Early July 2020
My first trip to the beautiful remote Sand Creek Lakes high above the Wet Mountain Valley in Colorado was in 2017, a year of the big runoff. The Arkansas and local streams around my home base of Salida were blown out and muddy well into July. As a consequence, by mid-June I was going a bit stir crazy and had contracted fishing fever. I needed to chase some trout in the worst way, so I turned my attention to the high alpine lakes nearby. One in particular—Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe—caught my eye. I had heard tales of giant cutthroats there, which were confirmed by my high country lake bible, Tom Parkes’ excellent Central Colorado Alpine Lakes Fishing Guide. He wrote “The lake has large cutthroats (approaching two pounds)…” What sane angler could resist??
My next step was to research the trail over Music Pass to the lake in more detail. Even for a youthful septuagenarian like me, it looked to be a challenge—an up and down and up almost four mile one-way hike to nearly 12,000 feet with a good possibility of running into snow banks along the trail and around the lake. But the lure of cruising leviathans won out.
It was all worthwhile humping over the pass and crunching through snow banks on the trail when I got that first glimpse of the lake and immediately spotted the behemoths finning along the shoreline within casting distance. Parkes had not been exaggerating. That was around noon. By 5:30 p.m. when I had to hightail it back to my SUV to beat the dark, I was skunked! I had thrown every fly in my mountain fly box at them, had post holed through snow to reach the west side of the lake that was supposed to be productive, and had even broken out my ultralight spin outfit and thrown spinners like the normally reliable purple Vibrex at them. The cutts studiously ignored all offerings, the boys being much more interested in chasing the girls. Amore was in the air along with the distinct odor of skunk, something that had not happened to me in years! As I scrambled and grumbled back over Music Pass to the trailhead I vowed, like General MacArthur, I shall return.
Now three years later I am on the road from my cabin at 6 a.m. to make the Music Pass trailhead by 8. While the waters in my neck of the wood are lower and more fishable this year, the wind has been howling every day for practically two weeks making fly fishing nearly impossible. Today it is supposed to lay down substantially. I am resolute to avenge that ignominious skunk while celebrating my oldest son Ben’s birth on this very date, July 1, 35 years ago.
It’s an easy drive through the little hamlet of Westcliffe until I reach the Grape Creek trailhead, but beyond that the gravel road deteriorates quickly into a bone-jarring rough track suitable only for real off-road ready 4WD vehicles with an experienced driver behind the wheel. It takes me almost 30 minutes to cover the last three miles.
Since my trip in 2017 I’ve turned 70 and my knees aren’t what they used to be even a few short years ago. Could I make the long hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake again? I decide it may be wiser to head for the lower lake that requires about a mile shorter hike in, but is still up and down. Also, the fish are also supposedly smaller. I consult with my knees and get the green light only for the lower lake. Sanity thus prevails.
When I get to the Music Pass trailhead I am surprised to find six vehicles already there, reminding me the 4th of July weekend is coming up and many people are already out taking advantage of the holiday falling on a Saturday. Fortunately most will turn out to be hikers, not anglers. I quickly begin gearing up, stuffing my daypack with food, drink, and fishing paraphernalia. As I get ready to hit the trail, another vehicle pulls up and two gents about my age emerge. They begin loading up their big backpacks—at least 60 pounds—including packing fly rods. I strike up a conversation with the two amiable chaps, Roland and George, and learn they are setting out for a week-long stay in the Sand Creek Valley to fish both lakes. My daypack, although loaded to the gills, weighs probably a measly 30 pounds. So that does it, I can do it if they can.
Graciously, the duo allow me to play like a wily race car driver and slipstream behind them, saving some energy.
Still after a rugged 1.25 mile climb over a nasty trail to Music Pass, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet, I am wheezing and barely keeping up with the hearty pair.
We sign in dutifully at the wilderness boundary and decide to take a little rest.
The boys look worried when at the pass I do my imitation of Red Foxx’s heart attack skit—“It’s the big one!! I’m coming to you honey!!” Gallows humor I’m thinking.
After the hijinks, we are soon scooting downhill to the point where the trail forks—to the left leads over Sand Creek then up to the lower lake in a bit over one mile. To the right at 1.7 miles is the upper lake.
Along the way, we bump into a couple of young backpackers who tell us they had good luck in the lower lakes for cutthroat. I’m beaming! Also along the way, we get a sobering wake-up call as Roland, an agile 74, suddenly takes a nasty tumble on a scree-like section of the trail. Fortunately although he comes down hard on his back side and left wrist, he avoids serious injury. He shows his true angling colors by immediately remarking that thankfully he didn’t land on his casting wrist! It does remind me why I carry a Garmin InReach emergency satellite phone on these backcountry trips.
As we near the fork we say our good byes as they split off to set up camp in a meadow nearby. I continue on to the crossing over Sand Creek where I take a breather, resisting the urge to break out my fly rod and sample the scenic little water. On earlier trips Roland and George reported they had fun catching the smaller trout I can see finning in several pools.
As I cool off in the shade, I reflect on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which has a fascinating history including Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, and American explorers like Zebulon Pike and John Fremont. First designated as a national monument in 1932 as a result of lobbying by local citizens worried about gold mining in Medano Creek, the Great Sands Dunes were elevated to a national park and preserve in 2004. The core national park covers about 168 square miles, mainly the towering sand dunes, and the preserve another 233 square miles that encompasses the surrounding range of high mountain peaks and lakes, including Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes. Some activities such as hunting that are prohibited in the national park are permitted in the preserve.
After a brief respite to recharge my batteries, I ford Sand Creek by tiptoeing across the top of a log jam. My smile fades soon thereafter as I encounter the first in a series of steep switchbacks that no one seemed to have mentioned in their on-line posts about the trail. I have been back from my winter hideout in Florida for almost a month, but am still quickly wheezing as I pass the 11,000-foot elevation mark. It takes me almost an hour to navigate the final mile, but fortunately am distracted by a couple of curious deer and beautiful wildflowers between frequent breathers.
But all doubts fade quickly when I see the beautiful lake water and the magnificent Tijares Peak towering directly above at 13,612 feet. Tijares is Spanish for scissors, an apt name for the rugged, sharp-edged, serrated mountain and line of peaks that dominate the skyline. And better yet, no one is around!!
As I approach the lake shore, the wind kicks up unexpectedly strong from the north, not what the weatherman predicted. But then again anyone who has fished alpine lakes knows that the winds are completely unpredictable and are likely to change directions and wax and wane throughout the day. But if I’m going to fly fish, I need to find a sheltered shoreline. Then I remember that in his mountain lakes guidebook, Tom Parkes mentions a hidden cove on the south end of the lake that just might be the ticket. Sure enough, as I trek along the south shoreline, I see the curve of the cove, its entry having been obscured by a peninsula of land that juts out into the lake.
I hike over the peninsula ridge and immediately the wind abates…and better yet, I see trout dimpling the calm, clear lake water, and they don’t appear to be small as some posts reported.
I quickly stow my pack and start to rig my fly rod, soaking in the sun’s warming rays. But then it dawns on me it’s going to be a challenge casting along the shoreline here crowded with spruce and pine trees. And wading isn’t an option at this point because the bank drops off sharply into deep water. So I also pull out my ultralight spinning pack rod and rig it with an old reliable alpine lake combination of two nymphs—a zug bug and zebra midge trailing a clear bubble. As I approach the water to scope things out, I spy a good-sized cutthroat feeding over deep water. He’s too far out to reach with the fly rod, so I grab the spinning rod and throw a cast 15-feet in front of the cruising fish. As soon as the flies hit the water he jets forward at light speed and nails the zug bug without hesitation before it sinks even a foot! As I tussle with the cutt, I think I have the ticket to success. Surprisingly, it will be the only fish I take all day on the spin outfit or on a nymph. Such are the vicissitudes of alpine lake fishing.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flailing the water with the nymph combo, I decide to walk back from the point of the peninsula further into the cove where I see the water is much shallower. As I approach, I spy some big cutthroats cruising in the clear water, nonchalantly picking small bugs off the surface. I see one working his way towards me only a few feet from the shoreline and hastily tie a #16 foam beetle on my fly line, a morsel that has successfully tempted many alpine lake trout. The bank is lined with trees, so I have to execute a tricky cast parallel to the shoreline, leaning out of the water to give me room to execute. My efforts are rewarded as he sidles up to the fly, opens his mouth and …..darts away at the last second.
After several more casts with the beetle and no takers, I switch to a smaller #18 black ant. Soon, a nice colorful 16-inch cutt casually sucks in the fly. Now I think I’m onto the right pattern, but again a succession of fish scrutinize the ant but shy away at the last moment. Frustrated, I get down on my belly and lean out over the water to get a better look at what the timid trout are feeding on—some very, very small little midges. So I tie on a #20 black midge emerger, but still only get brief looks and no hits. I step down further to a #22 black midge dry with a white foam top that enables me to see the microscopic offering on the water.
I lay a gentle cast a few feet in front of another big cruiser and success! He sucks in the fly without hesitation, and the fight is on. He’s strong, but with my trusty old Sage 9-foot, 5# fly rod, the cutthroat finally succumbs, agrees to a quick photo, and is back on his way. From then on for the rest of the day, it’s a movable feast!
For the next hour in the cove, I hide behind the trees and wait, letting the trout come to me, often in pairs. I target the larger ones, and net a beauty that goes 17-inches!
The only glitch is a short period where several trout come up to the midge, examine it closely, then refuse to take. I finally conduct a close examination of the fly and discover a small wind knot in the leader an inch in front of the fly. In the clear water apparently the fish can see this tiny glitch. I retie, and the fish again cooperate. By noon I have caught a dozen more beautiful cutthroats of several varieties. Some look like natives and other the more colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat that have been stocked here. Who am I to quibble?
After lunch I decide to work around to the south end of the cove where two creeks feed in.
On the way I continue sight fishing for cruising fish in the shallow flats, having a blast trying to lay the fly in their path, close but not too close to spook them. Luckily there are no trees crowding the shoreline so the casting is easy.
I’m successful about one out of four tries. When I get to the creeks, I find smaller fish already spawning there, but the big girls and boys are cruising and feeding just off-shore, often within casting range in two-three feet of water. By 3:30 p.m. I have caught another dozen, including a showy 16-incher.
It’s been one of the best days I have had in years on an alpine lake, where the fish can often be extremely finicky. It’s certainly been the most fun—sight fishing for big trout and getting to watch them take in the crystal clear water! And the odor of skunk has definitely dissipated in the clean mountain air.
Now it’s time to head home. Last trip it took me two hours to hike out, but now it will be closer to three. As I start trekking back down towards the fork on the steep switchbacks, my knees immediately start complaining—going down is often tougher than hiking up. So I slow down and take a little time to reflect on the 72 years I have had on this beautiful planet. Thirty-five years ago at noon in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, hospital I first held my oldest son Benjamin in my arms. Back then fathers were not allowed in the delivery room but had to wait in a little waiting room for nervous dads just down the hall. I suddenly heard a baby cry, and then a nurse appeared with small bundle. Ben squinted up at me, his expression seeming to say, “Who’s that!” Now 35 years later he’s grown into a fine young man who excelled academically at Colorado College and then studying for his master’s degree in history from Texas A&M—who would have thought I would have ever raised an Aggie!! Now he works for a law enforcement agency using his smarts to track down the bad guys. I reflect on how lucky I am to have two good boys—his younger brother Matthew is a wonderful, doting father to my #1 sweetheart and fishing buddy Aly.
I suppose most fathers ask at some point as they age what they would have done differently, how they could have done better for their children. I tried to give my boys a world view and to stoke their curiosity by taking them on trips to Africa, Great Britain, Greece, the Boundary Canoe Waters of Minnesota, and other interesting places. I was happy to pass on my love of tennis to them—both played varsity for East High, a big public school in Denver, and could handle me on the courts by the time they were seniors. Matthew even won the Denver Public Schools doubles championship. We had great fun along the way peeling around Denver in that old 1987 Corvette and lots of fun camping and fishing in the streams of lakes of Colorado and exotic places like the Boundary Waters for northern pike and smallmouth bass and the backcountry of Alaska for salmon and grayling. I hope they will always stay curious and also remember that if you follow all the rules you’ll miss all the fun.
I probably traveled too much on business in the 1990s when I was starting my land use consulting firm, having been fired with just three days notice from my job as an agency head in Denver by a new mayor. But fortunately they had a wonderful mother who filled the gaps I left and gave them much more. I think many guys in my generation were that way, putting business and work ahead of family at times, but there’s nothing like being unemployed with two kids at home to focus your attention. If I had to do it over again, I would draw brighter lines between work and the rest of my life.
My musings are abruptly interrupted as I start the steep climb up from the trail fork to the top of Music Pass.
I finally make it with the assistance of numerous short stops in the shady spots along the route, pausing to admire the wonderful views and wildflowers.
But the worst is yet to come. The mile-long plus trail from Music Pass to the trailhead is in terrible shape—eroded and strewn with loose rocks, a sad commentary on how this wealthy nation has short-changed its agencies that take care of our public lands.
I nearly lose it twice, my legs slipping out from under me as the rocks break loose under my feet, saved only by my hiking pole slowing my abrupt descent.
I realize, sadly, that this will probably be the last time I will hike to the Sand Creek Lakes. My knees are just not up to it, the penalty for playing too much tennis and basketball in my earlier years. Not that I regret that, but just end up now paying the price. Indeed I will be hobbling around for a couple of weeks after this hike. I know, happily, there are still lots of remote places with fish to explore that will not require what one of my fishing buddies wryly calls a DDM—Duerksen Death March. I’m already planning that for that one in a couple of weeks, a secret little creek I stumbled on last summer with relatively easy access and just loaded with wild trout! More on that one in my next article!!
P.S.—If you want to sample the fabulous cutthroat fishing on either of the Sand Creek Lakes, do it soon. The National Park and U.S. Forest Services have plans to restore the Sand Creek drainage, including both lakes, with native, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. That will mean poisoning all existing fish in the lakes and creek. Check the status of these plans on-line before you go.