Wild waters froth as they roar through sheer-walled Poudre Canyon. Beyond a range of craggy peaks, moose nibble wetland willows and songbirds trill. Along the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic and Historic Byway, sights and sounds vary from wild to serene.
The byway stretches 101 miles between Fort Collins and Walden in the north-central part of the state. Following Colorado 14, it courses westward along the Cache la Poudre River and then climbs over Cameron Pass into mountain-rimmed North Park.
Besides enjoying diverse scenery, byway travelers can bird watch, hike, picnic and view wildlife.
From Fort Collins, the road winds past ranches and irrigated farms, reminders of the town’s origin as an agricultural colony. Then it parallels the Cache la Poudre River through Poudre Canyon.
As the byway heads westward, the canyon walls squeeze the valley into a tight corridor, the Narrows. Sides of sheer granite soar 3,000 feet above, dwarfing all below. The river growls as it scours bedrock and careens around sharp bends.
Then the canyon widens. Designated a National Wild and Scenic River for its outstanding scenery, recreation and water quality, the Cache la Poudre River lures rafters, kayakers and anglers.
At Mountain Park Recreation Area, one of many roadside day use sites, travelers can picnic riverside under ponderosa pines. In a kids’ fishing hole, youngsters can try to catch trout. Interpretive panels help them identify the types they reel in.
After passing the town of Rustic, the byway reaches Arrowhead Lodge Visitor Center, a former mountain resort. Inside the log structure, one of the exhibits displays vials containing trout at various stages of growth, from fry to adults. Outside, visitors can peer into rustic cabins dating to the 1930s and an ice house that held 25 tons of ice cut from the river — enough for the former resort’s summer needs.
A short distance beyond, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Poudre Rearing Unit borders the river. Since the ponds have been drained due to whirling disease, the facility’s trout are now raised in raceways. Visitors are welcome to feed the fish with site-provided food.
The canyon floor broadens at Big Bend, known for its bighorn sheep viewing area. Travelers often spot them on the steep northern slope.
As the byway climbs in elevation, stands of pines and aspen cover the hillsides. Spray spews above the river where Poudre Falls cascades. Its turbulent tumble awes those who descend the slope for better viewing.
Near Chambers Lake, the Cache la Poudre River veers south while the byway continues west to North Park. The jagged silhouette of Nokhu Crags heralds the ascent up Cameron Pass. Cresting at 10,276 feet, the road descends into the thick lodgepole woodlands of Colorado State Forest, the state’s largest park.
About five miles beyond the pass, Moose Visitor Center educates travelers about the park’s wildlife, especially its prized animal, the moose. Crowned with massive palmate antlers, a stuffed specimen stands six feet high in the middle of the exhibit room. A distinctive fold of skin, called a dewlap, dangles from its throat. Visitors can listen to recorded moose sounds, stroke bristly hide and learn about the animal’s fondness for willows, water lilies and other riparian plants.
The byway parallels Michigan River which meanders through bogs, wet meadows and willow thickets — prime moose habitat. Not native to Colorado, the largest species of the deer family was introduced into the area in the late 1970s. Travelers may spot these creatures anywhere along the byway from Chambers Lake to Walden.
As the road enters North Park, the terrain transforms from thick forest to low rolling hills carpeted with sagebrush. Towering ranges rim the expansive basin. During the time when large herds of wild buffalo grazed here, Ute Indians called it “Bull Pen.” Cattle and hay fields now accent the landscape.
Three miles before the byway’s western point, the road borders the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, a protected habitat where waterfowl and other migratory birds can nest and rear their young. During peak migration in late May, as many as 5,000 ducks populate the area.
According to lore, the Cache la Poudre River got its name, which means “hiding place for powder,” from French fur trappers. Caught in a snowstorm, they stashed a large supply of gun powder (poudre) in a hiding place (cache) to lighten their load.
A ridge-top overlook captures a view of the Illinois River below, squiggling southward through wetlands. Although the refuge is accessible from the byway via a county road, easier entries turn off Colorado 125, just south of the ranching community of Walden. Along the nature trail, white-tailed jackrabbits hop among shrubs while yellow warblers fill the air with song. American white pelicans fly in formation overhead. As travelers drive the self-guided auto route, pronghorns graze in sagebrush flats bordering ponds that sustain gadwalls, American avocet and other waterfowl.
From Cache la Poudre River’s thundering waters and steep canyon walls to North Park’s huge moose and sweet birdsongs, the byway presents a wondrous show of sight and sound.
If You Go
The Cache la Poudre-North Park byway follows Colorado 14 between Fort Collins at Interstate 25 and Walden at Colorado 125. The byway is 101 miles; drive time is three hours one way. The route is great for wildlife viewing, whitewater boating, fishing and hiking. The two-lane paved road is open year-round. Bird watching and fishing make May to October a great time to explore.
Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, 970-723-8202
Fort Collins Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-274-3678
State Forest State Park, 970-723-8366
Rose and David Muenker, who live in Denver, are co-authors of the Colorado Front Range History Explorer, which features history-oriented sites and attractions of our state’s most populous region, and Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.