Exploring The Hidden Waters Of Lower Grape Creek In Temple Canyon—Act Deux

(Near Canon City, Colorado)

Early May 2021

For my earlier articles on fishing Grape Creek see:

https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/14/exploring-grape-creek-in-the-hidden-recesses-of-temple-canyon-near-canon-city-co/;

https://hooknfly.com/2017/11/08/going-ape-over-grape-creek/

Grape Creek is one of my favorite small waters in Colorado.  It offers wonderful scenery and solitude along with eager browns and rainbows.  I have been fortunate to have explored most of it from just below Deweese Reservoir near its headwaters near Westcliffe all the way down some 30 miles to Canon City.  There are only a few public access points between Deweese and its confluence with the Arkansas River a short distance west of Canon City.  Some of the roughest and wildest stretches are in Temple Canon just upstream of Canon City.  I had a blast exploring scenic upper Temple Canyon in 2018 (See link above.), but my first attempt at sampling those hidden last few miles above the confluence had ended in frustration.  

I was making the drive back from Denver to my cabin near Salida on a Sunday afternoon in early spring with notions of an outing on Grape Creek floating around in my noggin.  Canon City was right on the way, and Google Maps seemed to promise easy access to lower Grape Creek up either Riverside or Grape Creek Drives on the south side of the Arkansas just west of town. To my chagrin, I soon found the hoped-for access near the confluence failed to note that both routes were blocked by private gated  residential development.  Not to be denied, I drove back towards town and over the Arkansas then up to Tunnel Drive trailhead, only to find more “no trespassing” signs posted by the railroad along the north bank blocking any access upstream to the creek.  With my teeth grinding, I pulled out my cell phone and reconnoitered on Google Maps for possible access routes further upstream.  The only possibility I could find was something called Eco Park, accessed via South First Street in Canon City then County Road 3.  It was an easy drive out to Eco Park, but by the time I got there it was too late to attempt what looked to be a two-mile one-way hike to the creek.  Lower Grape Creek would have to wait for my return. 

Ecology Park Is The Gateway To Lower Grape Creek

Fast forward a couple of months and finally the weatherman forecast a day without snow, rain, or howling winds that had plagued my neck of the woods in late March and April, not to mention the so-called Arkansas Water Conservancy District finally decided to release more than a measly four CFS of water into the creek from Deweese Reservoir, which holds water for downstream irrigation by ranches and farms around Canon City.  The low water levels had been further stymying my spring fishing plans for weeks.  The water buffaloes who run the district had finally been releasing a steady 25 cfs for several weeks now, an ideal angling level. (Be sure to check creek water levels before your trip on the District’s web site or by calling Royal Gorge Anglers at 888-994-6743.)

I am suiting up in the Eco Park parking lot at 9:30 a.m. under sunny skies and with a gentle breeze blowing, all systems are go.  A meadowlark is chortling melodiously nearby, his serenade almost always a sign of future angling success for this Kansas farm boy (Meadowlarks are the state bird.).  I don my lightweight waders and get going, carrying a small lunch satchel and two rods.  I start out on the good trail that accommodates hiking, biking, and horseback riders that will take me to the creek in about 0.8 miles.  Immediately I come to a sign directing me south to Grape Creek, but I know from my on-line recon that I should follow the arrow towards Water Gap pointing me straight ahead due west.  As far as I can see on Google Maps, the so-called Grape Creek trail goes nowhere near Grape Creek, and the Water Gap trail route provides the quickest and most direct access to the creek.  Go figure.   

Hang Right–Follow The Water GapTrail

The hike is flat and easy across a wide-open plain for the first quarter mile.  I descend to a gate marking the start of BLM property and continue through it to follow the trail that loops to the right around a ridge and then turns back downhill to what is called the Water Gap, a narrow defile in jagged ridge where two ephemeral creeks have carved out a path to Grape Creek.  

From there the trail follows a broad wash down to the water in another quarter mile.  Sure signs of spring are everywhere, from the colorful flowers and buzzing busy bees to the leafy cottonwoods.

Temple Canyon and Grape Creek Canyon upstream beyond have a fascinating history.  The intrepid explorer John Fremont traversed the rugged terrain during the winter of 1806 as he explored the Great American West.  He followed a trail used by the Ute Indians that led from the plains to their summer hunting grounds in what we now call the Wet Mountain Valley.  Incredibly, in the late 1800s a narrow-gauge railroad line was carved up the canyon to tap the wealth of the silver and gold mines around present-day Silver Cliff and Westcliffe.  But it operated for only a few years, landslides and washouts dooming the line.  Remnants of this amazing feat can be seen today in the form of old bridge abutments and rock walls along the original rail bed.  Workers in those bygones years discovered a spectacular natural amphitheater high above the creek that they dubbed the “Temple,” which became something of a tourist attraction.

Temple Canyon was transferred to the City of Canon City in 1912 by the federal government and today is managed to maintain its wild environment.  The road from the city to Eco Park is paved, but beyond that to the Route 3 bridge over the creek is scary rough in places and twisty-turny, best handled by a 4WD vehicle.  There are only a couple of primitive campgrounds for the hearty overnight visitor.  No motorized contraptions of any kind are allowed in Temple Canyon, only leg-powered hikers.  All of this is great news for the intrepid angler!

As I continue down the wash towards the creek I see a giant pipeline straight ahead.  Turns out it is part of the irrigation diversion system that is sucking a lot of water out of the creek somewhere upstream.  A hundred yards further on I see the result–Grape Creek is nearly dewatered, its flow barely more than a trickle and not a fish in sight in the crystal clear pools.

I had intended to stash my lunch here then hike downstream and work back up for victuals by noon then fish upstream in the afternoon.  Now I am wondering how far I’ll have to hike upstream to find decent flows. 

Fortunately, not too far.  In about 10 minutes following a dirt road that goes upstream, I cross a bridge and come upon a concrete dam where at least half the creek is diverted into the big pipe. 

Irrigation Diversion Dam

I double check my two rods.  The 8 ½ foot 4-weight rod is rigged with a #16 Royal Trude that imitates the many small grasshoppers I saw jumping about on the hike in and a #18 sparkle caddis nymph that is a reasonable facsimile for the predominate creek insect.  On the other, a 5-weight, 8 ½ heavier rod, I have tied on a #18 Tung Teaser followed two feet below by a CDC green hotwire caddis of my own creation that will allow me to plumb some of the deeper bend pools I expect to find based on my experience fishing upper Temple Canyon.  I am using a 5X leader on both.

It’s been a few weeks since I have on the water so I decide to take a practice cast into the frothy pool below the dam before I work the long, deep pool above. 

Practice Pool Below Dam

Immediately some small fish give chase to the dry, jumping out of the water in hot pursuit but failing to down the fake bug.  Next cast the dry disappears, and I am onto a feisty trout that has taken the nymph, a little 8-inch rainbow that makes up for lack of size with a good battle. 

Lilliputian Rainbow Starts The Day

Next cast the scene is repeated and another bow slides in to my net.  I miss a couple more strikes then finally the fish wise up. 

Now I’m primed and ready to hit the aforementioned alluring deep green pool right above the dam.  I climb up the concrete structure gingerly, keeping a low profile and cast the dry/dropper.  Surprisingly after a half dozen casts the trout are winning by a shutout.  I switch to the nymph rig to probe depths where I can’t see the bottom, but the result is the same.  I’m starting to think maybe this pool may get fished heavily since it is easily accessible.

Undaunted, I continue upstream.  I see a few midges hatching, but no surface activity.  I don’t see any boot marks and no broken branches along the shoreline, a telltale sign that it hasn’t been fished recently.  Just around bend I come to promising run. It’s tight quarters, with overhanging tree branches in front and back of me.  I carefully assess the situation and proceed to hang my first cast on one of the aforementioned branches to my rear.  Fortunately I am 6’3” tall and can just barely reach high enough to retrieve the fly.  The second cast is on target just off the main current, and as the dry dances downstream it disappears. I’m onto another pugnacious rainbow that has taken the caddis nymph. 

Narrow Lower Stretch Demands Pinpoint Casts

He’s a few inches larger than the first.  That’s more like it.  My next cast produces a small brownie. 

A few minutes later I come to tempting run along a sheer cliff face. 

Cliff Pool Produces

Another small rainbow immediately nails the nymph.  On the very next cast the dry again disappears, and I can tell I am onto something bigger.  The fish dives and tries to tangle me on the beaver detritus in the depths.  I work him slowly out and am rewarded with a 13-inch brownie that will be the biggest of day. 

Brownie Puts Up Good Brawl

I continue working upstream where the brush thankfully recedes and the creek begins to open up.  I get more frisky rainbows and an occasional brown.  Most are 8-10 inches with a couple of foot-long browns.  I’m a bit surprised that I am not getting anything bigger—in the upper reaches to Temple Canyon on my earlier trip I had shots at several fish that pushed 15-inches.  A narrow trail parallels creek, and I start to see a few boot marks and wonder if more pressure here is the issue.  Surely couldn’t be lack of piscatorial perspicacity or skill.

It’s pushing 1 p.m. now and with 15 or so fish to my credit, I pause for lunch in the warm sun and absorb the beautiful wild scene.  Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are flitting about, and I can see some red cactus flowers blooming up on the steep slope above.  The yellow buds of the cholla cactus are getting ready to burst.

After lunch I round a bend and come upon two huge dams—a beaver pond aficionados dream. I get a couple of small rainbows below the first dam and then see some rises near the left bank above so carefully scramble up on the dam and make a few casts.  I don’t see any fish and no more rises.   I gingerly wade out into the first pond which luckily has a fairly firm bottom and begin casting to the right bank where the current is flowing.  I get several perfect floats but only manage to scare the daylights out of a sizeable brown trout that comes jetting downstream by me.  My ego is salved when I pick up a couple more rainbows below the second dam on the dry fly. 

Then I spot some movement in the cholla meadow along the stream—it’s two anglers in shorts with fly rods hiking back downstream.  Hearty souls I think given the chilly water temperature!  I also think the early birds get the worm (and fish).  I toy with the idea of throwing in the towel, but decide to continue upstream where Google Maps reveals some beautiful bend pools.  Happily I continue to get more steady action for small bows while managing to make things interesting with a couple of my patented long-distance releases on bigger fish.

 By now it’s 3:30 and the sun is beginning to descend below canyon walls.  But I just can’t quit.  The serpentine creek reveals one tempting pool after another around each bend. 

Grape Creek Exorcises Cabin Fever

An hour later I have caught another dozen rainbows and browns and with shadows enveloping the pools and the air cooling quickly, decide to call it a day.  It will take me an hour to get back to the trailhead.  But there are still another two-plus miles of the creek I haven’t yet explored yet, the remotest stretches of Temple Canyon.  I’ll definitely be back!

Legend of The Late Fall #2: Lower Grape Creek (near Cañon City, CO)

 Late November 2017

Note:  Please read this article in tandem with my Dec. 6 blog on late fall fishing in Colorado that discusses gear, tackle, and techniques in greater detail. Also, Upper Grape Creek is featured in my earlier Nov. 8, 2017, article.

 I am a big fan of Upper Grape Creek near Westcliffe, Colorado—it’s a beautiful stream tucked away in a rugged, remote canyon.   (See my blog article from November 8, 2017, Going Ape On Grape Creek.) Now as the weather is cooling rapidly, and snow has already descended on Upper Grape, I am wondering how the creek fishes farther downstream in Temple Canyon where the elevation is a couple of thousand feet lower.  Despite its proximity to the small city of Cañon City, Lower Grape Creek is also in a BLM wilderness study area.

img_3489-1
Lower Grape Creek Canyon Is A Geologic And Scenic Masterpiece

Although the primary access in Temple Canyon Park is only about an hour from my summer home base in Salida, I avoid the waters around Cañon City that time of year when the temperatures can soar into the 100s, not to mention the territory is overrun with rattlers.  No thank you!  But come late fall I am hoping for better conditions.  I do some recon in mid-November, and I like what I see, so a couple of weeks later when the weatherman predicts temperatures in the upper 60s, I am on the road to Lower Grape Creek.

It’s  8:30 a.m. as I travel down US 50.  At Cotopaxi I have to hit the brakes for herd of Bighorn Sheep that are lollygagging right in the middle of the roaf, licking salt off the pavement.  Then it’s on to Parkdale where I turn south on Fremont County Road 3, just before the highway crosses the Arkansas River as it begins its plunge into the Royal Gorge.  (That’s also the best route coming from the east rather than taking First Street out of Cañon City and hooking up with the other end of Fremont County 3, which is a very rough road barely suitable in places for passenger cars.)  I travel 3.6 miles on FC 3 through beautiful Webster Park, then continue south on a good gravel road, past the telltale charred trees of the massive 2013 Royal Gorge fire, for another 3.6 miles to the creek access point.

img_3758
Accessing Lower Grape Creek From The North Through Parkdale On FC 3 Is Highly Recommended–The Creek Meets The Road Just Above The Squiggly Section of Fc 3

On the way, I pass the sign welcoming me to Cañon City’s Temple Canyon Park then start a short, circuitous descent into the canyon, cross the bridge, and park in the well-marked lot with restrooms on the south side of the creek.  I am delighted the lot is empty—looks like even though it’s a weekend, I may have the place to myself.

This is the only road access point to the creek between Bear Gulch about 8 miles upstream and Cañon City.  It’s all thanks to some wise city leaders who created this park in the early 1900s, in contrast to some current politicians who seem intent on closing off our public lands from the average citizen and letting the big corporations run amok. Not only is the canyon breathtakingly scenic, it’s also loaded with history.  Explorers Zebulon Pike and later John Fremont made the incredibly tough trek up Grape Creek in the early and mid-1800s, and the canyon was a thoroughfare for Ute Indians and miners trying to reach the Wet Mountain Valley.

img_3491-1

A good read is Dan Grenard’s web site article on Temple Canyon.  According to Grenard, when early miners and entrepreneurs wanted to connect to the booming mines in the Wet Mountain Valley and started to build a narrow gauge line up the rugged canyon in the 1880s, they discovered a natural amphitheater that was originally cloaked in vines. Grenard writes that “This amphitheater would come to be known as a temple and the area became Temple Canyon.  The canyon was a popular destination in the 1890s with residents traveling up Grape Creek by foot.”

img_3749
The Temple In Temple Canyon

Kudos to those old timers, as in 1912 they persuaded Congress to grant Temple Canyon to the city.  It remains an unspoiled wilderness to this day.  You can still see, and indeed will be hiking off and on, along the incredible remains of the narrow gauge line high above the creek that only survived a few years and then was abandoned around 1888 because of washouts and rockslides.

I suit up quickly in my neoprene waders and shuffle over to the bridge for a look…and I like what I see.  Two weeks ago when I was doing my reconnaissance here, the State of Colorado creek gauge upstream at Westcliffe stood at 25 cfs, which is optimal, but the creek is still fishable running lower now at about 17cfs. (Google Colorado Water Talk and then select the Arkansas River drainage for current readings.)

img_3488-1
Looking Upstream From The Temple Canyon Bridge

Then it’s off south along the trail high above the creek on its east side.  I resist the urge to fish the good-looking pools down below, knowing that they get hit hard and I spotted some good fish in pools further upstream a half-mile or so.  Soon I come to a green gate and fence across the trail.

img_3493-1
Into The Wilds–The Start Of The Hike At The Temple Canyon Bridge

I open the gate and proceed through a very short stretch of what is said to be private property (although there are no signs), making sure to stay on the trail and leave no trash behind.  The trail splits, and I know to take the lower section that soon will take me down to the first creek crossing.  Then I have a choice.  I can scoot up the slope and catch the trail that follows the old railroad grade high above the creek, or start to work upstream close to the creek, alternately wading or following a faint path along the south and west banks.

img_3752
The First Stretch Of Trail Splits With The Lower Fork Crossing The Creek To Join The Old Railroad Grade High Above

img_3519-1
The First Creek Crossing  About A Mile In Leads To A Good Trail On The Old Railroad Grade Which Climbs Through State Trust Land Then Into BLM Land–All Open To The Public

There are some deep, productive pools in this stretch that are hard to access if you opt to cross the creek and resume on the old railroad grade high above.  I stay low and head for a big pool that I spotted two weeks ago that was loaded with fish.

img_3497
The Proverbial Honey Hole Loaded With Trout

I creep up slowly from below and see that something has changed….beaver have dammed up the creek and change the water levels.  And AARRGGHH, they have filled in the deepest, best part of the pool with branches that will serve as their winter lunch counter.  I see some big shadows lurking under the branches, but casting to them is impossible.  So I wade carefully around the edge of the pool and throw a cast above the branches where the creek cascades in.  I watch the Royal Coachman Trude ride the current into the pool and float towards me, then suddenly disappear.  I set the hook and feel something pulling hard.  Must be a rainbow trout? He dives for the branches, but I managed to winch him away and soon have him at the net—a muscular, colorful 13-incher that took a liking to the Size 16 beadhead green hotwire caddis nymph. Good start!  Two more smaller fish follow, both on the nymph, then the pool goes quiet.  Three fish by 10 a.m….not bad.

img_3647
First Fish Of The Day–Like Upper Grape Creek, Lower Grape Is Home To Some Good Rainbows

I continue working upstream, picking up a couple of nice brownies on the nymph.  As I unhook one, I hear something above.  Bighorn?  Cat?  Dang, it’s a couple of young anglers heading upstream high above me on the trail.  They wave.  I grit my teeth and wave back.  Now I’ll have to play hopscotch with them and share the water.  That’s why I always try to avoid weekends on these small creeks.  C’est la vie.

img_3649-1
Plenty Of Brownies Complement The Bigger Bows On Grape Creek

I continue up this canyon stretch, seeing nary a boot mark anywhere, being careful to avoid the sharp needles of the abundant Cholla cactus.

img_3510-1
The Cholla Can Annoya…And Love To Eat Waders

I️ come to another deep pool and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a big school of rainbow trout fining in the depths, oblivious to me.  I cast…and cast…and cast, running my nymph right through the crowd.  They move and seem to show interest, but no hits.  I move in for a closer look and discover it’s a big group of suckers, carp-like fish that won’t eat flies usually.  Finally they have had enough of my presence, and I have to laugh as they flash by me en masse, headed downstream in a frenzy.  I don’t feel completely like a fool, because I know that sometimes trout mingle with them, picking up tidbits kicked up from the bottom by the suckers.

img_3653-1
Suckered By A School Of Sucker

I look up and see that I am getting closer to the point where the trail dips down to meet the creek above Jennings Gulch .  I have a great view of the engineering feat it took to span the gullies that run into the canyon—all without power equipment!

[caption id="attachment_4354" align="alignnone" width="2448"]img_3664 The Old Railroad Grade Is A Mute Testament To A Tough Breed Of Men

<

Just upstream I run into a very intriguing pool.  The creek tumbles down a rocky run then plunges into a deep seemingly bottomless pool against a big boulder.  Looks fishy.  I execute a back-handed cast and gently loft my flies around a rock to the head of the pool and let them drift slowly through the dark swirling water.  No dice.  Three casts later I am about to move on when I see a flash below the dry and the fly is jerked back hard.  I strike and am onto a big fish.

img_3663-1
Home Of The Big Rainbow

<

He bores for the bottom then shoots to the undercut ledge beneath the boulder.  For a second I think he’s snagged, but slowly I am able to extricate him from the rocks and branches at the bottom of the pool.  What a prize—a glistening rainbow that goes 15 inches, a big one for any small creek!

img_3656-1
Prize Rainbow

I continue upstream, resisting the urge to rejoin the trail and stick to the creek, which pays off.  I catch another stout 13-inch rainbow on the dry, then several smaller browns on the nymph.  This is a good strategy all the way up the creek—try to access the pools that are far below the trail.

As I emerge from the canyon and continue up the trail, I see the angling duo just ahead of me where the trail  crosses the creek for the fourth time. They are a  couple of amiable young chaps from Colorado Springs who seem to know what they are doing.  I watch one pull a couple of small brownies from the pool above the crossing.  We exchange greetings and tales of the fish we have caught…and I get to brag a little about my big rainbow.  We agree that we will continue upstream, hopscotching around each other.  I walk up several hundred yards and find another alluring pool that quickly yields several browns on the nymph and a 13-bow on the dry.

Then I cross paths with the Colorado Springs contingent, and we all decide to take a break for lunch.  Derrick and Sean are two knowledgeable gents who have also had a good day.  I decide to fish upstream with them one more pool, and they put on quite a show.  Derrick catches five trout on a Size 16 Red Copper John then his buddy gets another three—a mixed bag of brownies and bows.

img_3669-1
Young Punks Show Up Author With Eight Fish Out Of One Pool!

<

It’s pushing 1:30 p.m. now and the sun will be down in a couple of hours.  It’s two miles back to the SUV, and I want to hit a couple of stretches downstream on the way back, so I head that way as Derrick and Sean press on upstream.  I manage a few more small browns and a good bow on the return, but as the sun sinks the fishing slows.

img_3520
Homeward Bound On Old Railroad Grade Trail High Above Grape Creek

<

By 3:30 p.m. I am back at the trailhead enjoying a cold NA beer.  It’s been a great day—beautiful weather, and the predicted big winds didn’t materialize which is often the case in these sheltering canyons.  I contemplate how much more water there is to fish upstream—I hiked in about two miles and there’s another six to Bear Gulch.  And that’s not to mention the several miles downstream of the bridge through Temple Canyon and the Ecology Park outside Canon City.  So much water….so little time as winter approaches.  But you can bet I’ll be back in December if we get another warm spell!

img_3671