Since I’d been hitting the ACA bicycle-racing season pretty hard I hadn’t gotten much of a chance to get up into the mountains. I’d been fishing only twice and hiking twice (one of which was Horsetooth Mountain which doesn’t really count). This was the first weekend of the summer where there were no major bike races and my wife Julie and I didn’t already have some other obligation.
For our first trip of the season we chose to backpack up to Bench Lake in Rawah Wilderness. I’d been dreaming of getting back into this area since I was last there in August 2002 with my brother-in-laws. The fishing is really good, the area is spectacularly beautiful, and I’d be able to climb South Rawah Peak and submit it to SummitPost. We chose to head to Bench Lake over the Fourth of July because we knew there would be lots of people out in the high country and we wanted to get away from them. Bench Lake is relatively remote, and only the adventurous make the off-trail journey to it from the Twin Crater Lakes area. I was betting that there wouldn’t be anyone else camping at Bench Lake and we probably wouldn’t see any other people once we left the trail. I know that if we’d gone to one of our other favorite destinations (Comanche or Browns Lake in Comanche Peak Wilderness) we would have had to share the area with many other people.
The first day of hiking was going to be a long one, as the hike from West Branch Trailhead to Bench Lake is roughly eight miles. Julie was a little bit anxious about this hard day, but I knew she’d make it. Another concern was our dog, a 15-pound Silky Terrier named Poudre. Historically Poudre has been a real trooper and out-hiked me on almost every occasion. However, during our conditioning hike around Horsetooth Mountain he had turned out to be a big wus. I was hoping this was due to the heat, and not the mileage.
At the last minute Julie’s brother and sister-in-law decided they were going to join us. They’re preparation wasn’t that great and they didn’t have a tent or a sleeping bag the day before we were to depart. They also couldn’t make our timeline of leaving early Friday morning and were going to show up later. Even though they said they were coming, I believed there was a 50/50 chance that we’d actually meet up with them, and even less of a chance that this would happen the first night. I was thankful that we didn’t have to be part of their hectic, last minute preparations.
Day 1 -- July 4, 2003:
Julie and I rolled out of bed just as the sun was coming up. We’d done all our packing the night before so all we had to do was fill up our water bottles and skip out the door. We pulled away from the house at 6:00am and made a stop at the grocery store for some breakfast and some snacks we’d forgotten to pack. The drive up to the trailhead took us about an hour and a half. We stopped to use the restroom one more time, signed the registry and we were off.
The first quarter mile of hiking was on an access road across the Laramie River valley. As soon as we crossed the valley and hit the trail into the forest we were attacked by mosquitoes. I’d heard stories about how bad the bugs can be in Rawah Wilderness but never experienced any problems myself. We quickly got out the bug spray and gave ourselves a liberal dose. This seemed to help very little so we got moving, hoping that the mosquitoes wouldn’t be quite so bad farther up the trail.
The first mile or two ascends gently through aspen stands. We could hear the West Branch of the Laramie River thundering below in the valley, but for the most part it was too far away to see. Gradually the aspen trees gave way to pine trees as West Branch Trail approaches the junction with Camp Lakes Trail. Near this junction we met our first fellow outdoors people. They appeared to be a father and son combo heading back after their adventure in the wilderness. They’d spent their time on the north side of Grassy Pass and in the Camp Lakes area. Julie asked them if the bugs were as bad at the higher elevations and they reported that the bugs were even worse. They also told us that there was still a lot of snow at the higher elevations. I had been slightly worried about this. When we had planned the trip many months ago I thought that we’d have no problem with snow based on my experience the last couple of years. However, this spring we’d got a lot of snow and the early summer had been uncharacteristically mild. Now I was even more concerned. We hadn’t brought any gaiters or snowshoes and I hoped we could find a dry place to pitch our tent.
We soldiered on toward the crossing of the North Fork of the Laramie River. When we got there we found a group of people drying off their feet and putting their shoes back on. Apparently a good portion of the footbridge had been washed out during the spring runoff. What was usually a three-log bridge was down to a single log, and these people didn’t have the balance/confidence combination to make it across. Instead they opted to wade across. Julie and Poudre made it across the single log with no problem, but when it was my turn it wasn’t so easy. I’d get out about five feet into the log and then the combination of the 40+ pounds on my back and the sagging of the log made me really uncomfortable. When the log began to bounce under me I began to loose my balance and then beat a hasty retreat back to the bank. I did this two or three times and then decided to suck-it-up and wade across the river. The water was shockingly cold and about knee-deep in the center of the river. After I made it across I put my socks and shoes back on and we were rolling once again.
Shortly after the bridge, we made the right-hand turn on Rawah Trail. It seems like the mosquitoes weren’t as bad as they were. I hoped that the guy and his son were mistaken (I think the bugs around Camp Lakes are always really bad). The section of the trail was very lush. The ground was soft and moist and ferns and moss were plentiful. The canopy was dense and it was nice and cool on the shaded trail. After crossing the North Fork of the Laramie River again (this time the footbridge was intact), we stopped for a break. There was a nice big bolder to sit on as we watched the river roar by. It’s a good thing this bridge was intact because wading across here would have been a bear. The water was moving really, really fast.
Once we got rolling again we’d hit a steep section so we savored the rest. This step section of switchbacks was the first major challenge for Julie, but she handled it like a champ. We stopped several times to catch our breaths but eventually made it past the steep part. As we cruised along the relatively flat part after our steep climb we met another party coming down. These two couples had spent a couple of nights at Twin Crater Lakes and warned us about the tons of snow. They told us we would have to contend with 20’ drifts and to follow their tracks. Now I was really worried about finding a dry spot to pitch the tent. Julie and I also commented that it was odd that we kept meeting people that were heading back down to the trailhead (three separate parties now). We expected to find lots of people heading up to the high country on this Fourth of July Friday, not coming down.
Anywho, we continued on. Sure enough, as soon was we turned off Rawah Trail onto North Fork Trail we encountered snowdrifts. These were three to four feet deep and we had no problem crossing them or avoiding them. These continued until we popped out into the meadow below Twin Crater Lakes where the trail crosses the North Fork once more. In the past I’d crossed the river and continued up the trail for a little ways before re-crossing the river to head up to Bench Lake. Usually this crossing is no problem as there are several stepping-stones to aid the crossing. However, today the stepping-stones were submerged under a foot of rushing water. By this time Julie was pretty beat, so I left her there to rest while I scoped out the situation. Instead of crossing the river, I explored the option of remaining on the north bank and contouring along the side of the hill until we hit the gully we’d ascend. Poudre joined me and had a great time splashing around in the water. The entire meadow was submerged in about two inches of water and he was quickly wet and filthy. We contour along the hillside up to the gully. I realize that this was definitely the way to go—we’d avoid having to make two laborious crossings of the river and be able to stay relatively dry if we hugged the hillside. Poudre and I scampered back down to the river crossing to collect Julie. She was reluctant to move and I contemplated humping my pack up to Bench Lake and then coming back for hers (it wasn’t far now, maybe 30 minutes for me). However, I eventually encouraged her to join me and we continued on.
We made our way to the gully and start up it. It was pretty steep, especially when you’re humping a 40+ pound pack. Both of us ended up making quick 20’ sprints up the gully and then resting to catch our breaths. After we made it to the top of the gully Julie was ready for another rest. I left her there and continued on to Bench Lake. It was only about 5 minutes away now and I was anxious to get there and see if we would find a spot to pitch the tent. If we couldn’t find a dry spot we’d have to turn around and look for a spot near Twin Crater Lakes and I knew Julie wouldn’t be happy about that after climbing the steep gully. I crested the rise before Bench Lake and all my fears and worries dissolved. We’d have no problem finding a spot to make camp and the area was even more beautiful than I had remembered. I dropped my pack at a likely camping spot and Poudre and I headed back to collect Julie. I think Poudre was feeding off my excitement because he was really spazzing out and running all over the place. The long hike didn’t seem to have fazed him. In my absence Julie continued hiking. I took her pack and we quickly arrived at the lake.
We found a great campsite at the south end of Bench Lake and quickly pitched the tent and set up camp. We pulled out some chairs and had some lunch and admired the spectacular scenery. I was so pleased that everything turned out better than I had dreamed: the lake was more beautiful than I remember, we found a prefect campsite and didn’t have to worry about being wet and miserable all weekend, there were hardly any bugs, and Julie and Poudre made it up without too much trouble.
We sat and enjoyed. After lunch Julie was ready for a well-deserved nap. I on the other hand, was torn between fishing and climbing South Rawah Peak. Originally I planned on climbing it on Saturday, but we made it to camp so early (it couldn’t have been much later than noon or one) I decide I might as well bag it today. After all, tomorrow my brother and sister-in-law would probably be hanging out with us and they probably wouldn’t want to climb the mountain. Also, I could see what I thought was the peak at the time, and it looked like it would only take me 20 minutes or a half an hour to reach the summit. So I left the dog to nap with Julie, grabbed a water bottle and a jacket and headed for the summit.
The first part of the hike was a steep ascent up a grassy, tundra slope. The flowers were beautiful and the views to the north and south were great. To the north you had Bench Lake and Grassy Pass, to the south you had Rockhole Lake and Twin Crater Lakes dwarfed by the unnamed peaks that surround them. I continued up this slope still thinking that the apparent summit I was approaching was my destination. When I arrived there I realized how wrong I was. The actual summit was three to four times further away. Luckily, the weather was beautiful, the climb was not too steep, and I had nothing better to do. I continued up the tundra slopes to the actual summit as I enjoyed the amazing views. The grassy slopes were ablaze with wildflowers and the nearby peaks were inspiring. I reached the summit 30 minutes later and gazed over the other side into Clear Lake and North Park beyond. The wind coming out of the west on the summit was staggering (literally), and I feared that none of my photos would turn out because I was having such a hard time keeping my body and camera still (thankfully they did turn out). I scrambled around looking for a summit log but couldn’t find one. After taking a ton of photos I retraced my steps back to camp on the shores of Bench Lake. I think the roundtrip took me a little less than two hours.
When I got back down to camp, I had another snack and Julie awoke from her nap. We hung out there in camp for a while and then I broke out my fishing kit. I walked around the Lake and started out with a little beadhead nymph. It wasn’t long before I caught a couple of little guys. These were maybe six inches long and not worth keeping. After a while Julie walked over to where I was fishing and hung out with me. I caught a couple of more little ones and then decided to let Julie try her hand at it. She’d never fished with nymphs so I had to explain how it worked: you cast it out there, let it sink a little ways, and then bring it in slowly by pulling 2’ long lengths of line up with quick jerks. The idea is to have the nymph appear to be bouncing along the bottom of the lake. Julie isn’t the best caster, so I cast the fly out there and then handed the operation over to her. It wasn’t long before she landed a fish too. Later in the evening I switched to dry flies, didn’t have any luck, and then switched back to nymphs. Right before I quit for the evening I caught a nice 10” fish worth saving.
I put him on the stringer and headed back to camp. Julie and I rested and chatted until the sun went down and then fixed up some dinner. When the sun went down the temperature went down with it. Poudre got pretty cold and Julie and I took turns warming him up beneath our jackets. All evening Julie and I were wondering whether her brother and sister-in-law were going to show up. We had both been repeatedly glancing south to see if we could spot them coming over the ridge. I personally didn’t think we’d see them Friday, and thought there was a 50/50 chance that we’d see them at all the whole weekend. Julie was worried that they might encounter the mosquitoes early on and turn around and I was worried that all the snow might discourage them and/or they might not be able to find us. However, at 9:00 pm, just as Julie and I were getting ready to turn in for the night, we heard a shout and sure enough they came over the ridge and strolled down into camp.
Julie’s brother Michael was itching for some fishing so he quickly got his fishing kit together and hit the lake, leaving his wife Jennifer to pitch the tent and set up camp. There was only about 20 minutes of daylight left, but Michael managed to catch several fish before it was too dark to see anything. Julie and I finished our hot cocoa and Michael and Jennifer had a few snacks and we all went to bed.
Day 2 -- July 5, 2003:
We slept in and woke up when the sun hit our tent. I was the first out of bed and went down to filter water for the day’s adventures and get a kettle of water on for our breakfast. Julie got out of the tent and we had cocoa and oatmeal for breakfast. Michael and Jennifer rolled out of bed at about this time and we all sat around with our breakfasts.
While we were sitting there a pair of bighorn sheep crested the ridge just south of our campsite. They seemed to be as interested in us as we were in them and strolled right down to us (just as they did during our trip to the area in 2002). However, as soon as Poudre saw them he went nuts. He barked and growled. Julie tried to keep him under control with some success. She held onto him while Jennifer and I took some photos of the sheep (unfortunately none of mine turned out). After a while the sheep wandered a little ways away so we let Poudre loose since he had calmed down a little bit. However, the sheep wandered back and Poudre went nuts again. He spent the remainder of the morning chasing the sheep off. Whenever they’d get within 100 yards of us he would bolt and chase them at least another 100 to 200 yards off before he trotted back to camp. He was having a blast!
After our leisurely breakfast we got our gear together for a little trip up to Rockhole Lake. During a trip to Rockhole in 2002, Julie’s other brother Larry caught a 15" Greenback Cutthroat and Michael and I were hoping to have similar success this year. Michael and Jennifer couldn’t wait for Julie to tie her boots so they took off. Julie and I decided to take an easier route so we all arrived at the lake at the same time. On the north side of the lake there were some huge snowdrifts—probably 10’-15’ high. I got Michael to take a couple of photos of Julie and I posing below, and then sitting on top of, the snowdrifts. After this side trip we hiked around Rockhole Lake until we got to the spot where Larry had caught his monster fish the previous year. Unfortunately this was not going to be our day. Not only did we not catch anything at Rockhole, but neither of us got a hit or even saw a fish! After a couple of hours of nothing, we decided to quit and make our way back to Bench Lake where we knew we’d have better luck. About a half hour before we left, another couple showed up to the lake. They apparently came from the Twin Crater Lakes area. These were the only people we’d see once we’d left the trail all weekend.
On the way back Julie and I decided to take a little detour to the east side of Rockhole where the lake drains out into a waterfall that flows down into the meadow below Rockhole and Twin Crater Lakes. We had been here previously and new it was a good place to take photos. When we got there we found more huge snowdrifts. It was really beautiful. We dorked around in the snow and took some photos. The waterfall was covered in large part by a big snowfield, but right before the waterfall the snow had cracked and fissured to reveal the stream below. It was really cool looking and we got some fun photos. Poudre was especially having fun running around in the snow. In the winter he’s not a big fan of the snow because his fur doesn’t keep him very warm or dry, but on a hot July day like this he was in heaven. After getting our fill of the snow we headed back to camp at Bench Lake.
We got back to our Bench Lake campsite a little after noon. We sat around and had some lunch. It was really hot, and since we were at 11,000 ft there wasn’t any source of significant shade. I suppose we could have taken a dip in the lake, but none of us had the courage to plunge into the frigid water. Julie decided to take a nap, while Jennifer and I read near the lake. Michael had accidentally left his creel at Rockhole Lake. As Jeff Bridges’ character in “The Big Lebowski” would have said: “That’s a bummer dude.” So while Michael made the trek back to Rockhole Lake the rest of us chilled out at Bench Lake.
When Michael showed up he went straight to fishing Bench Lake. Still discouraged from the events (or lack there of) at Rockhole Lake I chose to continue reading (“Remote Control” by Andy McNab). The heat was pretty oppressive and there was nowhere to hide. After a while I decided to give fishing a try. I walked around to a different part of the lake and continued fishing with little beadhead nymphs. I tried a little black prince nymph for a while and got a hit or two but I couldn’t land anything. After a while I lost this fly so I tied on a beadhead zugbug. I got one hit but again was unsuccessful in bringing him in. After a while I lost interest and went back to reading.
Later in the afternoon I went back to fishing, after Michael had moved past the spot where Julie and I’d caught fish the previous day. I went out to this spot with my beadhead zugbug and before too long I’d caught a fish. I continued fishing there for about 45 minutes and catching several fish. None of these was very big with the largest being about 7”. I caught one that was so small I didn’t even know I had him until I pulled my line out of the water. When I put him in my hand he wasn’t even as long as my middle finger. About this time Julie awoke from her nap and walked over to me. Since I’d been catching some fish I decided to let her have a go at it. I cast the nymph out there for her and turned the operation over to her. Within five minutes she had hooked a nice sized fish. During the next hour Julie caught three nice fish, all over 10”. After we’d had our fill we headed back to camp to relax, and clean the fish. As we sat on the shore the sun set, and the fish really started to rise. Michael and I couldn’t resist so we went out and caught several more fish. I caught two more over 10” and several that weren’t worth keeping. After a while I started to get hungry so I headed back to the campsite to get dinner rolling.
While I’d been fishing, Julie and Jennifer had started a fire. They were unable to collect any big pieces of wood so the fire produced more smoke than heat and you had to constantly throw twigs into it to keep it going. I would have preferred to go without the fire, but I think they Julie and Jennifer had fun dorking around with it. Dinner hit the spot and we sat around drinking cocoa and chatting. Julie and I ate dehydrated backpacking food, but Michael and Jennifer cooked up their fish. It smelled good, but I’m far too lazy to pack all that extra cooking gear and go through the trouble of cooking and cleaning to have fresh fish when backpacking. I much prefer to eat simple, easy-to-pack, backpacking meals and take my fish home to enjoy them later. While we were hanging out Poudre was obviously ready for bed. I don’t think he really liked the fire and he looked really tired. We let him into the tent and he went to sleep right away. After the fire died down we all turned in. Poudre hardly stirred as we got our kits straightened out and got in bed. He was one tired doggie.
Day 3 -- July 6, 2003:
Sunday was going to be an uneventful day. We were going to wake up, pack up, and head back down to the car. I believe we’d all had our fill of fishing and hiking and we were dirty, tired, sunburned, and ready for a shower, a nice dinner, and sleep in a bed.
We awoke when the sun hit the tent and had breakfast of cocoa and oatmeal. While the water was heating for breakfast I cleaned our remaining fish and filled our water bottles for the long hike back to the car. After breakfast Julie and I broke down the tent. It was a pleasant job because everything was bone dry. We didn’t have to worry about moisture on anything or waiting for anything to dry. There hadn’t been hardly a cloud in the sky all weekend. When we had all our gear together we set off. I was a little disappointed not to see any bighorn sheep this morning but I guess Poudre a scared them all away.
On the way down, Michael wanted to drop straight east off the little plateau that Bench Lake sits on down to Rawah Trail. This didn’t look like much fun to me. The first several hundred yards were going to be very steep and the under story shrubs looked thick. It looked to me like a hellish bushwhack. I also had no idea how deep the snow would be down amongst the trees. Who knows—we could get down into the valley and be post holing in snowdrifts up to our waists? That would be a nightmare with my 40-pound pack. I thought it easiest just to retrace our steps. Michael and Jennifer followed my lead. We made it back to the trail easily and then followed it back to the car. Michael and Jennifer were interested in making good time back to the car so they took off (I’m not exactly sure why, since they had to wait for us in the parking lot to return my stove). Anyway, we took it easy and set a pace that was easy on Julie’s knees. I again chickened out at the stream crossing with the single log footbridge. While I was going through the stream fording process a group of women came down the trail and crossed the log like it was nothing. I dunno, I guess I’m just a big wus. Anyway we were hot and tired when we made it back to the car some three and a quarter hours after leaving Bench Lake. The mosquitoes didn’t seem to be as bad as they were on Friday, which was a blessing. It felt really good to take my boots off. My feet looked like pale white prunes. Michael and Jennifer had been waiting for us in the trailhead parking lot for roughly 15 minutes. Michael gave me my stove back and we exchanged goodbyes.
The drive back down Poudre Canyon was one long traffic jam. It moved a little under the speed limit and I would have liked to go a little faster. I debated cutting out at Stove Prairie and heading down Rist Canyon but I figured it didn’t make that much difference. I’d run the risk of getting stuck behind a slow moving vehicle coming down Rist Canyon too.
We made it back to the house in time for some nice, long showers and a quick nap before heading to Woody’s for all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. (We definitely got our money’s worth.)