Top of the Rockies, Colorado

Our re-introduction to the state of Colorado began with the upper Rio Grande, especially near Wagon Wheel Gap and Creede. I felt a bit remorseful for passing by the Conejos River, an excellent trout stream that I’ll have to visit if I come this way again, but the Rio Grande was welcoming. Sort of.

Among the Collegiates, Colorado

Entering the big mountain river, I had only minutes to fish before another thunderstorm crept in like a bad competitor and drove me off the water, swamping an afternoon of possibility. Ah well, all we could do then was to head back downstream, passing by a pair of golden eagles near the highway, for a food and drink stop at Del Norte’s Three Barrel Brewery. Obviously it wasn’t the end of the world yet.

Arkansas River browns were colorful

We had an entertaining camp-out in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreational Area with subsequent stops along the famous river. I did well there, especially after leaving the brawling muddy waters near Salida for the clearer, colder flows below the towering Collegiate Peaks. Rafting parties and kayakers were a constant sight on the Arkansas but most of the participants were mindful of an old guy casting about, not wanting a fly hook in their costume or inflatable craft. The brown trout were colorful and feisty.

En route to Denver to meet my son Brent and his wife, Catherine, at the airport, we hit a big storm while descending from the heights of Copper Mountain on Highway 91. Rain turned into snow (accumulating quickly) transforming into a fury of hail. The air temperature dropped 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the heights of that mountain to the bottom where we gladly sought sanctuary at a truck stop.

My son drove us from our downtown Denver hotel to a campsite near Estes Park, outside of Rocky Mountain National. In the big park (a second visit for most of us), I stopped to fish the Roaring River and Fall River in the hope of seeing more greenback cutthroats but all I caught there were brook trout. Eventually I would learn that a destructive flood, occurring several years ago, pushed out or destroyed the iconic cutthroat from this area of gorgeous streams but that the fish could still be found in places such as Dream Lake.

We joined the throngs of tourist hikers heading into backcountry sites such as Dream and Emerald Lake and, as much as I’m reluctant to admit it, the beauty of the majestic Rocky Mountains in this region made the long climb more than bearable.

When we reached the outflow of Dream Lake I stepped away from the trail and strung together my four-piece fly rod. Greenback cutties were rising in the crystalline flow and now everything made sense to me. Back at Fall River, the presence of water ouzels, the American dipper, had promised that cutthroats would appear before long, so I thought of the birds again and thanked them. Here the fish rose to carefully presented Pale Morning Duns, the largest of them measuring about 12 inches.

a smaller greenbacked

The drive to the tundra region at 12,000 feet-plus is always memorable along the Trail Ridge Road. While climbing about the marmot and elk-studded snowfields, we enjoyed getting lost in the wind-driven vistas toward the Never Summer Mountains and elsewhere. I added a couple of birds to my life-list there: the rosy finch and the diminutive white-tailed ptarmigan.

Next day, we traveled westward through the heights of the park once more, descending toward the Colorado River headwaters where we paused for a stretch and waterside ramble. Audubon warblers were busy scarfing up a heavy mayfly hatch above the river. We moved a young moose from the streamside alders (much to Catherine’s delight) and I told myself that if I ever came back to Rocky Mountain National Park I would have to sample the fly-fishing along this attractive young stretch of the Colorado.

“Bridging the Gap” bridges the summit

[Next stop: hiking the astounding Dinosaur National Monument in Utah; fishing the mighty Green]

Fall River where I caught a lot of brook trout

near the Arkansas River

near the top of Rocky Mountain National Park

a greenbacked-cuttie resting from the ordeal


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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12 Responses to Top of the Rockies, Colorado

  1. plaidcamper says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, Walt! Colourful and feisty through and through, from the fishing, to the hiking in majestic scenery, to the sightings of birds and mammals along the way. Not much wrong in a day featuring water ouzels – I love spotting them, and had no idea their presence is a positive sign for fly fishing.
    What a state to be in, haha, Colorado is special. Many fine breweries to be found, if hazy memory is working…
    Thanks for sharing this, and already looking forward to the next piece.

    • Indeed, PC, lots of great breweries in colorful CO! Tasted them in Denver, Estes Park and smaller places off the beaten track. I remember you too appreciate the ouzels. These dippers don’t necessarily indicate good fly-fishing but I’ve found that wherever the birds are located, wild trout are close at hand.!

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    Beautiful fish, beautiful mountains! Gonna try to get me some Clarion River truchas this morning from these Pennsyltucky “mountains”.

    • The Clarion sounds like a good place to try this morning, Bob. Cool temps and water levels have prevailed and offer better than typical conditions for this time of year. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Brent says:

    I enjoyed Part 2 here, much of which seems familiar! That’s an especially dramatic shot of the Collegiates labeled “near the Arkansas River.”

  4. loydtruss says:

    Very few individuals get to realize a fly fishing adventure like this; spectacular scenery and colorful trout create memories that will last you a lifetime.
    Were you matching the hatch on all the streams you fished or did you select patterns from your fly box you thought might get a take? A job well done, thanks for sharing

    • Bill, Although I did a bit of hatch-matching on this trip (particularly Pale Morning Duns), for the most part I didn’t have to worry about it, finding that attractor patterns such as Adams, Elkhair Caddis, Stimulator, and Royal Wulff did the job for me. A lot of the streams were just being freed of the run-off, and it was fun just casting flies, dry and nymph, without the concern for match-ups. Thank you for reading and sending your comments!

  5. You’re filling me full of the desire to get out there and explore. It looks like you had an amazing trip. Thanks for writing about the journey.

    • As you know, that’s the point of my effort. Not that exploration need to be of places far from home, but we can do similar things close by, as well. Thanks for being inspired, Doug!

  6. Bob says:

    So, so jealous. I gotta talk to the wife. Is it plagiarism if we retrace your steps???

    • Honored if you do retrace ’em, Bob! Then it’s not plagiarism. If I’m lucky I might retrace them myself again next year, tweaking the route a bit here and there but with a similar set of goals. Or maybe I can follow your steps someday?

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