Rawah Lakes Loop

“Were they haulin’ ass out of here?”

“Pretty much.”

“That’s what we’re doing.  You too?”

“No. I’m going in.”

“You’re even crazier than we are.”

“That’s possible.”

We wish each other a good hike, and the couple and their German Shepherd disappear into the rain.

West Branch Trailhead

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.

Aspen Grove

Leaf Soaked with Rain

Wet Needles

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.

Moose Grazing on Willows

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.

Bluebells in the Rain

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.

Camp below North Rawah Peak

Dawn arrives cold and wet.  The rain comes down, sometimes heavily.  After breakfast, I take a tour of the area around my camp.

Rawah Lake #3

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.

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.

On to Grassy Pass

Flag Trees in Mist

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.

Lurking Moose

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.

Staking her Claim

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.

Field of Yellow Flowers

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.

Snow and Runoff

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.

Twin Crater Lake in the Fog

Rose Crown

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.

Misty Camp

Coming to Bed

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.

Dawn at Twin Crater Lakes

Camp Beneath South Rawah Peak

The Sun Hits my Camp

Back on the Trail

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.


26 thoughts on “Rawah Lakes Loop

  1. It’s easy to envy Mountain Light, but you still get good photos in conditions resembling British murk.

    Did you try rounding your shoulders and looking down when the moose was aggressive. According to a programme I saw on TV many years ago, postmen are trained to do that if threatened by large dogs. I have tried it with farm animals as well as with dogs and it usually seems to lessen their attention. Apparently, it’s a sign that you just want to pass through. It seems to help anxious animals relax a bit.

    • Zed, that sounds like a great idea. Next time I find myself in a similar situation, I’ll give it a try.

      I was thinking of you British bloggers as I was hiking through the murk. If you guys can get good photos, I should at least make an attempt.

  2. An excellent read, Dondo. Lovely how you describe your encounters with the moose, and thumbs up for not letting the rain ruin your trip! I personally really enjoy hikes in the rain, for much of what you’ve shown here – no one else around, wildlife encounters, and beautiful surprises when the weather clears.

    • Glad you enjoyed reading it, Hendrik. This one was a lot of fun to write.
      Despite myself, I think I agree with you. Hiking and camping in the rain turned out to be very enjoyable.

  3. Pingback: Trip report contest master index « Bedrock & Paradox

  4. Dave, thanks for choosing me as a finalist in your Bedrock and Paradox trip report contest. After reading the entries of the other finalists, I’m honored to be included in such a talented group.

  5. How long of a timer do you have to get pics like “On to Grassy Pass”?

    I like your moose perspectives. I’ve heard moose are more aggressive than bears to humans but you never hear what you should do in a moose encounter. It seems from what you write they aren’t very quick and agile so you can keep a tree between you if needed.

    • Hi Michael, great to see you visiting here again. My camera has a ten-second timer, so that’s all the time I have. Basically, I set up the shot, stand in front of the camera, hit the shutter button, and run like hell.

      Moose can be really quick when provoked, so you don’t want to get on their bad side. We humans can run around trees faster than moose, though. 🙂

      • LOL. Sounds like you speak from experience.

        Maybe you were still running in that pic. You look pretty far away.

        I always read – I just don’t comment often.

      • Setting your zoom at a wider angle also helps you get that sense of distance. I actually had half-a-dozen takes of this shot. In some the figure was nearer, in others farther. This one hit the sweet spot for me.

  6. Ah Dondo, you’re such a badass! I always love it when I get the email notifying that Dondo has been at it again creating photographs and forming words. This is a great record of your experience, thanks for taking us along on the ride.

  7. Spectacular photographs as usual, Dondo! Your work is destined
    for greatness. Hope to be able to purchase a coffee table book
    of your writing and photographs in the not too distant future!

    p.s. Moose-Americans must love your work also.


  8. Awesome photos! I really enjoyed reading about your various adventures. Oh, and btw, thank you for the kind words and the link to Rip Esselstyn, i picked up his cookbook. Tasty stuff! You’re right, he’s no wimp.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s