Colorado. One name, endless destinations.
By JOEL L. EVANS
Special to The Daily Sentinel
Colorado. One name, endless destinations. A lifetime of exploring the backcountry might not be enough. Even if one were to limit their adventure list to just the blue lines on the map, the fisherman would still be short on time and long on a bucket list of waters yet to experience.
Such was my recent choice of blue for a weekend — my way of saying that I got out the map, focusing on blue river lines and blue lake dots. Longing for a water I had never before tasted, I had a few ideas taken from the memory bank of stories told by others.
Certainly with significant travel, I could head to distant parts of the state, but my criteria was for a not-too-far, full weekend, two day/overnight backpack trip somewhere into the high country.
Southwest of Silverton, I found the blue I was looking for. Recommended water with not too far a drive, not too tough a hike — and promise.
Highland Mary Lakes were the whisper I had heard last year. And now I was motoring toward Ouray well before daylight on Saturday morning, hoping to make Silverton shortly after dawn. In the dark, I miss the spectacular vistas of Red Mountain Pass, but I want to be at the trail head early.
Traveling alone, I have little with me except a full pack, abnormally heavy, because I was determined to take along my float tube. To accommodate the tube, fins, life jacket and waders I normally wouldn’t have on a backpack trip, I spent much of the prior week trimming down other gear to lighten the load.
Early morning in Silverton is busy, but I don’t tarry. Passing through town, I head northwest along Road 586 upstream along the Animas River towards Howardsville. Four or so miles later, at the junction with Cunningham Creek, Road 589 turns off south to Stony Pass.
The Stony Pass Road cuts off a few miles later, but I stay on the Cunningham Gulch Road, a good rock and dirt floor that dead-ends at the trail head about four miles from Howardsville.
No longer alone, several cars line the small parking lot. With little to do but swing on the pack and sign the registration, I welcome the early coolness of the start.
Wildflowers are abundant, but the blue columbine are especially prevalent. Steep in places, the well-established trail passes through all the vegetation zones. Three miles and 90 minutes later, the first of three lakes appears.
Highland Mary Lakes perch against the Continental Divide in somewhat of an unusual fashion. Most lakes that close to the peaks of the divide sit in a bowl surrounded by steep slopes. Highland Mary is a large flat, relatively speaking, at 12,300 feet, well above timberline.
Passing by the small first lake, soon another appears. Lake two is long and large by high-country standards, but it is at lake three, just over the next low ridge, where I intend to make camp.
At this altitude, camp is the priority over fishing. By 10 a.m., I have the tent up, the float tube expanded, and rod in hand. Lake three is long with a flat shoreline all along the trail side, making for easy casting from shore as well as getting in with a tube.
Saturday is spent mostly kicking around the far shore. Hoping for cutthroat, brook are the only resident. But they are good size, many over 12 inches. With no cutts to be found, late in the afternoon, I take a walk-about over to nearby Verde Lake. Same story, second verse. A twitched, sunken streamer on a spinning rod yields similar brook. With dusk approaching, I head back to Highland Mary for the night.
Sunday morning early is somewhat of a chance. I can stay and fish Highland Mary, maybe go back to lake two. But part of the whispered story is of the cutts of Lost Lake in the next drainage past Verde Lake. I’ve come for new blue, so Lost Lake beckons.
Leaving the tube behind, retracing the steps to Verde Lake, I follow a faint trail at the outlet to Verde Lake. Dropping off steeply, less than a mile later a small creek that drains Lost Lake trickles in. Turning up this small sliver of blue, I gain the ground toward the towering peaks.
Lost Lake is magnificent, a round basin of steep sliderock on the far side and great casting flats on the near side. Occasional rises prove fish are present. A fling of the spinning rod sends the fly and bubble out past the shallows near the bank. The cutt is magnificent; red and orange cheeks and belly accent the golden side, with large dark spots near the tail. Not too many places you can catch cutts over 15 inches.
Trout fishing in Colorado is as much about the fishing as it is about the places where the fish are. Dropping the rod for a short hike into the bowl above the lake, I fight through brush to discover another pond above Lost Lake, but it likely is fishless. Pressing further, I stand underneath a monolith of gray rock that dominates the towering ridge above.
I am alone. Very alone. My senses are overwhelmed. The rock, the sky, the flowers. No trail.
Just me and the mountains and some remote Colorado blue.
Thunder wakes me from the seeming dream, signaling time to return to Lost Lake to gather my gear and return to camp at Highland Mary. Hurrying down the creek, picking up the trail to Verde Lake, the sky breaks loose and lightning flashes make me nervous. But the storm passes, camp is near, and enough day is left to pack and head back to the truck.
Colorado. A land of endless blue.