“Box Canyon: A narrow canyon with nearly vertical walls and a flat bottom with only a single access from above or below.”
In the mid-1960s I caught my first trout on a fly near Creede, Colorado, just below Thirty Mile campground–on a stretch of the Rio Grande known as the Box Canyon. The name Box Canyon intrigued me then and so it did again 50 years later as I scanned the map looking for a stretch of the river where I could find some solitude….and big fish! The Box Canyon is a five-mile long section about 20 miles above Creede that is pristine and relatively untouched, primarily because the river veers away from Forest Service Road 520 that provides access to the upper Rio Grande River. I was champing at the bit to revisit this water, but this time wanted to probe deeper into this wild area where hefty trout reputedly hide. I find there are two ways to venture into the canyon–either hike down from Thirty Mile/River Hill Campgrounds or up from below, starting at the Texas Creek Trailhead near the San Juan Ranch. I would find both are worth the hike!
Upper Box Canyon
I decide to explore the upper Box first. After a hair-raising day navigating to the headwaters yesterday (See my previous article about that adventure.), the big wide open, gentle meadow leading down to the canyon looked positively inviting, promising an easy hike and no need to switch into four-wheel drive to get there. Conventional wisdom is to hike downstream from River Hill Campground into the canyon, but that adds a good mile to the trek, and that section gets a lot of pressure from campground denizens and anglers staying at a resort on nearby Squaw Creek. But fortunately, on the drive back from the headwaters yesterday, I spied a faint path cutting down the steep slope where FS520 cuts away from the river below the campground and high over a ridge into the next valley. The path starts below a buffalo box and next to a small stand of spruce. That would be my starting point.
I leave my trailer and campground at the Antlers Lodge at 7:30 a.m. and by 8:30 a.m. I am traversing the slope carefully down to an overlook above the north bank of the river. I resist the urge to fish and continue to follow the faint trail through the meadow. I bushwhack through a heavy stand of aspen that are regenerating after a devastating fire swept through the area in 2013, burning most of the timber on the south side of the river and some, like the aspen, on the north. I hike about one mile down to where Papoose Creek empties into the Rio Grande, making good time despite wearing my waders and wading boots. Fortunately, it’s cool–only 40 degrees–when I start the descent and will warm to a comfortable 75 degrees by afternoon. I hang my lunch cooler in a spruce and continue downstream for another mile. In places the vertical cliffs descend right into the river, so I either scramble up and over or am forced to cross the river. At higher water, the way would be completely blocked in places….hence the Box Canyon name. I’m on the water, standing in a beautiful pool by 9:30 a.m. I am happy to see the river in good shape, flowing clear and strong at 150 CFS at the state water gauge at Thirty Mile Campground (To access, google Colorado Water Talk and click on the Rio Grande watershed). I am especially happy not to see a lot of muck and silt remains that washed in the river from the fire three years ago.
I kicked up a few grasshoppers on the path on the way in, and now see a few caddis flitting about above the river, so I tie on my old stand-by Royal Coachman Trude (size 16) which is a decent imitation of both. Inspecting a few river rocks, I find mayflies, caddis, and a few stoneflies, so I go with a size 16 Tung Teaser that does double duty as a big mayfly and stonefly nymph below the Trude. It’s weighted so can dive down deep. Then I wade out carefully into the river, that still has a strong current even this late in the season. The pool is alluring, the bottom disappearing in the depths despite the clarity of the water–good cover and holding water for trout! I position myself below a big boulder and flip a cast upstream into a foam line. The Trude floats down the fast-moving chute back towards me, it’s white wing prominent against the green water. This is supposed to be a trial run to make sure the fly is floating right…but a big trout shocks me, shooting from the depths to nail the dry fly. It’s a big, shiny, sleek 15-inch rainbow, the kind that dominate the faster water in the canyon. Soon he’s at my side and released. I think I might be in for an epic day with the top water action, but the bow will prove to be the only fish I get on the surface all day. Go figure. I get looks and swirls throughout the day on the Trude and some on a small hopper pattern, but I try a half-dozen dry fly patterns, including several mayfly imitations like the H&L Variant when I spot some big mayflies hatching later. But it’s a shutout after this first muscular fish.
I work my way upstream, which has me doing a lot of rock and tree hopping–there’s lots of downed timber in the water and over the path where burnt out trees have toppled. I make the mistake of stepping on a blackened tree blocking the trail and it crumbles, pitching me headfirst to the ground. I manage to get my right arm down before my noggin hits the ground while keeping my fly rod high above my head with other arm. Yikes!! I laugh and as I struggle to my feet, think of the old TV ad…”Help, I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” Undaunted, I get back in the river and start casting again. It’s fun and rewarding. In one pool where I have to lean over a log and make a back-hand cast into a likely looking spot (see the left side of the photo), I manage to hook and lose a good-size brown trout and seriously big 18-inch plus rainbow on successive casts. Epithets echo off the canyon walls. But I keep at it and net several more feisty rainbows on the Tung Teaser. Then I miss a very hefty brownie in a quiet pool off to the side of a plunging rapid after a quick but exciting battle. I decide to take a rest and video this beautiful spot of my ignominious defeat. .
By 2 p.m. I am back up at Papoose Creek and enjoy a big lunch while watching for risers in a beautiful, big pool. But I don’t see a thing, and when I resume my quest, the fish seem to go into hibernation. I continue upstream and catch a couple of small 12-inch brownies on a sparkle hare’s ear nymph. When I decide to call it a day at 5 p.m., the tally is a dozen fish–four rainbows, a cutthroat, a cutbow, and six smaller brown trout. Not a bad day, especially since I didn’t see a soul all day and very few boot marks. The further I went down from Papoose Creek, the fainter the trail got, fading away in some places.
The sun is going down quickly now, so I hightail it back to my SUV. The Box Canyon is truly a special place. Rugged to put it mildly. It calls for careful hiking with the all big boulders, the vertical cliffs, and downed timber like pick-up stix blocking the trail in places. But the rewards, both piscatorially and otherwise, are well worth it.
Lower Box Canyon
Another option to explore the Box Canyon is to hike up the river from the lower end. I did so two days later after my initial foray into the Upper Box. I am up early again and on the road by 7:30 a.m. I hit the turnoff of Colorado 149 onto Forest Service 520 about 8:00 a.m., go about 1.2 miles up the road then turn south (left) on a dirt road marked by a log arch for the Crooked Creek subdivision. So far, and fortunately, most of the subdivided lots are vacant, a tribute to another developer’s wet dream. The dirt road is public though, and snakes through to a bridge over the Rio Grande and the trailhead to the lower Box Canyon. I park my SUV at the designated parking area below the bridge, walk across the bridge and upstream till I spot the designated fisherman’s access path along the south bank of the river. Not far upstream, the trail is block by some vertical cliffs, but it’s an easy ford across the river, and I pick up the distinct trail on the north bank. Fortunately the river is running a very modest 120 CFS today–at higher levels in spring it would be risk-of-life to try to cross it.
From the looks of the distinct trail, it appears more anglers access the Box Canyon from below. But even so, I see very few boot marks on the shoreline during the day, and they become increasingly rare as I work upriver. At about a mile in, I decide to stow my lunch at a good-looking, scenic pool and work up from there. The water is gentler in the Lower Box with bigger pools and fewer boulder-strewn rapids. I decide to go with the Trude and Tung Teaser that did OK yesterday, and in the first pool coax a strong 16-inch rainbow followed by a nice 15-inch brownie on the nymph. Like yesterday, there is little bug activity in the air, and after that auspicious start, the fishing slows again. By 2 p.m. I’ve worked up 3/4 mile through a series of inviting pools, but catch only six trout–three on the Trude and two on the Tung Teaser and one on a beadhead green hotwire caddis nymph. Admittedly, I have missed several good-sized browns that were up in the shallows sunning themselves, hooking them momentarily and then executing some long-distance releases!
Now the skies are darkening so I decide to hustle back to my lunch back downstream. I make it, and just as I swig the last of my RC Cola, the rain starts to come…and come. Fortunately I have a good live spruce to hide under so stay mostly dry till the clouds start to break 1/2 hour later. After lunch and the cold rain, the fish decide to sulk, and I coax from several perfect-looking pools only one twelve-inch brownie on the caddis nymph. When I get back to the bridge the sun is breaking out, so I decide to explore downstream where there’s another 1/2 mile of public water. I find it’s not worth the effort, the river being very shallow with little holding water. But the scenery is wonderful, with great vistas over the San Juan Ranch in its broad river valley.
As I drive back to the Antlers Lodge and Campground, I savor in my mind the time I have had in the Box Canyon. The pristine river, the stunning scenery, the wild fish. Then something catches my eye….a rare endangered species. A bright red phone kiosk! It’s sitting quietly on the edge of the road, next to an historic ranch. I swerve over to the side of the road, slowly and quietly pull out my phone, and snap a picture. Then I slip out of the SUV, and crouching low, slowly sneak up On this rare bird, hoping to find that it really works. With trepidation I lift the phone off the hook….and if by a miracle, get a dial tone. I can’t believe my ears. Jubilantly I return to the SUV, and vow to nominate this rarity to the National Register of Historic Places!! Another reason to return to the Box Canyon!!