Cache la Poudre was thought to be named by early French trappers whose journey was impeded by a severe storm, forcing them to hide (cache) their large stores of gunpowder (la poudre is French for “powder”) before they were able to forge on through the challenging canyon.
The Poudre River winds through the length of the canyon, as does the road that follows the river. The headwaters for this river come from three different forks along the Continental Divide which empty into the Cache la Poudre River. These waters supply the Front Range and Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as the Roosevelt National Forest. All the mountain streams combine make the Poudre River one of the largest in Northern Colorado, and the lifeblood for residents, wildlife, mining and recreation.
Because of all these demands, the raging river can appear nothing more than a trickling stream, especially during the winter months. In the summer, the water is replenished from the melted ice and snow, and becomes a virtual haven for sport fishermen, kayakers, river rafters and tubers.
It is during the summer when this long canyon road sees the most traffic, as the roadside cabins are filled with anglers and recreation seekers. The area is well appointed with rest and picnic areas that must be heavily used in warm weather.
I say “must”, because we have only visited it in the winter, off-season—for two years in a row. It is a charming drive into the wilderness, nearly secluded this time of year. Now is the time to be able to walk on the river, as it is almost entirely iced over. The woodland wilderness is pristine, aside from the occasional yellow sign warning of a cow crossing. Ironically, the signs are posted in high, rocky and jagged elevations where it would seem impossible for cows to wander.
This winter, just as is evident all over the US, the Cache la Poudre River Canyon is its own contradiction in weather manifestations. Driving into the wilderness, it is clear that the stream is almost entirely covered by ice and snow. Yet the temperatures were in the 50s when we were there. That meant that, although much of the river was iced, there were patches of rushing water where opportunistic anglers were able to drop lines and catch the prized wild trout common in the river. In fact, most of the fishermen we saw were comfortable in shorts and tee shirts, while standing on the ice waiting for a bite. It was definitely an odd sight for late January in far northern Colorado.
Cache la Poudre River Canyon road is an extremely relaxing and interesting drive. We live south of Denver, and find it doesn’t take that long to get to Fort Collins by going straight up I-25. When we reach Fort Collins, we are always astonished what a bustling town it appears. It has endless places to eat, from gourmet eateries to fast food. And, even though they have had to develop parking spaces in the center of the road on the main drag (to compensate for the difficulty of parking elsewhere), we had to drive around the entire old downtown section several times before we finally found a place to park on a back side street. It was a pay lot, but fortunately there was no charge for parking on Sunday, which was when we went.
Even though it was a delightful day of about 60 degrees and sunny, we decided to duck into one of the first places we saw, a French creperie. It was tiny, but appeared authentic; and with only one red and white-checkered table left, we stayed for one of the most delightful lunches we have had in the memorable past.
After lunch, we backtracked a bit to follow Highway 287 to Highway 14 and enter the Cache la Poudre River Canyon. From the signs for Laramie, you realize that you are quite close to Wyoming. The landscape is somewhat flat and barren for the first few miles before you enter the wilderness area. After entering, you notice a parking area for Picnic Rock, a wide section of the river with picnic tables. There are signs commemorating this as part of the Cache la Poudre National Heritage Area. An old photo shows how the original irrigation was accomplished with horses and plows, and states “hard work and determination made irrigation possible along the Poudre”. On a sunny day such as when we went, the ice covering the river is a bit dicey to walk on, and slippery to say the least.
Continuing down the road that follows the river, you will come to an almost hidden extreme right turn into the Gateway Natural Area. Here you drive down among the rocky ledges to a well-maintained common area below. Beyond the grills, large covered picnic areas, restrooms, and parking is the early Fort Collins Water Treatment Plant. Built in 1910, the plant used filters and eventually chlorine to provide clean and healthy water to Fort Collins. The city has since outgrown the historic plant, and it was closed in 1987. Across from the plant, two foot bridges span the river and provide access to trails and fishing areas on the far bank. When we were there, it was curiously crowded for an off-season day, with anglers enthusiastically dropping lines in non-icey sections of the far bank. They were pleased with their catches that day.
In the summer, the Poudre River, Colorado’s only federally designated National Wild and Scenic River, is crowded with whitewater rafters as well as anglers. What used to be a useful transit corridor for Native American and early explorers is now the perfect destination for scenic solitude and recreation. The Cache La Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway goes through both the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests for 101 miles. It will take at least 3 hours to drive the byway, depending on the conditions and crowding. We are told there are several types of wildlife to be seen from the byway, but so far we have seen only cows.
Because it is a relatively long drive home from the wilderness, we have never chosen to follow the entire 101 miles. Last weekend, we went as far as the small tunnel carved out of a mountain, alongside the river. There are several “slow vehicle pull-offs”, so you can drive and look as much as you want, without having impatient motorists piling up behind you.
This pristine river and wilderness contributed to the development of water law in the Western US, the evolution of water delivery systems, and helped shape the region’s cultural heritage.
Recently, however, this lovely wilderness area fell victim to the “High Park Fire”. In June of 2012 fire raged through the forested area so intensely that NASA satellite images show the miles of smoke and damage. That damage is still evident as you drive through the wilderness, but so are the many “Thank you firefighters” signs made by grateful residents whose homes and cabins were saved.
A day trip up to the northernmost part of Colorado is well worth the outing. No matter what season, the Cache la Poudre is a serene and scenic drive.