Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 11.8 miles (one way plus 13.2 miles by car from Big South Trailhead)Walking time: 7 hours
Elevations: 1,900 ft. loss, 300 ft. gain
Corral Creek Trailhead (start): 10,040 ft.
Big South Trailhead: 8,440 ft.
Trail: The trail is easy and well marked, but you will need to ford the river near Peterson Lake
Season: Late summer through mid-fall. This hike requires a ford across the Cache la Poudre River. The river is usually too high to ford comfortably before August, but a shorter hike along the upper part of the river is possible earlier in the summer. The shorter hike ends at Peterson Lake just before the trail crosses the river.
Vicinity: West of Fort Collins
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The Cache la Poudre River is, by many accounts, the most scenic river in Colorado. In 1973 the U.S. Congress added it to its official list of America’s Wild and Scenic Rivers, and even today it remains the only waterway in the state to enjoy this status. Because of its federal designation the river has also enjoyed certain legal protections; consequently it still retains much of its original pristine charm. The Cache la Poudre is currently the only river in Colorado’s Front Range that is still free-flowing and undammed along its entire 70-mile length. After this hike I think you will agree it is a jewel worth saving.
There is an interesting story about how the Cache la Poudre River got its name. In the Fall of 1836 a wagon train of French fur trappers became snowbound on the shore of the river while trying to make there way into southern Wyoming. The wagons were stuck for over a week, but by lightening the loads they were finally able to proceed. A portion of the supplies, including several hundred pounds of gunpowder, was carefully buried in a large pit, enabling the wagons to ford the river and continue into Wyoming. The trappers returned the following spring to reclaim their supplies, but from that time forward the stream came to be know as the Cache la Poudre River, which in the French language means "hiding place of the powder".
Today most of the Cache la Poudre is paralleled by Highway 14 west of Fort Collins, but the first 20 miles of its course is through Rocky Mountain National Park and the Comanche Peak Wilderness Area where there are no roads to mar its character. The hike described here is along the Big South Trail which begins on the northern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and follows the river through the Comanche Peak Wilderness Area. In my opinion this section is the wildest, most scenic stretch of the Cache la Poudre.
The Corral Creek Trail heads out from the trailhead in an easterly direction along the northern shore of Corral Creek. For the first 0.3 mile you will be following an old jeep road, but the road soon fades into a very pleasant trail. The path winds gently downward through an open forest of limber and lodgepole pine, past the confluence of Poudre Pass Creek, then finally ends where Poudre Pass Creek empties into the Cache la Poudre River.
When you reach the Cache la Poudre, 1.3 miles from the trailhead, you will see a trail junction near the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you turn right you will be on the Poudre River trail which follows the river southward to its headwaters inside the park. For the hike described here, however, you must turn left onto the Big South Trail.
Although the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre are only ten miles away, the flow rate of the river is substantial by the time it reaches the Big South Trail, and it continues to increase noticeably as you walk downstream. The trail winds along its western side, sometimes very close to the bank and sometimes 100 yards away, but rarely out of sight or sound of the rushing water. The setting is pristine. As you walk try to put yourself into the minds of the French fur traders who were trapping beaver along the Cache la Poudre and its tributaries at the turn of the nineteenth century. The sights and sounds they experienced 200 years ago are essentially the same today.
About 20 minutes north of the trail junction you will notice a significant increase in the volume of sound from the river. The forest is denser in this area and the trail is about 100 feet from the shore, so it is hard to see the reason for the increased noise from the trail. But if you will leave the trail at this point and walk through the trees to the water’s edge you will be treated to the first of two spectacular cascades. Here the rushing water is confronted with a number of large boulders and other irregularities in the streambed, and it must draw upon all its energy to get around the obstacles. Like a trapped animal it roars and lunges, as if trying to intimidate its adversary. Then, having found a weakness, it pours through the barrier with unstoppable force.
0.7 mile beyond the first waterfall you will come to the second. This time the fall is about 200 feet from the trail so, again, you must leave the path when you hear an increase in the noise level. The second cascade is caused by a constriction in the riverbed that forces the entire flow to direct itself through an opening in the rock that is only four feet wide. At the bottom of the fall there is a large pool of relatively calm, deep water that must be a popular hangout for a few wise old trout. The Big South Trail is a favorite of backcountry fisherman, and I am sure many lines have been dropped into this pool.
From the second cascade the trail continues northward, sometimes climbing 100 feet up the west side of the canyon, but ultimately returning to the river. 1.1 mile after leaving the second waterfall the path passes within two feet of the remains of two old log cabins that were built years ago on the shore of the river. Then soon after leaving the cabins it turns west, away from the river, and climbs out of the valley toward Peterson Lake.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the Cache la Poudre the trail crosses another small drainage and comes to a junction where the Peterson Lake Trail departs. If you don't want to ford the river you must bear left at this point towards Peterson Lake. Soon it will become apparent that the spur trail is following an old wagon or jeep road, but the road has not been used for at least 10-20 years-the roadbed is filled with trees, some of which are six inches in diameter. Finally, 15 minutes from the junction with the Big South Trail, the hike ends at the Peterson Lake Trailhead.
Continuing north from the Peterson Lake Trail junction along the Big South Trail you will soon come to the remains of two more cabins that appear to have been built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. From there the trail begins a gradual descent, and within 15 minutes you will once again arrive at the river. If you look carefully at the point where the trail reaches the water you can still see the footings on each side of the river where a footbridge used to be, but unfortunately the bridge was washed out by a flood in the early 1990s. All that is left now are two piles of stones and a couple of small logs; if you want to continue you must find a place to ford to the other side. Look for a smaller trail that continues downstream for another 100 yards to the place where most people make the ford. The stream is about 30 feet wide at this point and usually not more than 2 feet deep. But the current can be swift, and the bottom is covered with large, slippery rocks, so be careful.
Timing is critical in fording the Cache la Poudre. The river normally has its peak flow around June 10, but this can vary from year to year. By August the flow rate is generally down to about 30% of its peak flow-low enough to allow a safe ford. Some strong, long-legged individuals attempt earlier crossings, but personally I would not even consider fording the river before mid-July. In any case you should carry a river bag as part of your gear and put your critical items in it during the crossing. If you fall into the water on the way across you will be thankful for a dry change of cloths when you reach the other side. Another point to consider: the Long Draw Reservoir empties into the Cache la Poudre River just above Corral Creek Trailhead, and occasional releases of water into the river by the reservoir operators can cause the water level of the river to rise dramatically and unexpectedly. Such dramatic changes are rare, especially in late summer, but they are not unknown. Please do not attempt to ford the river if it appears unsafe.
Find a strong stick, at least 8-10 feet long with a pointed end, and position it on your downstream side as you walk. Dig the pointed end into the river bottom and hold it at a 45-degree angle to the bottom, so that it forms a tripod with your legs. Only one leg of the tripod should be moved at a time, and only while the other two legs are securely pinned to the bottom. Unfasten the waste strap on your backpack while your are fording, so you can easily get out of it should you fall. But don’t take off your shoes. The bottom is very irregular and the current bangs your feet against the rocks as you move, so you will need the protection of your boots. Finally, take your time and look up occasionally to reorient yourself. If you stare at the water too long it will begin to feel like you are the one that is moving and the river is standing still, and this can cause you to loose your balance.
The first time I did this hike I was alone. It was mid-July, and the ford was a little more difficult than I had expected. It took me a full ten minutes to get across and I almost stumbled at least once, but when I reached the other side, changed my socks, and started down the trail again I felt like I had found the Garden of Eden. The air was so still, the vegetation on the forest floor was so green, and the sun was glinting softly through the mist below a canopy of pines. Ahead of me I knew all of the fishermen were at least five miles away near the Big South Trailhead. And behind me, well surely no one else would be crazy enough to make the ford I had just done. My solitude was secure. The river and the distance were protecting me from the confusion of the outside world. And, at least for the moment, I was in the most serene place in the universe. Heaven itself was my own private domain.
The terrain near the ford is quite flat, and for 1.5 miles the trail meanders through the well shaded woods, occasionally approaching the river and then veering away again. If you are not in a hurry the Big South Trail provides a fine opportunity for an overnight hike, especially if you are a fisherman. The forest service has established a number of backcountry campsites along the eastern side of the Cache la Poudre River, and asks that you camp only in these designated sites. In all there are 16 of them, spaced roughly at half-mile intervals with the first one being just north of the ford. The camps are all clearly marked with small signs along the trail.
After 1.9 miles the canyon becomes so narrow that the trail is forced to climb to a plateau above the ravine, and the following 1.2 miles are filled with exciting views of the raging torrent below you. Frothy water rushing ever downward-continually searching for the low ground at the end of the valley. The canyon remains narrow for the next 1.5 miles, but then the east bank becomes somewhat flatter allowing the trail to return briefly to the river.
The last 3.4 miles of the hike is punctuated with a lot of up and down, as the trail climbs to avoid the narrow sections of the river and then comes back down again when the opportunity presents itself. As you approach the end, however, the trail seems to stick more to the water’s edge regardless of the narrow canyon. This is also the area where you are likely to see many fishermen. Finally, 6.9 miles beyond the point where the trail crosses from the west to the east side of the river, you will come out of the trees to the parking area beside Highway 14.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Cache la Poudre River
Poudre River (Trails Illustrated, map #112)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS