“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like the autumn leaves.” John Muir
Day 3: Today I sleep late to recuperate from Day Two’s long hours on the water, the two mile hike back to the SUV, then the hour-long 4WD trek to camp. With plenty of good winks, I am ready to explore some new water, and as things start to warm up around 9 a.m., head out to the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness area. It’s about an hour’s drive on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that ends at the boundary of the wilderness area.
Enroute, I cross over a handful of alluring little creeks—Pauline (hardly a trickle, but I’ll fish it downstream tomorrow and have a great day—see the entry entitled “The Pleasures of Pauline.”), Perfecto (aptly named, pristine and sprinkled with good-looking beaver ponds), and Nutra (more beaver ponds). It’s a challenge not to stop and sample. I am surprised to see a sign saying I am on an old 1874 toll stage route that navigated over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide to the gold mines in the remote San Juan Mountains miles and miles to the west. Just when I think I am quite the adventurer, I see a prompt like this that reminds me of what hearty, tough souls those trail-blazers were. It’s hard to comprehend how they built this road hundreds of miles by hand with mules and horses over this rough terrain. It was supposed to become a rail line, but was eclipsed by other equally daunting routes to the north and south.
Day 2: After a relaxing, easy day of fishing yesterday and a good night’s sleep, I’m rearin’ to explore the more remote middle section of Cochetopa Creek. I haven’t been up there for a couple of years. Over five miles of beautiful, meandering meadow waters are bracketed by two steep canyons above and below that make access a challenge. The hearty angler can hike in on the Colorado Trail or four-wheel in on one of the rough access roads, then walk to the good water. A detailed topo/trails map is a must before venturing into this backcountry—the National Geographic Trails Map #139 LaGarita/Cochetopa Hills is a good place to start plotting your trip.
Day One: I’m in my little travel trailer a.k.a mobile fishing camp parked next to Dome Lake located in a high country state park near the Continental Divide, not too far from Gunnison, Colorado. I drove up early this morning, sorely in need of a multi-day injection of nature and zen trout fishing time on one of my favorite waters—Cochetopa Creek. It’s mid-August, the rain has finally stopped, and the streams are clearing and fishable.
Maybe 15 feet at its widest, Cochetopa Creek arises at the foot of an imposing 14,000 foot+ mountain, San Luis Peak, in the La Garita Wilderness area south of Gunnison. Miles below, the creek squeezes out of a canyon stretch into a vast open sagebrush and grass valley called Cochetopa Park. There it meanders for a good 10 miles with gentle runs and S-curves before plunging into another canyon and joining Tomichi Creek which flows into the big Gunnison River, a fabled trout water. Cochetopa Creek is loaded with healthy, eager fish and steeped in history. In other words, my kinda place!
What a treat to discover a new water in a scenic canyon…with some big trout to boot. Last week I drove over the Continental Divide towards Gunnison and then headed southwest into the vast undeveloped Cochetopa Hills and the high country of the La Garita Wilderness Area. Several of my favorite trout streams that rush down from the rugged peaks along the Divide—like Cochetopa and Saguache Creeks– were finally down and in fishable shape after a very wet summer. But this new water was also on my radar. I had read about Pauline Creek in the fine guidebook, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado, that the authors Mark Williams and Chad McPhail had stumbled on and raved about: “…rest assured, once a dry fly or beadhead breaks the surface, so will a trout.” When I drove over the creek on my way to fish in the wilderness area 10 miles up Forest Service Road 794, I was immediately skeptical. At that point, Pauline hardly amounts to rivulet status, only a few feet across, although some beaver ponds upstream looked interesting. That night, after a fabulous day casting to trout on Cochetopa Creek in the wilderness area, I pulled out a topo map (National Geographic #139 La Garita/Cochetopa Hills) and found that a few miles below the road where Pauline was hardly a trickle, several streams added their waters. That looked more promising, so early next morning around 7:30 a.m. I trundled down a 4wd track off FS 794 above where Pauline empties into Cochetopa Creek. The jeep trail ended abruptly at a big cliff. The good news as I peered over into the canyon was that the creek indeed had more water here, and the wide canyon floor was punctuated by several good-looking beaver ponds that were sure to hold some sizable trout. The bad news: My aging knees were already protesting at the thought of scampering down that precipitous incline—a good 200-foot drop—in my waders and wading boots and carrying a long fly rod.