[The first in a 4-part series that reflects a recent road trip, camping with my daughter through the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. I hope you enjoy the ride.]
Our first Colorado night was spent in Monument at Terry’s house. I unrolled the new sleeping bag and pad beneath the second-story patio with its view of Pike’s Peak to the west. Alyssa had a room inside her grandmother’s lovely home. It was all quite fresh and mountain-scented. In the morning we’d resume our journey with a hike through the Garden of the Gods.
Nature’s red-stone sculptures formed a wonderland inviting us to investigate this famous Rocky Mountain site near Colorado Springs. My new binoculars were busy picking out the feathered spirits of the blue-sky West– the ravens, magpies, pygmy nuthatches, and Stellar jays, to name a few of the front-range species I’d been looking forward to revisiting.
With an outdoor brewery lunch to sustain us, Alyssa and I headed for the South Platte River, the so-called “Dream Stream” section flowing from a highland reservoir. White pelicans and fringed gentians complemented our windy attempt at fishing, and it didn’t matter that the trout remained elusive. Later, on the upper Arkansas, the first wild brown trout came to net like a grain of gold from a heavy flush of water that washed away all cares.
Next morning, a Rocky Mountain sheep stood at roadside as we motored slowly toward Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, at over 14,000′ above sea-level. The views from Independence Pass (12,000′-plus) helped to keep us humble and sanguine, ready for the unexpected. At a pull-off on the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, I assembled a 3-weight rod for our short descent into an attractive gorge. Five wild rainbows quickly came to hand and then returned to the cold, clear stream before a motley crowd of travelers broke our solitude with aspirations of their own.
Beyond Aspen and Basalt, the Frying Pan River held more fly-fishers than I’ve seen in ages. During a global pandemic with a surge in outdoor recreational pursuits, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a full house on the streams and in the campgrounds. Nonetheless, we met the challenge in remote locations, and I managed four nice trout (up to 15 inches) that rose to a Pale Morning Dun and a Pheasant-Tail variation.
That evening we settled in historic Carbondale, enjoying good food and local brews not far from the Crystal River. We would drive upriver to the Red Rocks Campground where, establishing a pattern of lucky breaks in campground siting, we obtained the last available tenting spot. The red-stone cliffs of this alpine valley seemed to tell us life was good. We soon reserved our next night’s stay at nearby Bogan Flats– again, the last site available, where Alyssa’s grandparents had been camp hosts 22 years before.
The national forest campground at the Flats is actually located on a beautiful mountain slope. From there we could fish and inspect the low-water drainage of the wild Crystal River. We explored the tourist town of Red Rocks (interesting coke ovens from the coal-mining era!) and the higher ground at Marble with its artful scattering of rock from the marble mines above the place of human habitation.
Shards of marble glimmered from the pristine river but, unlike my experience back in ’98, encounters with trout seemed few and far between. Had the forage base diminished in these alpine heights, or had the fish suffered an increase in angling pressure during this unusual season? Western tanagers, pine siskins and McGillivray’s warbler gave their accents to the willow shrubs beside the river, but no answers came to an inquiring mind.
My best fish on the Crystal was a 12-inch rainbow. Fishing would improve in the days to come as we traveled northward. For now, an evening meal with cold drinks at the Barbecue House in Marble would suffice. The restful patio dining gave an almost perfect closure to a splendid mountain day.
[Next stop, Alpine, Wyoming]