With the serrated, sky-scraping Medicine Bow Mountains for a centerpiece, the Rawah Wilderness in northern Colorado is "unbelievably beautiful" in backpacker speak. To the Ute tribe, "Rawah" meant wilderness, and "medicine bow" referred to the belief that wood collected here to build bows was blessed by the gods. The real blessing is the network of trails leading to wildflower-studded tundra and 12,000-foot summit ridges that yield vistas north to the distant Snowy Range and south to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. High in the Rawah are 26 alpine and subalpine lakes, most with trout. Below sprawls a tapestry of dense forest flowing into the Laramie River valley.
TRAILS: Nine trails totaling 76 miles wind through the Rawah. An exquisite sampler is the 14-mile out-and-back hike from West Branch trailhead to Island and Carey lakes. A 19-mile loop veering north off the West Branch on the connecting Rawah Trail explores the many area lakes and returns on Camp Lake Trail.
DIFFICULTY RATING: Moderate below timberline; strenuous to alpine lakes. Elevation starts at 8,400 feet and tops out at 12,951 feet.
WHERE: The Rawah Wilderness is 135 miles (21/2 hours) northwest of Denver. At mile marker 71 on CO 14 west of Fort Collins, turn right onto Laramie River Road (County Road 103), which you follow for 8 miles to West Branch trailhead, just past Tunnel Campground.
MAPS: Trails Illustrated's Red Feather Lakes/Glendevey (#111) and Cowdrey (#113) maps cover the wilderness and surrounding backcountry ($8.99 each; 800-962-1643). Exploring Colorado's Wild Areas ($14.95, The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453) contains detailed descriptions of trails, geology, plants, and animals.
CONTACT: Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forests, 1311 South College Ave., Ft. Collins, CO 80524; (970) 498-2770.