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Explore the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway

Explore the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway

All around the world, the mere mention of Colorado evokes images of snowcapped mountains, winding roads, and pristine forests. Though many places in our state couldn’t be further from this idea, the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway is certainly on brand when it comes to delivering stunning views and taking travelers into some of the best examples of Colorado mountain driving you can find.

What is the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway?

Colorado has designated 26 areas as official scenic byways, with just over a dozen federally classified as American Byways. The corridor of Highway 14 between the city of Fort Collins and Walden, Colorado constitute the Cache la Poudre-North Park scenic byway, and once you drive the 101 miles of its length, you will understand why it has been chosen.

Starting Out on the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway

Just north of Fort Collins, CO, Hwy 14 splits off from Hwy 287 at an area that has been known by Coloradans for generations as “Ted’s Place.”  Now a gas station (and the last one for around 45 miles), the original Ted’s Place burned down many years ago, but you’ll still see the name on maps. A few miles drive to the west, Hwy 14 plunges into the foothills and begins its winding path for the next few hours through what is known locally as Poudre Canyon.

The Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenice byway runs in tandem with Poudre Canyon, as Hwy 14 climbs higher in altitude. The Poudre (pronounced "poo-der"), as locals know it, is a river with a funny name and a long history.  Its moniker comes from a legend of French fur trappers in the early 19th century who had to “hide the powder”—cache la poudre—at the mouth of this river for the winter. 

As with many Colorado legends, the story is known to change depending on who tells it.  Whatever the reason, the name has stuck with the river for the last two hundred years.

Poudre Canyon is a Playground in Your Own Backyard

Along the drive, the rocky canyon twists and turns, crossing the river in a few places.  The lower altitudes feature places where locals gather, like Picnic Rock, where inner-tubers and swimmers paddle in the slower moving shallows, while rougher water can be found upriver.  Rafters and kayakers arrive by the busload to challenge upwards of Class III rapids from May until late September. 

Local support has meant that the Poudre has been left mostly untouched by dams or diversion, leaving the river to cut through the canyon in dramatic ways, with whitewater churning against sheer cliff walls. Poudre Canyon draws fly fishermen, rock climbers, rafters, and sight-seers throughout the year.  

It’s a perfect drive for a secluded road trip, since most cellular signals drop off shortly after entering the canyon and won't return for another 80 miles. The Mishawaka, or “the Mish” is a natural amphitheater on the river where live concerts are played throughout the summer and music lovers come from all over the Front Range to see their favorite bands.

Side Adventures in the Poudre Canyon

Hiking and mountain biking trails such as Hewlett Gulch Trail branch off from the main road and take visitors into arid trails of ponderosa pine, rock outcroppings, and sagebrush.  Fires in Poudre Canyon over the last decade or so have impacted the area, leaving many places with the blackened scars of the aftermath of forest fires.

The human residents of the area are rebuilding, while the animals and forests are making a comeback.  Poudre Canyon is home to several herds of big horn sheep, elk, moose, and many species of trout that swim the river itself. 

Turnouts along the river offer spots for camping, usually with pit toilets, fire rings, and places to fit upwards of 30ft. RVs. Bears and mountain lions are often spotted in the area, so always practice responsible camping and use bear canisters on overnight stays.

Take It Slow While Driving the Poudre Canyon

This two lane mountain road is a far cry from the interstates you might be used to.  You’ll want to take your time to admire the beauty of the river, rock formations such as Profile Rock and Sleeping Elephant Mountain as you climb higher towards the summit at Cameron Pass. All along the way, you'll see signs for camping areas and pull offs, which each offer their own views and things to enjoy within Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest.

Places like The Narrows become a churn of whitewater with sheer dropoffs which can induce some white knuckle driving to the uninitiated as well as veterans of this highway alike. Little villages and resorts along the way are good places to keep in mind for longer stays in the Canyon.  

Glen Echo resort is a perfect destination in the summer with its seclusion, access to fishing, and stunning views.  The little town of Rustic is a great place to stop and stretch your legs and even grab a snack—especially if you have been leaning hard into turns for the last 45 miles on your motorcycle.

A road turns off from Rustic towards Red Feather Lakes and Livermore for those willing to explore more of the area. Advanced four-wheelers and rock crawlers enjoy Kelly Flats and it’s notorious “Heart Attack Hill”.

Mountain Peaks in the Distance

As the road climbs higher into the mountains, the ponderosa pines yield to lodgepole pine and aspen.  Treeless mountaintops appear in the distance as the road turns, and eventually you will come upon Poudre Falls. High country lakes such as Chambers Lake and Joe Wright Reservoir are havens for ice and lake fishing.  

The Rawah Wilderness area takes you along the eastern side of the Medicine Bow Mountains, and eventually follows the Laramie River up into Wyoming.  To the south, just over the mountains is the northern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Never Summer Mountains.

You Are Now Entering North Park

Cameron Pass summit marks the high point of the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic byway at 10,276 ft. Above sea level. It is the boundary between Larimer County and Jackson County, also known as North Park.  Trail heads close to Cameron Pass can take you to North Diamond Peak, or the Michigan Ditch, which sits at the headwaters of the Michigan River.  

From these trails, hikers can reach American Lakes, the Crags campground, and even local favorite, Lake Agnes.  In the shadow of Nokhu Crags, some of the most striking peaks in Colorado, you will continue along Hwy 14, dropping in elevation towards the town of Gould, CO.

So Many Forests to Choose From

Much of the land along the highway constitutes the southern edge of Colorado State Forest State Park, which can be accessed at Ranger Lakes, the Moose Visitor Center, and the turnoff to Michigan Reservoir. From Michigan Reservoir, you can explore Kelly Lake, Bockman Campground, or fish the lakes and streams of the State Park. Routt National Forest stretches out for miles, all the way to the Never Summer Mountains and Rabbit Ears Pass to the west.

This leg of the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway is better known for its large wildlife population, especially moose which inhabit the willows along the Michigan River basin. A ten year drought and pine beetle infestation decimated these forests years ago, but they are already making a recovery. With expanded meadows, it might be easier to catch a glimpse of wildlife on your drive.

Things to Do in Gould, CO

Stop at the Howling Coyote Mexican Restaurant in Gould for breakfast, lunch or dinner and an extensive menu of Chihuahuan inspired dishes, from seafood to grilled steak entres. The Powderhorn Cabins are expected to be open again in summer 2024, giving visitors access to Owl Mountain by way of the Rand/Gould cutoff. 

The remnants of 19th Century silver boom town, Teller City aren’t far from here. Many historical places such as Teller City can still be found throughout North Park. They remind us of our heritage and history, as well as the challenges early settlers faced moving to this rugged area.

An Ever-Changing Landscape

Further down the road, the high desert valley of North Park opens up, with the majestic Medicine Bow Mountains to the east.  Some of the highest peaks in North Park rise up high above treeline: Clark Peak—the tallest in Jackson County,  at 12,951ft, South Rawah Peak (12,544ft), and North Rawah Peak (12,473ft), are always a welcome sight to those first setting their eyes on North Park, as well as people returning for the hundredth time.

The forests of the Scenic Byway give way to rolling hills, foothills, and plains of sagebrush.  The Michigan River feeds hundreds of thousands of acres of hayfields, which produce some of the most sought-after timothy grass in the United States.  In the late summer you might even see some of the ranches along the Michigan River putting up their hay with centuries old methods using horses in harness and inclined ramps.

Where to See Moose in North Park

From as early as April you might see moose in the fields alongside cattle, as they make their way to lower elevations in search of budding willows which are their major source of food.  Bulls will start growing new paddles in spring, which will become the majestic racks they are known for by the end of summer.  

Since moose are so large and very difficult to see at night due to their coloring, it is important to drive with extreme caution and be on the lookout for moose and other wildlife cross the roads. The highest concentration of moose can be found between Walden and Gould.  In late spring, it isn't unusual to see moose sitting in someone's yard or at Hanson Park in Walden, CO.

Note: Moose can be dangerous animals if approached or surprised.  

  • Give moose a lot of space and do not approach them.  
  • They can run as fast as a horse and can be very temperamental, especially during the rut.
     

Nearly the End of the Road

As the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway reaches its terminus, you can see the oxbows of the Michigan River as they work their way through the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, just southeast of Walden.  These wetlands are home to several species of ducks, migrating cranes, herons, and other waterfowl.  

A scenic overlook just four miles from Walden is a great place to stop for a photographic panorama of all mountain ranges bordering North Park, with Rabbit Ears, Mt. Zirkel, the Park Range, Independence Mountain, the Medicine Bow Range, and even the tops of Snowy Range in Wyoming visible from this vantage point.

In summer you might catch a glimpse of browsing moose in the river bottom, and in Fall you might see foxes, hunting raptors, hummingbirds, and other wildlife getting ready for the long winters that set in for nearly half the year in North Park. There's no real best time of year to see wildlife, since every season presents a different aspect all year long.  It all depends on your personal preference.  Typically winter has the harshest road conditions, but the stark nature of this mountain landscape is awesome in its own way.

Visit Walden, CO at the End of Your Journey

The town of Walden marks the end of the Scenic Byway, and provides a stop for fuel, snacks, dinner, and hotels. During the summer, Walden hosts the Never Summer Rodeo. It’s a great place to access dozens of mountain campgrounds, and the perfect jumping off point for hiking and camping in the area. North Park is home to Gold Medal Waters such as the North Platte River and Delaney Lakes for sportfishing. Lake John is a year-round destination for lake fishing and ice fishing.

With hundreds of miles of public land access in the area, North Park is a great place for OHV trails, boondocking, and getting away from busy cities for a weekend—if not longer.  When Fall arrives, you’ll see more orange than just the changing leaves as big game hunters arrive looking to bag their trophy deer or elk for the year. Pheasants and sagegrouse, duck and goose hunting, and small game seasons make North Park an outdoorsman’s paradise.

Winter gives you a front row seat to some of the best outdoor recreation in the state.  From ice fishing contests, ice golf, vintage snowmobile races, and so much more, you'll want to see what is going on in Walden, CO all year long.

Best Places to Stay in North Park and Walden, CO

Plan ahead and book your lodging in a hotel, VRBO, or AirBnB vacation rental property in Walden, CO. Choose from a wide selection of vacation rentals, ranging from quaint to unique, for anything from single occupancy to large groups of visitors.

Reserve your rooms for seasonal events early as rooms tend to fill up quickly. Nearly everything is within walking distance of lodging in Walden, but if you don’t want to brave the weather, there are plenty of free places to park.

Here are the best hotels in Walden, CO and places to stay in North Park:

 

Best Places to Eat and Drink in Walden and North Park, CO

Once you come in from the cold, you’ll want to warm yourself from the inside out with a hearty meal or places to get coffee in Walden, CO. Check out some of our local restaurants, bars, and coffee shops during your visit.

  • Rita’s Cafe, Walden, CO
  • Howling Coyote Mexican Inn, Gould, CO
  • Rand Yacht Club, Rand, CO
  • The 10th Frame, Walden, CO
  • River Rock Cafe, Walden, CO
  • Stockman Bar and Grill, Walden, CO
  • Four Winds Pizza, Walden, CO

*Winter Hours are Subject to Change, especially depending on weather.

 

Know Before You Go

The Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway takes you through the ever-changing landscape of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, giving you a cross-section of different biomes and landscapes.  From high plains desert, to alpine forests, tundra, and more, this scenic byway taps into some of the most raw and pristine territory in the state.  

In the winter, severe weather, avalanches, and windy conditions often result in road closures. During the spring and late summer, seasonal rains can cause rock slides which have been known to disrupt traffic and make closures as well.  

As the Poudre Canyon continues to rebound from the devastating fires of 2020 and earlier, erosion has been a problem, especially after heavy rainstorms.  Flash-flooding is not uncommon, so campers are always warned to get to higher ground in the even of storm conditions within the Canyon.

Take Your Time and Stay a While

Taking your time, regardless of the time of year will ensure a safe and pleasant experience. You’ll be able to see wildlife, scenic views, and the everchanging landscape of the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway.  From raging white water to snow crested mountain peaks, nearly every mile offers something new and beautiful to behold on this two to three hour drive. Make a weekend of the experience and book a room in town.  

Enjoy a week without cell service at a resort deep in the Poudre Canyon and walk to the pebble-bottomed river and kill an afternoon fly fishing. Thrill seekers can hire rafting companies in Fort Collins that have experience running the rapids of the Canyon. Whether it’s camping or concerts, moose viewing, or just taking the turns along one of Colorado’s most beautiful stretches of highway, the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway is one you need to experience to appreciate.

 

 

 

 

 

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