Backpacking Rawah Wilderness Area
Rawah Wilderness is a wilderness area inside Roosevelt National Forest outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. The wilderness area offers amazing backpacking with significantly smaller crowds than the nearby Rocky Mountain National Forest. There are tons of alpine lakes spread throughout Rawah Wilderness. You can definitely plan a good backpacking trip based around fishing a different set of lakes for trout each day.
This past August, three of us met up in Colorado and got to do some awesome backpacking. We spent 4 days backpacking to alpine lakes throughout the Rawah Wilderness Area, a part of Roosevelt National Forest. We lucked out with our timing as our trip happened to line up exactly with the Perseids meteor shower. Not only did our dates coincide, but there was also a new moon that week. That combination created the perfect opportunity for meteor watching and attempting some astrophotography. I don’t think we could have found a better place to view the meteor shower and the milky way than the pristine air of Rawah Wilderness.
We chose Rawah Wilderness so we could fish the alpine lakes for trout and because it was located in a National Forest as opposed to a National Park. Being in a National Forest means that there are less restrictions on backpacking and campfires. It’s also significantly less crowded than the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. Throughout our backpacking trip we only saw around ten other hikers. The fishing was incredible, especially considering the elevation of the lakes. We caught at least 10 trout 15 inches and up and many smaller ones.
We based what lakes we wanted to visit off of the the trail guide and trout stocking schedule. The predominant trout species we caught throughout the lakes was the brook trout. Most lakes in the wilderness area are also stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout. We caught a couple small rainbows but didn’t even spot any cutthroat.
We caught all of the large trout on spinners. Our fly rods also worked well but we were catching smaller fish on the flies.
Spending 4 days at 10,000 foot elevations and 10 miles from the nearest occupied establishment takes a lot of preparation to ensure a smooth trip. Here’s what we packed:
Backpack Equipment List
- Eureka 3 person backpacking tent
- Sleeping Pad
- 30’ Length of rope
- DSLR Camera
- Fishing Rod
- Fly Fishing Rod
- Case of lures and flies
- 4 Small Fire Starters
- 2 Packs of Beef Jerky
- 6 packs of ramen noodles
- 9 packs of instant oatmeal
- 3 drinking cups
- 1 spinner rod and 1 fly rod
- Sleeping bag
- Propane tank with burner attachment
- Pot for boiling water
- 2 empty milk jugs for carrying water
- Portable water filter pump
- Bag of apples
- Block of hard cheese
- Summer sausage
- Second backpacking tent
- 1 spinner fishing rod
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- DSLR camera and tripod
- Bag of crackers
- 3 Packs of granola bars
- 1 Pack of dried mangos
- 1 large bag of trail mix
- Fly rod
- Spinner rod
- 2 water jugs
- 2 water bottles
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
The first night we arrived in the National forest, we camped at Tunnel campground by the base of the ridge. We used the first day there to do some exploring and make sure everything was set for the backpacking trip.
We got up around 5 am and made a quick breakfast of oatmeal and apples. We packed up the campsite and started walking to the trail head. There is a trail that leads directly from Tunnel campground to West Branch Trail 960 which we decided was the route we wanted to take up the mountain. The actual trail head with parking is right down the road from the campground and the campground connects with the trail about .5 miles from the trail head.
The first section of the West Branch Trail is pretty easy going as it cuts through some aspen forests and slowly begins the upwards climb. After about 2.5 miles, Camp Lake Trail 968 branches off and heads straight towards Camp Lake. We took this trail and immediately started an intense upwards climb for the next 1.5 miles. We passed two derelict cabins while hiking next to an old irrigation ditch. It was dug to help divert water down to the dry side of the mountain.
It started to drizzle and some thunder got pretty close around the 5 mile mark. We still had 3 miles to go so we covered our packs with some ponchos to try and keep the equipment dry. The drizzle kept up for the next two miles but luckily it stayed pretty light and we weren’t soaked.
We finally made it to Camp Lake and started to set up our campsite around 4. We picked a spot in the woods about 300 yards from the trail on the west side of the lake. We were exhausted from the hike up and we didn’t stay up very late past sunset. Hiking at those elevations can be tough when you’re not used to it.
We woke up early and boiled some water to make oatmeal. Then we headed up the trail to Upper Camp Lake. Upper Camp Lake is about 1.5 miles from Camp Lake and they’re connected by a small stream. This lake had easily the best fishing we experienced throughout the wilderness area. We were pretty successful fishing along the east side of the lake by casting spinners out past an underwater drop off. All three of us pulled in multiple 13 to 14 inch brook trout here. We also stumbled upon a bull moose here with a huge antler rack. Luckily he was pretty chill with us.
Today we hiked to Rawah 1, 2, and 3 lakes. Along the way we also passed both Sandbar lakes. The sandbar lakes were beautiful with crystal clear water. We ended up catching a couple small trout on the fly rods but these lakes are pretty small and will not produce very many large fish. We fished all three Rawah Lakes and had the most success at 1 and 2. There were definitely a lot more trout in the lower two. Rawah 3 is located almost at the peak of the ridge. It’s worth it to keep climbing to the peak for the view. It’s incredible to look out over all the lakes. The fishing was cut short by a pretty severe thunderstorm and we ended up having to head back to the camp early.
It’s always easy to wake up early when you’re camping. We packed up the campsite and started the hike back down the mountain. Going down was a much smoother hike than coming up. We made it back down to the parking lot in about 5 hours.
We were able to do some amazing star gazing thanks to the new moon and the Perseid meteor shower going on. The milky way was incredible from that altitude and with no light pollution. I took some long exposure pictures with my DSLR and tripod to try and capture the experience. Here’s a couple of the best pictures. It’s amazing what the milky way looks like when you can avoid light pollution.
Easily some of the best backpacking I’ve done. Being able to hike from lake to lake and fish makes this a must for any avid trout fisherman. The meteor shower and milky way viewing made it even better. If you are ever in Colorado I highly recommend a visit!
Check out the video we made of the trip!