenty of fish, I thought. But the trout responded to Ben and me, too, especially come midday when we floated dries on the water’s surface and watched trout after trout gobble our stonefly imitations.
We changed locations as the afternoon wore on, leaving the campground zone and driving upriver to other pools and places where the water formed graceful arcs that sparkled in the tree-filtered sunlight. No, we weren’t catching 24-inchers, but we weren’t battling crowds like those I’ve encountered on the Platte and Blue rivers either.
Congestion can be a fact of life in Colorado’s mountain enclaves, which sometimes seem more devoted to genteel living than to nature’s simpler pleasures. I’ll confess to my own fondness for spa treatments and jet-fresh sushi after hiking my way through the Rocky Mountains, but even without such window dressing, Poudre Canyon feels special. Yes, it’s rustic and unpolished and undeveloped. But that, I think as I gaze at yet another lonely stretch of river, is its own kind of luxury.
Room Without A Zipper
If camping isn’t your thing, a handful of unpretentious lodging properties sits along State Highway 14. Among them, Bighorn Cabins is a standout. Centrally located near the middle of the canyon, these nine guesthouses offer spotless accommodations without the fuss (read: modest decor). Our nod goes to the three-bedroom Elk Cabin, which sits right beside the water. From the patio, you can listen as the current polishes river rocks and watch as trout rise to meet the sunlit surface.
Rates start at $95 per night, 31635 Poudre Canyon Highway, 970-881-2142, bighorncabins.com. A one-week minimum stay is required to book the Elk Cabin from July through early September.
The best way to learn about the Cache la Poudre River Canyon is to go exploring. Here, some basic information to get you started.
Find Your Way Browse maps and descriptions for Poudre Canyon hikes at poudrewildernessvolunteers.org.
Sleep Outside For camping information, visit fs.usda.gov/activity/arp/recreation/camping-cabins or call the USFS Canyon Lakes Ranger District at 970-295-6700.
Get A Line Wet Buy flies or set up a guide at St. Peter’s Fly Shop, 970-498-8968, stpetes.com.
Buy Provisions General stores at Glen Echo Resort (31503 Poudre Canyon Highway, 970-881-2208, glenechoresort.com) and Archer’s Poudre River Resort (33021 Poudre Canyon Highway, 970-881-2139, poudreriverresort.com) sell beer, buns, s’mores fixin’s, and other basics.