Visiting Cache la Poudre Canyon is like visiting Rocky Mountain National Park -- without the crowds. Enjoy mountains, Colorado’s only wild and scenic river, forests, wildlife, and culture along Colorado’s Cache la Poudre (Cash la POOH-der) North Park Scenic Byway. Locals call it the Poudre. (The Poudre got its name when French-Canadian trappers hid -- cached -- their gunpowder during a blizzard.)
You’ll find plenty of places to hike, fish, and picnic on the drive. Ride the river in a tube, raft, kayak, or canoe. With a 7,000-foot drop, the river provides quite a ride. But the real enjoyment is to flood your senses within the canyon. Feel the mountain breeze. Smell the refreshing pines. Hear the river roar or burble gently. See the aspens quake in the breeze. Taste freshly caught fish. Once those experiences soak your mind, stress will melt away.
Poudre Canyon’s escape is an easy drive from Fort Collins on Colorado Highway 14. From Fort Collins to Walden is just over two hours without stops. Allow at least two days.
1. Picnic At Picnic Rock Natural Area
Set the table for your adventure at Picnic Rock. Bring your picnic basket and enjoy your lunch. Anglers can even catch their meal. For kayakers, the river between the Upper and Lower Picnic Rocks is the Poudre’s only beginner-level section.
Pro Tip: Picnickers may find flecks of gold on the beach, but don’t get excited over the pyrite (that is, fool’s gold).
2. Challenge Yourself On The Greyrock Mountain Trail
In 3.1 miles, hikers gain 2,039 feet up Greyrock Mountain. The trail’s grade averages 7 percent with a 15 percent maximum. Take the Greyrock Trail up. Return on the Greyrock Meadows Trail. The challenge will reward the determined hiker with beautiful views of mountains to the west and plains to the east. See the Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Pro Tip: Leashed dogs are welcome. Hike in the mornings and evenings to avoid the heat.
3. Rock Out At The Mishawaka Amphitheater
A former 1900s dance hall, the Mishawaka Amphitheater is a concert venue and restaurant. The restaurant sits above the river with spectacular views. The venue offers two stages, an intimate indoor experience, and a 1,000-capacity amphitheater.
Pro Tip: Amphitheater seating is not assigned and patrons may bring lawn chairs.
4. Challenge Your Whitewater Skills In The Narrows
The Poudre is a whitewater lover’s playground. The playground’s most challenging section is The Narrows, rated from IV to V+. The Narrows have three sections. The Upper Narrows has three drops in short order. Two of the drops are Class V. The Middle Narrows are rated Class IV. Watch out for Sports Car Corner. The Lower Narrows starts below the Highway 14 bridge. It’s a classic Class V.
Pro Tip: Poudre Rock Report offers the best water-level information. When water levels are high, the Upper and Lower Narrows reach Class V+ difficulty.
5. Have A Cultural Experience At Shambhala Mountain Center
At the Shambhala Mountain Center, tours take guests to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. The winding path is lined with prayer flags. The 108-foot-tall stupa is built to last 1,000 years. It’s one of North America’s best examples of Buddhist architecture.
The stupa’s symbolism is fascinating. Its shape represents the Buddha seated on a throne in a meditation posture. The spire is his crown; the base is his head; his body is shaped like a vase. His legs are the tower terrace’s steps and the base is his throne. A 20-foot-tall golden statue of the Buddha stands in the lower level’s assembly hall.
6. Compare Your Profile To Profile Rock Near Old Poudre City
Profile Rock sticks out of the canyon wall between Arrowhead Lodge Visitor Center to the west and Poudre Canyon Chapel to the east. A chimney near the chapel marks the ghost town of Old Poudre City. A flood destroyed the settlement in 1891. Legend says that a resident rode his horse to death when he rushed to warn others about the flood.
Pro Tip: Park in the chapel’s lot, look up at the rock, and take the short trail to the ghost town’s remains.
7. Feed The Fish At The Poudre Rearing Unit
The Poudre Rearing Unit produces millions of trout eggs and stocks 50,000 fish into Front Range public waters. Watch fish production and feed the fish. Find out where the state has stocked fish in the state’s Stocking Report.
Pro Tip: Bighorn sheep, elk, and deer are often seen near the hatchery.
8. Climb At Poudre Falls
Whitewater thunders through Poudre Falls immediately adjacent to Highway 14. Three cascades make up the falls. The falls are most powerful during spring runoff. A road sign marks the falls, but the pullout is narrow. A steep and often slippery trail heads to the river. Do not attempt to enter the water.
9. See Bighorn Sheep At Big Bend Sheep Viewing Area
The bighorn sheep is Colorado’s state animal. They favor a meadow near Highway 14’s mile marker 83. Males have longer and thicker horns than females do. Sheep horns continue to grow throughout their lives and can weigh up to 40 pounds.
Pro Tip: Best viewing times are mornings and late afternoons. From November to January, sheep are in rut (mating time) and are active all day. Sheep are jumpy; stay in your vehicle and use binoculars. For pictures, use a 300mm lens or zoom in on your phone.
10. Explore State Forest State Park
Fans of the outdoors will find much to enjoy at uncrowded State Forest State Park, no matter the season. The park’s 71,000 acres include many trails for hikers and off-road vehicles. On the Mendenhall Route, visitors can see all the way to Wyoming. The Ranger Lakes Nature Trail is an easy walk and is very popular for families. Watching anglers cast their flies as the day ends is a sight to savor. A short summer hike to Lake Agnes offers spectacular views of the Nokhu (NO-koo) Crags. The crags stand 12,485 feet tall. Their name means eagles’ nest in Arapaho.
11. Learn About Moose And More At Moose Visitors Center
A huge moose made from barbed wire greets visitors at Moose Visitors Center. In the center, interactive exhibits explain how moose and the park’s other wildlife live. Try wearing the moose ears.
Colorado introduced moose in 1978. Now the state’s herd numbers about 3,000. More than 600 of them live in the state park.
Pro Tip: To see moose, drive slowly along logging roads or state park routes. Find a high spot that overlooks drainage areas or wetlands.
12. Fish In North Delaney Lake’s Gold Medal Waters
Trophy-size brown trout swim in North Delaney Lake. The lake is one of three Colorado lakes honored as Gold Medal Waters. Gold Medal Waters must produce 12 trout that measure 14 inches or longer per acre. North Delaney’s fish can reach up to 25 inches and weigh more than eight pounds.
Pro Tip: Colorado Parks and Wildlife publishes a lake fact sheet (PDF) that provides detailed information about North Delaney Lake.
Where To Stay
Nestled into the mountainside, Canyonside Campground offers beautiful views about one-third of the way through Poudre Canyon. The campground features RV hookups, tent sites, and cabins.
Alternatively, you can get in touch with your inner cowboy when you stay at Sundance Trail Guest Ranch.
Best Times To Visit
Every season is a good time to visit Poudre Canyon. In the summer, the canyon offers a getaway from the heat and wildflowers dance in the meadows. In the spring, meltwaters bring the river to its peak flow. In the fall, the aspens torch the canyon with golden fire. Winter’s snowfalls cover the canyon with sculptural works of art.
Things To Know
- Buy groceries and fill your gas tank in Fort Collins. Provisions in the canyon are scarce and expensive.
- The entire canyon is at high altitude, but altitude sickness is preventable. Drink plenty of water. Wear a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellent.
- Stay safe: Follow Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s wildlife viewing and fish hatchery rules.
- If you want to ride Poudre Canyon whitewater, hire an experienced commercial outfitter who can fit your ride to your skill level. The right guide can help even first-timers to have a great time.
Highway 14 through Poudre Canyon is narrow and often lacks shoulders. If you stop, pull off the road completely. If pullouts are full, please consider returning later. Be careful crossing the road, especially near curves. Oncoming drivers may not be able to see you.
Even at the height of summer, the mountains can be chilly. Bring a jacket and long pants.