Backpacking in Colorado is a rewarding experience that offers incredible views to those willing to put in the effort. One of my favorite places to backpack in Colorado has it all: mountain vistas, alpine lakes and no crowds. Oh, and did I mention moose? This magical place is known as Rawah Wilderness.
Located just north of Rocky Mountain National Park and just south of Wyoming, Rawah (ray-wah) Wilderness is a Northern Colorado gem that can be accessed from Fort Collins in a little under two hours. Simply follow Highway 14 West through the Poudre Canyon for about 52 miles before heading north onto County Road 103. Continue on County Road 103 for about 7.5 miles to reach the parking lot for West Branch trailhead. From here, you will have access to a number of beautiful trails you can string together for the perfect day hike or backpacking trip.
Rawah Wilderness Backpacking: Quick Facts
- Dogs – Allowed
- Horses – Allowed
- Parking – West Branch trailhead parking lot
- Restroom – Pit toilets at trailhead parking lot
- Fee – Free
- Permits Required – None
- Trail Features – Lakes, mountain views, mild stream crossings, wildlife, aspens,
- Directions from Fort Collins – Go North on Highway 287 for about 10 miles before turning onto Colorado Highway 14 West. Take Colorado Highway 14 West for 52 miles before turning onto County Road 103. Follow County Road 103 for 7.5 miles to the trailhead parking lot.
- Other activities along trail – Fishing
My go-to backpacking route in Rawah Wilderness connects West Branch Trail, Camp Lake Trail, and Rawah Trail into a nice 18-mile loop. While my husband and I have done it twice as a weekend trip, it’s well worth it to bring a fishing rod and take more time to enjoy the area.
Starting at the parking lot, the trail backtracks along County Road 103 for a little ways before turning right onto a wide trail. Follow this path to the West Branch trailhead. West Branch Trail is a relatively flat, two-mile trail that treks through an aspen grove. This trail is especially beautiful in late September when the leaves reach their prime golden color.
From West Branch Trail, watch for Camp Lake Trail, which will be on the right. Signs mark the trails clearly along the route. You will begin a difficult ascent about one mile into Camp Lake Trail, gaining nearly 700 feet of elevation in one mile. From here the trail levels off, with one more short section of uphill hiking before reaching Camp Lake.
About two miles beyond Camp Lake, you will have trail access to Big Rainbow Lake, Upper and Lower Sandbar Lake and Rawah Lakes #1 and #2. Fishing is allowed in these lakes, which contain cutthroat, rainbow, lake and brown trout.
After you get your fill of fishing, the work begins again on the trail. The trail climbs 500 feet in about a mile, bringing you to the route’s highest elevation point of just over 11,200 feet. Take a moment to enjoy your accomplishment near a small, unmarked body of water surrounded by peaks. This is where you start hiking along Rawah Trail.
The next part of the trail is incredibly enjoyable. Mild switchbacks take you back down into the valley, allowing you to feast your eyes on beautiful mountain views to the west along the way.
At the end of your descent along Rawah Trail, you’ll come across the trailhead for Twin Crater Lakes. This short but steep trail leads you to two alpine lakes surrounded by staggering peaks. If you have the time and the energy, take this side trip.
From the Rawah Trail junction, the hike to Twin Crater Lakes is 1.5 miles with just over 600 feet of elevation gain, much of which is in the form of a steep climb at the end of the trail. Campfires are not permitted at the lakes, but you may camp in the area if you can find a spot to pitch your tent.
We decided to set up camp on our way back to Rawah Trail for a warmer, more wind-protected evening. The first time we explored this area, we opted to leave our heavy packs near the trailhead and hike to the lakes with minimum gear.
After the Twin Crater Lakes trail junction, the hike back to the parking lot is about five miles of (mostly) downhill hiking with a few mellow stream crossings.
Camping is abundant and relatively easy to find along this route. Some areas have clearly been used by campers in the past and feature fire rings, while others are more natural. Please check for local fire bans before planning to build campfires. Rawah Wilderness is located within Roosevelt National Forest in Larimer County, Colorado.
When to Go
I’ve experienced this route in both July and September, and I think it’s more enjoyable in the fall. September or early October hiking offers cooler days, beautiful aspen colors, and most importantly, minimal mosquitoes! While wildflowers were beautiful in mid-July, the trail was sloppy with a fair amount of standing water, making the insects unbearable at dusk and dawn. Fall backpacking in Rawah Wilderness is the way to go.
For more detailed trail and area information, visit the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers’ website.