Rawah Lakes Loop
“Were they haulin’ ass out of here?”
“That’s what we’re doing. You too?”
“No. I’m going in.”
“You’re even crazier than we are.”
We wish each other a good hike, and the couple and their German Shepherd disappear into the rain.
The West Branch Trailhead has 26 parking spaces and is often full on summer weekends. This morning, the Tuesday after Labor Day, there were only four vehicles left when I arrived. The first man I encountered leaving the mountains had planned to climb North and South Rawah Peaks but had to bail because of the rain. Further up, I met a father and son who had camped last night near Blue Lake. They told me that the rain had started at 5:00 AM and showed no sign of quitting, despite the National Weather Service prediction of only a 30% chance of showers today.
As I watch the couple and their dog hike down the mountain, I realize that there are only me and one other person or party left in the Rawah Lakes area today. Maybe I am a bit crazy. Blessed with 300 days of sunshine a year, we Coloradans are somewhat spoiled. The most rain we usually have to tolerate is the brief afternoon thunderstorm. I’m hoping that the rain quits today, the sun comes out to dry everything off, and I’ll have the whole place to myself.
It’s a cold rain, and I have to keep moving to stay on the right side of hypothermia. Still, there is an undeniable beauty in the damp, green lushness of the landscape.
Once getting used to hiking in the mud, I fall into an easy rhythm. Early in the afternoon, I see a body of water shimmering through the trees to my left, and I know that I’ve arrived at Camp Lake. To the left of the lake there is an open meadow, and something big and brown is grazing there. I’ve spotted something that I came to the Rawah to see—a moose.
Though fascinated with moose, there is something that unnerves me about being in their presence out here in the wilderness. In my handful of encounters with moose, they have never run from me as deer, or elk, or even bears would. One fall, when I was hiking a dirt road near Monarch Lake, a big bull crashed out from the trees a few yards in front of me. He stared me down, blocked the road, and wouldn’t let me pass for over an hour. On another trip, here in the Rawah, a cow just stood and watched as I broke camp, then followed me as I hiked out of the area. Every time I turned around, there she was.
Moose have been known to charge at hikers, especially when they are protecting their young. This cow seems docile enough, just grazing contentedly on the willows. Anyway, my memory is that the trail passes on the other side of the lake. As I get closer, the trail takes a turn toward the meadow. Checking my map, I find that my memory was wrong. The trail takes me through the meadow right in front of the moose. Scanning the other side of the lake, I see that it is choked with bogs and willows, a place where a hiker could get torn up or turn an ankle. I decide to take my chances with the moose.
As I step into the meadow, the moose doesn’t even look up. Is it possible to sneak past her? The trail jogs to the left, directly toward the moose. If she sees me walking toward her, would that be a provocation? If she charges, there are no trees to hide behind here. Just the moose on one side and the lake on the other. I see a way through the willows and leave the trail to push my way through. The rain-soaked bushes are waist high and icy cold. I gasp involuntarily.
She has stopped grazing now and is watching me, very intently. The cold rain begins again in earnest. This is neither the time nor place to reach into my pack for my rain gear. I push on. Reaching the other side of the meadow, I breathe a sigh of relief. Looking back into the meadow, I spot another moose, this one much smaller, running from the forest toward the first one. Then it hits me: it’s a mother and her baby.
By now, I’m soaked from the cold rain. Hastily, I put on my rain gear, grab a handful of trail mix, check the map, and hike upwards through the maze of trails toward tonight’s destination, the Rawah Lakes. Slowly, I regain warmth.
Though normally a popular area, tonight the Rawah Lakes are deserted. Finding a spot between lakes #2 and #3, I quickly erect my shelter and dive inside to get out of the rain. After cooking dinner under the spreading branches of a tree, I hang my bear bag, and climb into my sleeping bag. There will be no photography tonight.
Dawn arrives cold and wet. The rain comes down, sometimes heavily. After breakfast, I take a tour of the area around my camp.
Once back under my shelter, I sort through my options. Tonight’s destination was Twin Crater Lakes, over the pass from where I’m sitting now. It could be miserable trying to get over Grassy Pass in this kind of rain. I’m not due back in civilization until tomorrow night. Remembering Colin Fletcher’s account in The Complete Walker of how he spent a couple of days under his tarp waiting out the rain, I decided that I could do it too, if necessary. So I climb back into my bag and keep myself amused by listening to rain on the roof and studying the map.
Just before noon, I hear the rain lighten, then stop. Deciding to take advantage of this break in the weather, I pack my wet gear quickly and shoulder my pack. Two steps toward the pass and the rain begins again.
A heavy mist settles over the mountains and visibility is greatly reduced. Though I’m surrounded by tall peaks, I can see nothing beyond a few yards. The only thing to do is keep track of the trail and keep walking. Off to my right, I can barely make out Rawah Lake # 1 through the clouds.
Coming down from the pass, it’s great to be back in the trees again, where there is at least some protection from the rain. I walk along at an easy pace through the forest, enjoying the lush wetness of the vegetation. Coming to a clearing in the woods, I stop for a moment, then get the unsettling impression that someone or something is watching me. Then I see her, hiding in the forest just a few feet from the trail.
The moose knows that I’ve seen her, so there’s no pretending that I didn’t. And there’s no way that I’m going to follow the trail to within a few feet of her. After hesitating for a minute, I step out in the clearing, intending to give her a wide berth. The moose is having none of it. She strides into the clearing and shows me her bulk, then turns her head to face me, giving me the evil eye.
I take a few more paces out into the meadow. She matches me step for step.
Apparently, she is staking claim to this meadow and all the willows it contains. Showing deference to her bulk and the reputation of her species, I take a few steps backwards and head diagonally back toward the trail. Satisfied, she begins grazing, but keeps a close eye on me the whole time.
There is still the matter of getting beyond the moose. Reasoning that if she stepped this far into the meadow, she is not hiding any young in the forest, I proceed carefully down the trail. As I get closer, she stops grazing and turns around to watch me. Unlike in the previous encounter, I have the trees to my advantage here. If she charges, I can duck behind the trunks. Exiting the meadow, I take a look over my shoulder. She is still staring at me.
Snowpack is well above average in northern Colorado this year. Wildflowers are abundant for September. Streams are running much higher than normal. Most log bridges have been wiped out. Not bothering with the makeshift bridges hikers have made, I wade right through the ice streams. Finding the turnoff to Twin Crater Lakes, I begin hiking upward again.
A heavy fog descends upon the landscape. Peering through the mist, I can just make out the shore of one of the Crater Lakes. My plans to photograph the lakes this evening will have to be curtailed.
Feeling my way through the mist, I find a flat spot with a tall tree nearby for hanging my food. Luckily there is a pond nearby as well as a flat rock to serve as a table. All I’m missing is the scenery.
In the middle of the night, I awaken to a cool breeze coming through the open door of my shelter. The rain has stopped. Stepping outside, I notice that the clouds have moved away, and that the stars are shining brightly in the sky. Now that the fog has lifted, I can make out the silhouettes of tall mountains just outside my shelter. Excitedly, I crawl back into my sleeping bag and wait for the morning.
On my way back to the trailhead, I run across a pair of backpackers who are going up to Twin Crater Lakes to fish. They introduce themselves as Steve and Augie from Greeley. The Rawah Wilderness is in their backyards, and they have explored the area extensively, but have never been up to Twin Crater Lakes. I give them route and campsite information, and they in turn, tell me about the places they have been in the Rawah. Talk turns, as it often does, to tales of our encounters with wildlife, of our meetings with elk and mountain goats, with bears and moose. After a while, we wish each other a good hike and turn our separate ways: they, up to the mountains and me, back to civilization.