Rawah Wilderness is wild and beautiful, nestled between Walden and Red Feather Lakes, CO. Moose abundant, the water crystal clear, and forest trails that go on for miles. Rawah has wonder in every season. It is backpackers, hunters, and wildflower-seekers paradise. The Medicine Bow Mountains line the west side, with an abundance of alpine lake views worthy of the climb it takes to get there.
Larimer River Road heads north off HWY 14 near Chambers Lake, just east of Cameron Pass in Poudre Canyon. You can take the road all the way north to Wyoming, but you have to wait until it opens for the season in June. You pass through Roosevelt National Forest along the way, with Rawah Wilderness’s 73,868 acres to your left.
On August 13, 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire started near Cameron Peak (elevation 12,127ft) located in the southern tip of Rawah Wilderness, near Chambers Lake campground. It grew into the largest fire in Colorado’s history, meandering through 208,663 acres before it was fully contained on December 2, 2020.
It was devastating watching the fire move through almost all my favorite Northern Colorado adventure spaces. It left me anxious to get out there after roads opened again, to assess the damage, and re-engage with the trails that closed way too early last season.
Fire is part of the natural cycle of the forest. It is unfortunate when fires start by unnatural means, but forests bounce back as it is their nature to do. Fires clean out old and dead and create opportunities for new growth and rejuvenation of the nutrients in the soil. A July 5, 2021 drive up Laramie River Road revealed that life was already springing back.
Rawah Wilderness is where I fell in love with backpacking. It is where many great memories were made, both learning lessons the hard way and making friends who I would go on to climb mountains in Nepal, ford rivers in Alaska, and walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon alongside. ‘Rawah’ is a Native American term meaning ‘wild place.’ It is a special place.
Fortunately, the fire stayed in the southern end of the wilderness area. All of the trailheads, except for Blue Lake, are open, and the campgrounds are all open for the season. There are some road, dispersed camping, and trail closures in the southern area, with the burn area going up to just south of the Tunnel campground. The area north of West Branch Trailhead appears untouched by fire, based on the view from the road.
The heavily burned area is sad to see, but I look forward to watching these spaces bounce back to life. There are already green swatches amid the burned slopes showing where springs facilitate growth. The waterways, abundant, are lined with green and flowers, creating a vibrant contrast in the otherwise drab terrain. Once past the burn area, it is easy to forget the fire happened, swept up in the lushness of mountains in springtime, roadside moose encounters, and trailheads beckoning.
My backpacking pack is packed and ready to hit the trail. I won’t be missing the opportunity to backpack Rawah this season.
“Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul,” John Muir.
For more information on Rawah Wilderness, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/arp/recarea/?recid=80808