For my earlier articles about seeking fish and solitude in South Park, see my blog from October 2019 and May 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/ and https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/
Undaunted, I continue my quest for fish and solitude in South Park, Colorado, a vast National Heritage Area whose waters like the South Platte’s Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon attract hordes of anglers like moths to the proverbial flame. Now admittedly they do catch some trophies, but also find at times six-foot social distancing is a real challenge to achieve. Not exactly my cup of tea.
For over twenty years now I have traveled from my cabin near Salida to Denver and back for work and now more often to see my #1 sweetheart granddaughter Aly. Every time I whizzed by a sign on U.S. Highway 285 near Kenosha Pass beckoning me to the Lost Creek Wilderness.
The preserve, a vast 120,000-acre sanctuary, was created in 1980 in Pike National Forest by the 1980 Colorado Wilderness Act. Parts of it had been set aside as early as 1963 as a protected scenic area. It takes its name from the small stream that flows for miles in a wide valley then mysteriously disappears into a jumble of rocks and boulders, only to reappear miles downstream as Goose Creek. This is not your typical Colorado high-mountain wilderness with jagged peaks covered with snow well into summer. Instead the more gentle landscape, most of it below treeline, is marked with random knobs, domes, pinnacles, and arches.
There was never much mining or logging here, again in contrast to many other wilderness areas, just mostly grazing. In the late 1800s there was a uniquely western half-baked reservoir scheme to dam Lost Creek underground where it intersects Reservoir Gulch. Not surprisingly, the enterprise failed, a few remaining structures testifying to the folly.
Fortunately before it disappears, Lost Creek seems to offer the prospect of over five miles of fishing in a picture-perfect setting. I figure it’s high time to explore the creek. My on-line sleuthing finds a lot of information about hiking in the miles of trails in the wilderness, but very little about fishing the creek. A couple of posts do mention eager brook trout, and that’s enough to tip the scales in favor of some additional on-the-water piscatorial research.
I’m on the road from Salida a bit late, around 8:00 a.m., heading to Denver on a Friday to spend the weekend with little Aly where we plan to chase rainbow trout at a couple of metro lakes with garden hackle. The drive through South Park on U.S. Highway 285 takes about 1.5 hours to the turn off on County Road 56, just outside metropolitan Jefferson, Colorado. That’s about the same time and distance if I were coming from Denver. From the turn off, it is about 20 miles to the Lost Creek trailhead at the U.S. Forest Service Lost Creek Campground.
The first few miles are a surprisingly rough and bumpy followed by a spine jangling, teeth clattering ride over a gravel washboard road featuring occasional muddy ruts and deep potholes. It’s passable for an average sedan, but hold on tight to the steering wheel and take it easy. The drive will take 45 minutes to an hour to navigate the 20 miles. (Note: On a return trip a road grader was at work, greatly smoothing the road in one stretch.) Fortunately the journey is very scenic.
I see numerous dispersed camping sites along the way as I approach a series of ridges, where it’s up and over steep inclines with switchbacks and then down to the Lost Creek Campground near the confluence of the north and south branches of Lost Creek.
Being a Friday, I’m expecting to see maybe a few people, but my jaw drops when I see more than 20 vehicles lining both sides of the road at the campground gate which is locked.
I seriously think of turning tail and fleeing, but what the heck, I’ve already spent an extra hour getting here. I will discover soon to my great relief that they are all day hikers and backpackers. I won’t see an angler all day and not a boot mark anywhere on the creek.
I quickly don my day pack where I have stowed some waist-high waders, wading boots, and fishing gear. I’m only taking one rod, my small-stream favorite light 7 ½ foot, four weight wand. The clouds are starting to roll in with a chance of rain in the forecast, so I double check to make sure my rain jacket and big poncho are packed. Then at 10:30 a.m. it’s off through the campground south loop to the trailhead. Normally there is a small fee for parking at the campground (which has no services except restrooms) when it is open.
As I cross the south fork a few minutes into the hike, I notice some rises in a beautiful pool just downstream, but summoning up incredible willpower, continue on. Just past the confluence, I come to the wilderness boundary and sign in. I smile when I see no one else in the past week has noted they are there to fish.
Soon I start passing a series of amiable youngsters (AKA younger than 40), most lugging backpacks over 60 pounds, making my old knees quake at the prospect. Below the confluence the creek widens a bit, running clear and inviting. At about one-half mile the creek enters a short, forested canyon stretch with gorgeous plunge pools.
Again, I resist the urge to wet a line despite seeing fish scatter when I peer into the depths from rock ledges above. I’ll explore that stretch next time I think to myself. The excellent trail continues in the shade until at about one mile where along with the creek it breaks into a broad meadow.
Here I have two choices. It I want to take a short cut and begin fishing sooner, I can don my waders and veer off trail to the left (east) and cross the creek. There is a game trail on the north side of the creek that extends more than a mile downstream.
I decide to stay on the trail instead for another mile or so downstream as it follows the contours of the small feeder-creek valleys that cut in from the south. It is a good, well-marked trail with shade, but I can’t resist the temptation to bushwhack and cut across the meadows to save some time where the trail makes big U-shape diversions up the feeder creek valleys. I soon discover why the trail veers around the meadows—they are boggy marshes that threaten to suck my hiking boots off. Thankfully, the boots are waterproof. Mental note: Stay on trail!
At about 11:15 I decide to leave the trail and cut down the modest slope north to the creek that is on the other side of the valley. My timing is perfect as the clouds darken, thunder rolls, and it starts to rain. I beat a hasty retreat back into the forest and don my rain gear. Fortunately, it doesn’t last long, and I once again head down into the meadow for another boggy walk to the creek. It’s all worthwhile when I get my first close-up of the creek. It’s running clear and beautiful, about 10 cfs.
I decide to cross over and hike upstream to a big sentinel rock with a big overhang where I can stow my gear and lunch under a ledge, covering it with a big poncho/tarp to make sure it stays dry as the clouds continue to roll through and threaten rain.
Then I skedaddle back downstream to a series of good-looking S-bend pools in the creek. I’m using a #16 bushy Royal Coachman Trude dry fly to imitate the grasshoppers jumping about on the trail and a red Two-Bit Hooker as a dropper that is usually the ticket on small streams with brook trout. I loft a perfect first cast into an alluring run, fully expecting a strike. No dice. A dozen casts later I am still sans strike and beginning to mumble to myself. So I decide so check the streambed rocks for some clues, something I should have done before casting, and discover some big dark olive mayfly nymphs. I immediately replace the Two-Bit Hooker with a #16 Tung Teaser nymph that is a good facsimile of the ones under the rocks. Bingo, that proves to be the ticket.
On the very first cast I hook and land a brightly colored, feisty (albeit diminutive) brook trout. From now on it will be non-stop action.
By 1:30 p.m. I have fished back to my pack and lunch spot. I have caught and released dozens of willing brookies in the 6-to-10 inch range and missed a couple of leviathans that probably pushed 12-inches.
The larger ones were often in the shallows sunning themselves and would rocket out from the bank leaving a wake to nail the fly. Both the dry and nymph produced. The fish were eager but also spooky, often calling for long casts from a kneeling position. But what great satisfaction when everything comes together just right.
Luckily I dodge any more rain and even get some spotty sun to warm things up.
As I down my RC Cola and wolf down lunch, I smile thinking of the gorgeous picture-perfect pools the creek has treated me to for the past couple of hours. It seems as if the next one was always more beautiful, more tempting.
And the fish, although Lilliputians, put up great battles on the lightweight rod. After lunch I can’t resist spending another hour exploring more attractive pools upstream, all loaded with fish.
I even catch several in a small beaver pond, the only one I see on this stretch.
At 3 p.m. I decide it is time to head back to the trailhead since I have a dinner date with my little munchkin Aly in Denver. I’ll have to hustle, so instead of shedding my fishing togs, I decide to hike out in my waders. I find the game trail on the north side leads all the way back to the top of the meadow where I cross the creek and slosh a short distance through the boggy terrain to the trail then uphill to my vehicle.
It’s been a great first taste of Lost Creek. For the next trip I am already trying to decide whether to fish the shadowy canyon plunge pools or head further downstream several miles to sample the curvaceous serpentine stretch that show up on Google Maps where the creek turns sharply to the south before losing its way among the rock jungle.
Over five miles of pristine, unspoiled water to sample with rumors of bigger fish further down.
As I drive back to the highway, I muse about the possibility of the feds and state biologists reintroducing the native Colorado Greenback Cutthroat Trout to Lost Creek, something they have already done on Rock Creek that I pass over a few miles up the road. Imagine that!