Monday, September 12, 2011

Rawah Lakes and Peaks: Rawah Peak Traverse

Sheep Mountain (Rawahs) (11820')
S. Rawah Pk (12644')
N. Rawah Pk (12473')
~20 mile trail circuit from West Branch TH
Plus ~5 Miles for peakbagging (1 RT for Sheep, 4 RT for Rawah Peaks)


With summer waning, I had been looking for something in the high country before the snow settled in. I decided on taking a trip to the Rawah's, to attempt a route connecting some of the region's lakes and highpoints.

For scheduling reasons, I ended up doing this solo, and since the trip was exploratory with some unknown route connections, this ended up working out pretty well, as I was able to take my time (and then some), as I wouldn't sure how it would turn out. Mainly, I began with the framework of a semi-classic clockwise loop route starting from the West Branch Trailhead, which goes past the numbered Rawah Lakes (#1-#4) and numerous other named alpine lakes. This loop is generally done as a multi-day backpacking trip, but contains good trail for a 19.3 mile circuit. To this, I added a short but 0.6 mile (roundtrip) spur towards Crater Lakes, which I had read that led to an opening with a view of the surrounding mountains, but was unnecessary since I later achieved the same views.

To this basic route, I intended on adding some Rawah peak-bagging as well; namely, 12ers North and South Rawah Peaks. There is some limited beta on these peaks, but I had one more goal in mind: explore the connecting ridge between the 2 peaks for a natural traverse. Additionally, I would gain views to the South for future connections of the ridge that leads to the monarch of the range, 12951' Clark Peak. I've hiked to Clark with J on a long but beautiful approach from Blue Lake, and was intrigued to see new reaches of the range to the north.

So after a pre-sunrise drive up the Poudre Canyon under a nearly full moon, I was ready to tackle the loop on a gorgeous September day. My car thermometer read 31 degrees as I headed out along the Laramie River. The trail crosses the river and quickly heads into the trees, where it steadily gains elevation along the west branch of the river. Interspersed among the trees, even this late in the year, were blooming yellow, purple, and white wildflowers. The underbrush was changing to amber, and the aspens will be sure to follow in the coming weeks.

After a few miles, I headed due west along the Rawah Trail. As I mentioned, I headed briefly up the North Fork/Crater Lakes trail for a snack break and my first views of the mountains, but shortly after returning to the Rawah Trail, several open meadows afforded mountain views which would be persistent above treeline. Bench Lake was the first lake visible to the west, and South Rawah Peak made its first appearance. There were clearly several climbable options along the east and southeast ridges of South Rawah, but I had a plan to continue to the trail's highpoint of Grassy Pass.

The trail above treeline was in fantastic shape. I had been making good time, so I couldn't help but notice Sheep Mountain just off the right side of the trail. It was a named peak and would be quick work, so I decided to climb it and use the vantage point for further viewing of the Rawah connecting ridge. This is also suggested for anybody with the desire to climb all 45 peaks named "Sheep Mountain" in Colorado!

Climbing up Sheep Mountain is an easy tundra walk, but begins with a bit of scrambling through willows on a lower shoulder of the peak. Fortunately, there are sufficient game trails scattered throughout the willows, so it doesn't take long to get through the willows and head directly up the peak.

This was an easy diversion but worth it for the views of the imposing ridge above Rawah Lake #4. I was reminded of the Comanche-Fall headwall.

Heading directly southwest of Sheep Mountain, back down over Grassy Pass, leads up to a natural approach to a saddle between S. Rawah Peak and Pt 12484'. This is easy, grassy tundra that was also blessed with hues of a brilliant pinkish-red flowers and scrub.

Interspersed among the tundra are short sections of talus-hopping, and maneuvering around small pockets of water. This late in the year, feet can be kept dry if you're careful.

Near the top is an avoidable snowfield, just below a lower summit bump which can be avoided. Finally, the top of South Rawah Peak provides distance views to the South.

The tallest peak along the ridge is Clark Peak, with its prominent Northeast Ridge. At this time I am convinced that the Blue Lakes approach to Clark remains the classic one: the southeast side of the ridge is more gentle and approachable (with some interesting Class 2+ on the top of the ridge), and in the summer there are sparkling lakes connected by rushing streams, fields of wildflowers, and short opportunities for glissading.
From my vantage point on S. Rawah, one could certainly scale each of the humps in succession from Clark Peak to North Rawah, but it would be a very long day (e.g., the Summer Solstice!) or multiday adventure, with backpacking down at the lakes. There are occasional rocky sections that look manageable but would slow down the traverse. Now that I know, I am not as intrigued by a lengthy ridge run in that direction. Instead, future investigations will likely involve running the ridge from the Diamond Peaks side instead.

I looked around the S. Rawah Pk summit, and found obvious cairns but no summit register. After a quick snack, I headed north, again skirting the useless hump before the top of headwall, to contemplate my fate.

This was to be the crux of the route, and had me both anxious and excited. I had seen no pictures of this section and read no direct reports on it (although based on brief Summitpost listings, I know people have traversed it). I am not an overly experienced scrambler, so I was looking forward to the challenge, yet keeping it within my abilities. If at any point I could not proceed safely, I would certainly turn around; and I would additionally monitor any committing moves to ensure that I could turn around easily.

The other information I was relying on is based on previous observations of the area:
* The face is dramatic and erodes sharply, but the hills to the West are more gradual, and this configuration is typical (e.g. Comanche-Fall). It appeared steep on the map but not a knife edge.
* The rock on that side of the Poudre is solid (which is in stark contrast to Richtofen, Mahler, Static Peak, Nokhu Crags, etc. on the other side).
* Rocky sections in the Rawahs are generally larger boulders, whereas large slabs and big scree piles are more rare.

Consequently, the first view of the connecting ridge was a relief.
The northern half of the traverse was safe tundra, reminiscent of the Comanche Wilderness, so only the southern half was actually scrambling. The lower part of the slope was looser, but up on top the rocks were large and stable enough to suggest a choice of routes.

In the middle were two larger rockpiles. These were manageable as well, and terrain was similar behind them. The key was to stay as high as possible, and although some of the rocks were large enough for fun friction climbing, no sections required a completely exposed climb.

Once the rocks gave way to tundra, it was easy to stand near the edge and peer below. With a few hundred feet of easy gain on tundra, the lumpy peak of N. Rawah is obtained.

Again, I found cairns and a small summit shelter at the top, but no summit log.
After a lunch break, it was time to descend. I had spotted at least two decent alternatives on the view below (retreating slightly towards the saddle to the south of the peak, then descending; or continuing north along the ridge, before descending to one of the lakes further up on the trail), but inexplicably choose neither. I headed straight for the trail to scope it out. It steeply drops off, but it seemed manageable, so I headed down. It was loose and steep, and although it wasn't a horrible option, it was slow and not entirely fun. There were just enough rocks and occasional vegetation to grab a handhold, but you needed to test every single hold, and it was easy to send rocks below (albeit with clear visibility of the fact that nobody is down there). This would be really slow with more than one person due to the instability of the rocks, so I strongly suggest backtracking slightly and descending around the snowfield to the south of the peak.

Now the peakbagging session was over, which took probably 4 hours itself with lunch/picture breaks, and it was back to the trail. It would have been quicker to return via the West Branch/Rawah Trail, but I wanted to complete the loop. After scooting north around the shoulder of Sheep Mountain, this meant heading past some more lakes, including a criss-crossing intersection of loops near the Sandbar Lakes. A sign pointed left and right, respectively, to the 2 lakes, but the trail also continued (after briefly disappearing) straight ahead, which corresponded to the easternly direction of my goal. This is the desired trail as it heads towards Camp Lake.

Oh, I had just encountered two backpackers: the first people I'd seen in six hours.

The trail is now back into the trees. A sign describes the intersection of Camp Lake and a spur trail to Upper Camp Lake. Camp Lake itself is larger and serene, but not as glorious as the alpine lakes already seen. Now the trail becomes very faint in boggy marshland around the lake. Some logs and small bridges are placed in particularly troublesome spots, but if you head in the general direction of the sign, the trail picks up again.

Alternatives on the return loop
One thought of a more direct loop that still includes Sheep Mountain: the trail itself now isn't as exciting, so climbing Sheep Mountain on the return, descending to Upper Camp Lake (if a less-steep route with minimal bushwhacking is possible), and then dropping down to Camp Lake on the trail would be a good alternative. Simply put, there isn't otherwise a really strong argument for climbing Sheep Mountain by itself.

But don't be fooled by the Trails Illustrated map if you think you can stay above treeline even longer and hit the trail further east! I had mistakenly thought that the brown colouring is above treeline, and green is forested. This is mostly true, but the actual meaning (as depicted in the legend) is unforested versus forested. The key point here is that unforested, in this area particularly, can mean bogs and marshes! So sticking only to known alpine, or known trails, is the safest and fastest route.

But I had chosen to stick to the trail, so now I was on the Camp Lake section for awhile. I was a bit tired from the rest of the day, so I was just trying to get done. The trail is still lovely but the lakes and waterfalls are prettier on the bottom/West Branch part of the loop instead. The only interesting new development here is, for a few miles, the trail is actually along a ditch that was developed and abandoned some years ago.

This provides an interesting change and a bit of relief from running on rocks and walking sideways on tundra. It would be a fantastic cross-country ski trail -- too bad it would require a few hours on rocky terrain just to reach it; or a very fun bike trail -- but the Wilderness regulations preclude such usage. As it is, it's an interesting smooth trail in the middle of nowhere.

After a few miles of slightly rolling terrain, the descent finally begins. And goes on and on and on. The map doesn't have the resolution to show the dozens of switchbacks through the woods, but it gets monotonous and tiresome. Well, it's still a beautiful area, but I mismanaged my distance estimates because I didn't consider the switchbacks. So given a single choice, West Branch is the better one for a shorter, prettier approach to Grassy Pass (if not Crater Lakes) and the peaks above. But it's hard to beat a loop for seeing 20+ miles of different terrain!

I finally reached the car, over 9 hours since I started. My estimates were 6-8 hours, but adding the extra Sheep Mountain trip (30 minutes), a slow descent off of N Rawah, and accumulated fatigue added up.

Northern Colorado Classic?
Already a classic backpacking and fishing destination, for running (all singletrack!) and scenery, this loop is a classic running route as well. It's hard to compete with something like with the Maroon Bells Loop, and I still haven't done Pawnee-Buchanan, but it belongs on an extended list with routes like Comanche-Fall (Comanche Wilderness), Flat Top-Hallett-Otis-Taylor, and Comanche-Venable (Sangres). I'll also add the unheralded Zimmerman-Thunder Pass loop across the street. For pure running, the trails themselves on the main circuit are in great condition and relatively easy to follow. The traverse between the peaks is a scrambling challenge, but it's on solid rock with great views. And, for whatever it's worth, I saw 5 people all day on a perfect Sunday!

For the peakbagging experience as well, I'd suggest a few minor tweaks:
* Climb S. Rawah further south, either from Bench Lake, or even nearer to Crater Lakes (giving a good excuse to take that spur trail), rather than backtracking from Grassy Pass. This is described elsewhere as the East Ridge route.
* When descending N. Rawah, retreat slightly to the saddle and descend around the snowfield
* Consider a return approach that goes above Sheep Mtn. and descends to Upper Camp Lake

If you've been up there or have different ideas, let me know. The Cameron Pass area is a fantastic area to explore year round!


  1. The Rawah Wilderness is at the top of my list right now (so much to explore). A South Rawah to Clark traverse would be epic! I'm not sure if all those peaks in between can even be summitted. Thanks for the beta. I've gotta get up there again soon.

  2. Sheesh. Thanks. Another one to add to the list.

  3. Guys, this is the state we freakin' live in: isn't it amazing?
    Gotta keep reminding myself how lucky we are!

    GZ: I have to keep the mileage/time up: finally planning on R2R2R next month! Definitely going to study up on your report in the coming weeks.

  4. Hey! I am researching for a trip up to lake 4 later this year. I am a climber, and I am planning to scramble/climb up the exposed granite ridge, starting from behind lake 4. Do you have any more photos of that ridge? Any info would be great. Thanks!