Featured Photo: Football Brown

Featured Photo: Football Brown
Showing posts with label Hiking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hiking. Show all posts

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Colorado 2022: Day 11, Hiking from Marble to Crystal Mill

When I was a youngster just learning to fly fish, I subscribed to Fly Fisherman magazine. An article one month was on the Roaring Fork valley in Colorado. While I don't remember many of the details of the article, one thing has always stayed with me: a picture of the Crystal Mill near Marble, Colorado that was included in the article. Mind you, it wasn't labeled as such. It was just a scenic piece to add interest to the article otherwise convincing anglers to head for the Fork or Frying Pan to fish at all costs. At the time, I didn't know exactly where it was, just that I wanted to see that scene someday. 

Fast forward just a few years, and I eventually discovered the location of the scene that had stuck with me for so many years. When we started planning a trip to Colorado for last fall, I determined that we had to visit the Crystal Mill. There are lots of places I want to visit, and I don't know how many more Colorado trips will happen. There are other places to go and see after all. So, I wanted to hit the one thing in the state that was still on my must see list, or dare I even say, my bucket list. My bucket list, if you want to call it that, is a loose collection of places I want to see someday. Nothing written on paper, and some are more definitive than others, but I'm to the point where I'm trying to check a few off of the list nowadays.

After we had travelled from State Forest State Park to Dillon and then on towards Bogan Flats Campground, we were ready to get back into the woods. Our town stay had been a nice reprieve, but we didn't travel all the way to Colorado to stay in a hotel in town.

Unfortunately, before we could enjoy a trek to the Crystal Mill which was just up the road from our campground, we had to take a detour. We didn't know it at the time, but a distinct trend had started in more ways than one. The first trend actually started during the night. Light rain showers whispered on top of our tent. When we got up in the morning, the clouds were breaking some, but we also didn't want to get caught in a storm or downpour while out hiking with a toddler. 

Camping at Bogan Flats near Marble Colorado


Cell service was at least a few miles back down the road towards Carbondale, so we decided to head that direction and get an updated weather report before venturing out for the day. This was both a good and bad decision. Good because, well, things were about to happen that I REALLY didn't want to happen in the kid carrier pack. Bad because, well, it should be self explanatory. 

Little Bit was riding along comfortably in the back when it apparently became time to do her morning business. We were almost to cell service when the aroma stench hit us. I pulled over into a large gravel pullout that would double as a bathroom/changing room and also had enough cell signal to help us in other ways. As it turns out, we needed that cell signal for directions to the nearest laundromat. Things had gotten out of control, so to speak, and we needed more cleanup ability than we could carry in our little car. 

At the sketchy little laundromat, I did laundry next to a homeless guy while Leah made some bagels and cream cheese for our breakfast. After an hour of doing laundry, we were headed back towards camp and then on to Marble, hoping that this would be a one time event and the rest of our trip would go smoothly. The forecast looked to turn a little more rainy over the next few days, but still suggested a good mix of sun and clouds. The forecast for our hike that day was mostly good with just a small chance of a shower. 

We found Marble and a parking area where we could leave the car for a few hours. The road up to the historic Crystal Mill was a rough 4WD road that our little Corolla wouldn't even begin to negotiate. Unfortunately the jeep tours that operate in the area have a strict "no car seats" policy that effectively weeds out younger kids. I don't blame them, but I will say that it would have been a much easier day for us. 

Beaver Lake near Marble


We loaded Little Bit up in her pack and began the grueling hike up to the Crystal Mill. It is only about 4.5 miles or so, but the first mile was brutal with probably 1000 feet of vertical gain. The rest of the hike was actually fairly easy other than the 30 pounds or so in the pack on my back. At the time we visited, you could pay a little money and then access the bottom of the falls. From things I have read, I believe that is sadly no longer an option. 

The trail/road is fairly busy or at least was when we visited. Lots of jeeps and trucks were driving up to see the same place we were as well as some others scenic places in the area. Thankfully, they were all considerate and we never felt in danger despite the road being quite narrow at times. We got tired quickly, some of us more so than others. Little Bit was needing a snack, so we stopped by Lizard Lake for a quick break and some snacks.

Lizard Lake on the Road to Crystal Mill


The timing of our trip was largely in hopes of catching the fall colors. Sections of our hike were about perfect with golden aspen everywhere, while other sections still had mostly green. With the nice mix of color, the hike was interesting throughout. One of the most interesting things, I thought, was the constant avalanche chutes and debris fans from past avalanches. The ridge to the south, just across the Crystal River (which the road/trail follows) apparently gets a LOT of big snow in the winter. The avalanches then roar down the north facing slope and often up and across the road on the other side. I can only imagine how treacherous this area would be in the winter. 

Avalanche chute full of fall colors on the road to Crystal Mill

The Crystal River itself was beautiful and truly crystal clear as its name suggested. I kept wishing that I had brought at least a tenkara rod with me, but because we started the hike late, I had left all fishing gear in the car. We didn't have as much time as we wanted, but thankfully our timing was perfect from one perspective. Once we made it up to the Crystal Mill, it quickly became apparent that afternoon was the best time to visit this scene, at least in late September and early October. 

Crystal River along the road to Crystal Mill

The early autumn light was angling in just right to light the scene for our cameras. We took more photos on this day than any other on our trip. Since we were able to go to the bottom of the falls, we had our picnic lunch down there. Little Bit played amongst the rocks along the stream (one of her favorite things to do!) while we took pictures of her having a good time.

Crystal Mill on Crystal River

View of Crystal Mill


Eventually, we knew that it was time to head back down. Carrying a heavy pack was starting to wear me out after more than a week of camping. While the hike out was mostly downhill, I still wanted to get it over with. On our way out, we experienced a very light shower that was perfectly brief. We put up the rain cover on the kid carrier, but otherwise didn't worry about the rain. If only the rain showers had stayed that brief for the rest of our trip...

Fall colors on the road to Crystal Mill


Friday, January 06, 2023

Colorado 2022 Day Two: Fishing and Hiking to Loch Vale, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park

This was a hiking day that I had been looking forward to more than almost any other on our trip. However, it was not just excitement. A small element of trepidation had also snuck in. So why was I feeling so conflicted about this hike?

Preparing for Our Hike to Loch Vale, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond

First, you should know that this is a hike I have wanted to do for a long time. While I should have knocked it out when I actually lived an hour away, those days are long gone, and you can't live on shoulda coulda. Fast forward to early 2022 when I first floated the idea of a Colorado trip to my wife. As I was researching different hikes to include on our trip, this one just seemed like a natural fit. Based on our prior adventures in Glacier National Park, I knew that some longer high elevation hikes were ideal for us. This is the type of hiking we love and largely why we enjoy traveling. Even for local hikes, we are just as likely to knock out a bunch of miles as we are to go for a short stroll. But, and this was the important part, the elevation difference between Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Park was significant. 

In Glacier, our highest hike was just over 8,000 feet above sea level while this particular hike in Colorado would start out above 9,000 feet and end just a touch shy of 11,000 feet above sea level. Leah had dealt with elevation sickness at the Medicine Wheel and this hike would get significantly higher than that. I had previously dealt with it as well at high altitude in Colorado some years ago on multiple occasions. On each occasion for both of us, the main common denominator had been that we had tried hiking at altitude too soon after arriving from the lowlands of the eastern US. As this was precisely what we would be doing on this trip, I was a little nervous. Oh, and did I mention I would be carrying a one year old and everything else that goes along with a baby, plus my camera, water and some Tenkara equipment? 

The actual distance didn't worry us. I've lugged the toddler around in her pack out to 15 or so miles. While tired afterwards, I could have gone more no problem. We have done 20 mile days, so something half of that or less isn't bad at all. The thin air would be our primary nemesis. Living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee is slightly better than sea level, but we are still just a touch over 1,800 feet in elevation, much too low to have any benefit once we hit the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The absolute highest elevation hikes we can do in the Smokies are still essentially like hiking in the foothills in Colorado. When I say foothills, I mean at the foot of the foothills or nearly so.

Before our trip, we had both put in a little extra effort. This mostly involved doing everything in our power to boost our cardiovascular capacity. That is, we did some running, including mixing in at least a little interval training, and I had been backpacking on my now annual brook trout trip. Of course, we also spent some time out on the trails around home, particularly carrying the toddler around on my back at least occasionally to get my body used to the abuse. Thus, we were about as prepared as could be considering that we literally arrived in Colorado and then immediately headed out on one of the hardest hikes of our entire trip. In the end, that might have actually been a good idea for more reasons than we would realize for a while. 

The Morning of Our Hike to Loch Vale, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond

Fast forward just a bit and we are in Colorado. We woke up to an absolutely perfect day. Knowing the chance of foul weather would sneak up on us the next day, we were intent on making the most of this day. After all, these big hikes are always the highlight of any trip we do. The sun was warm and the air promised a perfect day. I had to snap a quick picture of our Big Agnes tent nestled amongst the pines at the Moraine Park campground where we camped for our first three nights on this trip.

Big Agnes Tent at Moraine Park
"Camping in our Big Agnes Tent in Moraine Park Campground" ©2022 David Knapp Photography


I think we had slightly underestimated the amount of work that it would be to care for a toddler on an extended camping trip. However, on this day, we mostly got going smoothly. Not quite early enough, unfortunately, but early enough to get this hike done during daylight hours. As with most particularly scenic and well known National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park has a problem of being loved to death. On the east side of the Park, this manifests itself as jam packed parking lots, much the same as we experienced in Glacier National Park. Thankfully, with COVID becoming more and more a thing of the past, the National Park Service operated hiker shuttle was operating. Once we determined that there was no parking at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, we quickly headed back down to the Park and Ride to have breakfast (a tradition we started in Glacier) and get ready for our hike.

The routine we established in Glacier National Park again served us well, although since we ended up on the shuttle it was probably not necessary. This ended up being the only time we used this routine on the Colorado trip, but for reasons you'll find out more on later. We had breakfast at our car at the Park and Ride and also fixed our lunch sandwiches and packed our backpacks. For me, that meant a DSLR camera, Tenkara gear, baby diapers, wipes, and a change of clothes, water, water filter, and a few "emergency" type items such as a couple of ways to start fire, bandaids, ace bandage, and don't forget some extra bags for carrying dirty diapers. Thankfully, my wife agreed to carry my lunch in addition to hers and the baby's since I would be carrying the little one. 

Once all of these tasks were complete and we changed diapers a time or two, we finally boarded the shuttle bus and headed up the mountain towards the Glacier Gorge trailhead. 

Glacier Gorge Trailhead map
"Glacier Gorge trailhead map" ©2022 David Knapp Photography


Hiking to Alberta Falls From the Glacier Gorge Trailhead

A bonus on this hike to Sky Pond would be catching a glimpse of Alberta Falls. This beautiful waterfall is right alongside the trail and impossible to miss.

Timing for our trip largely centered around what we hoped would be a good amount of fall foliage. On this day, we started seeing some early signs of fall with plenty of golden aspen, but most trees were still either green or just barely starting to turn. We snapped a few pictures while we hiked, but mostly just kept our heads down and cranked out the miles. We hoped to eat lunch up at one of the high lakes that were our main goals for the hike.

Hiking the Loch Vale Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
"Hiking the Trail to Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park" ©2022 David Knapp Photography


Alberta Falls was gorgeous, but the lighting was simply never good when we happened to be hiking by. With a heavy toddler that was starting to feel even chunkier than I remembered, keeping our rhythm hiking was more important than forcing some shots that I knew wouldn't turn out the way I wanted. Many people appeared to be stopping at the falls. We were just getting warmed up and set our sights higher.

Hiking to Loch Vale from Glacier Gorge Trailhead

The hike to Loch Vale (also known as The Loch) is fairly simple overall. There was really only one steeper section of switchbacks not too far below the lake itself. We made good time up to this point with the baby thankfully taking a morning nap. We enjoyed the occasional yellow aspen and kept cranking out the steps. If you start at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead as we did, it is between 2.5 and 3 miles to Loch Vale. While the trail is well travelled, it is still an easy trail if you ask me.

Thankfully we got there in good time and were able to relax, take pictures, let the little one down to run around and play, and of course, I got to do some fishing! I'll cover the fishing part later in this blog, but when we first came up to the lake, I saw fish everywhere which is always a good sign.

Native cutthroat trout in Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park
"Rising Trout" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

The scenery was the main draw of this hike and Loch Vale did not disappoint. Lying in a basin with two lakes up higher near the divide, we enjoyed the views and the sun was out as well. It was nice and warm. Little did we know that this would be one of the last truly warm days we would experience on the trip. All of us enjoyed this stop immensely! Notice the nice clear blue skies...

Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park
"Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

Looking up the lake, you can see the higher basin above that continues another couple of lakes. The forbidding nearly vertical rock wall that separates you from these lakes is quite the scramble as we would find out shortly. While we were enjoying all of this, little bit was enjoying exploring and playing in the dirt. In fact, I think playing in the dirt was the highlight of the trip for her. At minimum, she made plenty of time every day to do so and we had quite the challenge on our hands to try and keep her semi clean.

Playing in the dirt at Loch Vale
"Why enjoy the scenery when you can play in the dirt?" ©2022 Leah Knapp Photography

After a good break that also allowed time to filter some water (a filter is much lighter than 4 liters of water!), we were ready to continue on our hike. The trail follows the edge of Loch Vale all the way up to the inlet stream where it begins to slowly climb again. The inlet stream was FULL of fish as well. I was seriously wishing we had started just a little earlier, but at this point we needed to keep moving to finish before it was too late. My goal was to fish each of the lakes, and I would only accomplish this if we stayed more or less on schedule. 

Continuing On To Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park

The trail beyond Loch Vale continues upward, gently at first through a beautiful evergreen forest alongside a babbling brook. Icy Brook begins high in this drainage and feeds through each lake in turn. After initially being a gentle climb, the trail began to get steeper around the trail junction for Andrews Glacier. We didn't have time to climb up to that point on this day, so we continued on towards Lake of Glass. 

Shortly beyond the trail split, the climb increased significantly. We soon emerged from the forest into increasingly open terrain as we were closing in on treelined. This portion of the hike was easily the most intense as far as the climb goes. Ahead, we could see the bulk of rock that we had seen from Loch Vale. Up close, we could see Timberline Falls cascading down approximately 100 feet and the trail seemingly disappeared into the rock wall to the right of the falls. 

This was the make or break part of our hike. Having done some rock climbing in the past, I wasn't too worried about moving up and over the rock. Having a baby on my back would make me significantly slower and more cautious though. Leah had a slightly different perspective. In fact, I think each time the story is told she reports being slightly more frightened. If this story is told another few years, she'll probably be scared to death during this climb. She is not a fan of heights, so this part was one of the most challenging things she has ever done on any of our hikes. The situation was made worse because I couldn't help her much. Instead, I had to make sure I got the baby safely up the steep climb. Thankfully, we were soon up. The view looking back down towards Loch Vale was impressive. Do you see Loch Vale here?

Looking down from the top of Timberline Falls towards Loch Vale
"Looking Down To Loch Vale From Timberline Falls" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

We didn't linger at this view for long. I was hungry and Leah was hungry, so you know for sure that someone else was hungry. We quickly made our way up the last short climb to the Lake of Glass. On this day, we didn't see how in the world it had gotten that name. I think it would be amazing to be here when it is perfectly calm. The reflection of the surrounding mountains would be incredible. Still, the views were amazing even if the lake was a little choppy from the wind. Note the blue sky but with a hint of clouds just over the top of the ridge.

Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park
"Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

We wanted to eat lunch. The wind was worse than it looks in this picture and we hoped to find some semblance of shelter. We turned to the left and crossed the lake's outlet to get into the semi shelter of a large rock outcropping along the left shore of the lake. Here, we got our packs off, the little one out to play and eat, and of course, I grabbed my fishing gear again. Our lunch spot view was perfect.

Lake of Glass with gathering clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park
"Lunch with a few on Lake of Glass" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

Not long after this picture was taken, the clouds snuck over the ridge and the warm sun was gone just like that. We were thankful that we had enjoyed lunch with such nice conditions, but knew that we better hurry if we wanted to make it the last half mile or so to Sky Pond. The weather was clearly beginning to shift, and it doesn't pay to take the weather lightly at this high elevation. 

Finally, Sky Pond!

So, why hike all the way to Sky Pond? First of all, this is the last lake as you go up this particular gorge/basin. Sitting immediately below the peaks, it is an incredibly impressive setting. Second, if you have already climbed Timberline Falls, you have done all of the hard work. Since we were at Lake of Glass, it made sense to hike the last short distance onwards to Sky Pond.

I could easily say this whole hike was a hike to Sky Pond, but ultimately it is three different hikes to three different lakes that just happen to all be on the same route. Each lake is unique and beautiful enough to be a destination on its own. We were blessed to be able to snag three of these lakes on one trip. 

Surveying Sky Pond
"Little Bit looking over her domains at Sky Pond" ©2022 Leah Knapp Photography


As an angler, the fishing was one of the main draws for me at Sky Pond as you'll see in a bit. Still, the fishing wasn't such a draw that I forgot to take some pictures. I didn't have my tripod with me to do things right, but I did take enough pictures to stitch together a reasonably decent panorama of the lake with the Sharkstooth on the right. 

Sky Pond and the Sharkstooth under dramatic skies
"Sky Pond and the Sharkstooth" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

Notice the dramatic clouds that were swirling above the massive cliffs above the lake. We had a significant weather system due into the area overnight, and it was obvious that the leading edge was already approaching. We needed to finish enjoying Sky Pond and then start hiking down before any rain (or snow?!?!) caught up with us.

Fishing at Loch Vale, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park

Of course, this post wouldn't be complete without mentioning the fishing or the fact that I caught fish at each lake. The cutthroat trout at Loch Vale were the most beautiful fish I caught on this hike, but the other lakes produced some memorable moments as well. 

When we first arrived at Loch Vale, I saw fish cruising everywhere. Of course, by the time I got my Tenkara rod out and rigged, they had seemingly disappeared. Never fear, however, because with cruising fish it won't be long before some more fish come along.

I was using my Tenkara USA Rhodo. This is an excellent packable rod option when I want different lengths that the rod can fish at. Most importantly, it was the lightest option since I was hauling a toddler on my back with all my other gear. I still don't know what I would have done with an actual fly rod. There were times on this hike that I wished for a full fly rod, but this wasn't specifically a fishing trip. I would more than gladly take whatever fishing I could scrounge up.

While a couple of fish quickly came over to look at my Parachute Adams, it quickly become apparent that they were too smart to eat it. Before long, I went to a small midge under the surface and that proved to be the ticket. For the rest of the entire trip, small midges or pheasant tails caught fish in mountain lakes when nothing else was working. I caught a few on dry flies from time to time as well, but definitely more and better fish subsurface.

After a fish or two, I was ready to put my gear away and head to the next lake. As I mentioned above, we were on a bit of a schedule, and that didn't allow for lingering too long with my rod to catch more fish. Here is one of the Loch Vale cutthroat. Talk about a beautiful fish!

Cutthroat Trout at Loch Vale
"Cutthroat trout at Loch Vale" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

And another angle...I just couldn't get enough of those beautiful red cheeks!

Native cutthroat trout at the Loch
"Another perspective of a native cutthroat trout at The Loch" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

Of course, I need some type of proof that I was really the one fishing and catching these fish! Thanks to my lovely wife Leah for running over to snap a picture or two in between wrangling a baby and taking pictures of her own. 

Happy to catch a trout at Loch Vale
"Happy angler at Loch Vale" ©2022 Leah Knapp Photography

Not long after this picture, I was reminded that we probably should be moving on. I could have sat at this little spot all day trying to catch the beautiful cutthroat trout that swam in The Loch, but we had bigger goals for the day. We were soon packed and heading up the trail towards our next goal at Lake of Glass.

This was probably my shortest fishing experiment of the day. Lake of Glass was a great lunch spot, and I took at least a few moments to fish, but in between chasing a toddler over the landscape and eating, there just wasn't much time to fish. Thankfully, I met my goal of catching at least a fish at each lake. The cutthroat here were beautiful, but very different in coloration from their relatives below. My Tenkara rod continued to be the perfect solution that I could put together or break down in seconds. That meant more fishing time for me.

Cutthroat trout at Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park
"Cutthroat trout caught at Lake of Glass" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

The neat part about this fish in particular is that I got it on the dry fly. In fact, there was a small hatch coming off. I saw some smaller dark stoneflies plus some mayflies that I didn't get a good look at. The fish were rising every time the wind died down a little. Our little corner of the lake was just sheltered enough to see fish coming to the surface every few minutes. It gave me hope for catching brook trout on dry flies at Sky Pond. Supposedly Lake of Glass has some brook trout as well, but all I caught here were cutthroat trout.

Sky Pond, on the other hand, only has brook trout from what I have gathered. That was definitely my experience. There are some really nice fish in this lake as well. I had the first issue with losing fish on the Tenkara rod here at Sky Pond. The light tippet I was using just didn't hold up to the ferocious hits the brook trout were producing. Finally, however, I got one to eat and stay hooked long enough to land. These high elevation brook trout are mighty hunters. Check out the mouth on this guy!

Brook trout at Sky Pond
"Brook trout at Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park" ©2022 David Knapp Photography

Perhaps the best part of fishing at Sky Pond is that the little one had been watching me the whole time, taking it all in. Eventually, she came over and wanted to climb into my lap from where she proceeded to take over the operation of the Tenkara rod. As it turns out, she was a natural caster, but didn't have the patience to leave the flies on the water long enough to catch anything. She loved the casting. It kept her occupied, and I'm not sure she really understood that there was more to it than casting. 

Fly fishing Tenkara at Sky Pond
"Teaching the next generation to fly fish at Sky Pond" ©2022 Leah Knapp Photography

Hiking Back Down From Sky Pond 

Shortly after this, with the clouds getting darker and darker, we turned around and headed back down the trail. By now, you have probably noticed something that is noticeably absent. For all my worry about elevation sickness, we were doing great. Thankfully we never ended up dealing with this problem at all on our trip. As it turns out, we had done sufficient preparation to avoid the problem altogether other than just getting tired from the long hikes at high elevation.

Hiking back down was mostly routine with one notable exception. As we approached the big drop alongside Timberline Falls, my foot slipped a little on one of the wet rocks. Knowing that this was a warning, I decided to take things very slowly. Going down is always harder to me than going up, and this was doubly so with a heavy pack that had to get down the mountain in one piece with me. 

We worked our way carefully down, but finally reached a narrow ledge that requires a 4-5 foot drop to get to the next level near the bottom. I was trying to figure out how to get down without getting pushed off by the pack. Thankfully, at just the right moment, another group of hikers overtook us. I think they were wanting to go faster, but they were super gracious about the whole thing. In fact, the guy in the lead worked his way down the water course to our right and was soon below me where he offered to let me pass the little one down to him in the pack. It couldn't have been offered at a better time. Poor Leah was even more nervous than she was going up, so it enabled me to jump down, help her, and then get the baby carrier back on without risking the baby.

After getting below this drop, we really cruised. Our normal hiking speed, even with the kid carrier and a toddler, is usually somewhere around 3 miles an hour and level ground and often even more. In other words, it didn't take us too long to get back down. Sky Pond is probably 4.5 miles from the trailhead. With the extra looking around we did, we were still stretching it to get to 10 miles on the day.

The downhill miles flew by, and soon we were back waiting on the shuttle bus. It didn't take more than a few minutes before a bus stopped, and we were soon headed back to our car. From there, it was just a few more minutes down to our camp at Moraine Park. By this time, the weather was really starting to threaten, so we hurried with supper and got in our tent before the rain really got going. The next day would be damp, however. And thus would begin a trend that would just get stronger throughout our trip...






Friday, December 30, 2022

Colorado 2022 Day One: The Devil's Backbone and Keyhole

Our first full day in Colorado came earlier than expected. Since we had pushed so hard on the drive out and arrived ahead of schedule, we had more flexibility than we had anticipated. This proved to be a good thing on many levels. 

First and perhaps most importantly, we were able to sleep in as much as you can with a baby in tow. Next, we were not rushed with our grocery trip. Usually, I am getting to a grocery late in the afternoon and in a big rush to get on to my camping spot before dark. This time, we were able to take our time and make sure we had all the necessities for the next few days of camping. Of course, we also had groceries close to our first camping spot, but the prices in Estes Park would be MUCH higher than those in Loveland. It was in our best interest to get as much as possible before heading into the mountains. Finally, extra flexibility meant that we were going to be able to hang out with a good friend of my wife's for more than just a quick bite to eat. 

The night before, I had studied maps of the area and tried to think of a place I hadn't hiked but wanted to. The Devil's Backbone came to mind rather quickly and plans were set for lunch and then a hike. Leah's friend Wiz showed up around lunch. Panera was a treat since we knew that we would be eating camp food for the next couple of weeks for the most part. Afterwards, we drove out to the Devil's Backbone Open Space just outside of town. The heat was oppressive, so we made sure to put up the sunshade for the baby and take plenty of water. While longer hikes are possible, we decided to simply hike up and see the Keyhole on the Wild Loop trail. This would allow us to see the main geologic feature up close and get us back to the safety of the AC in the car sooner rather than later. 

This was the perfect warmup hike for Leah and me. We needed to acclimate quickly because of the big plans we had for the next day or two hiking wise. Already in decent shape, this hike was more of a short walk/stroll except for the heat. A couple of quick miles makes this perfect for people without much time or for those who don't want anything big. Here are a few of the highlights from the first half of the hike shot quickly on my cellphone. 

Yellow wildflowers along the Wild Loop trail at Devil's Backbone

Cumulus clouds float above the Devil's Backbone

Wide open spaces on the Wild Basin loop trail at Devil's Backbone Open Space

The Devil's Backbone begins to come into better view

Wildflowers along the Wild Basin Loop Trail at Devil's Backbone

Finally, the trail wound up into the shadow of the Devil's Backbone itself as the trail approached the Keyhole. This is a neat window through the Devil's Backbone that overlooks the next valley beyond. The shade was a welcome respite from the heat. The baby was fast asleep for her midday nap at this point. Those were the days when we could put her in the kid carrier and expect her to fall asleep quickly. 


The Keyhole at Devil's Backbone near Loveland Colorado


After relaxing and visiting in the shade for a bit, it was time to head back to the car. We made good time and the baby started waking up right as we got back. Of course, she was anxious to get down and explore, so we let her stretch her legs before the drive up to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park for our first night of camping. 



On the drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park, we would have the first in a series of unfortunate but memorable incidents on this trip. That is a story for another day, however. 

Prominent Devil's Backbone rising above Loveland Colorado



Sunday, July 18, 2021

Backcountry Jaunts

Sometimes you just want to have the stream to yourself. Around here, that usually means a hike and the longer the better. On some of our smallmouth bass streams, those hikes don't have to be as far. Those streams rugged nature and difficult fishing means that they aren't buried in people like some trout rivers are. On the other hand, if you head to the Clinch River on a weekend morning, you better bring your own rock to stand on. 

The Great Smoky Mountains fall somewhere between these two extremes, although on some days it can feel awfully crowded these days. Not all that many years ago, you could fish just about wherever you wanted to most of the year. Those days are long gone or at least on an extended pause. Thus, if you want some semblance of a backcountry fishing experience, you better plan on walking. 

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy and fellow fly fishing guide Pat Tully and I trekked into the Smoky Mountain backcountry for a few hours of fishing. This wasn't the longest hike I've ever done to fish in the Smokies, not even close in fact. However, at over four miles, we were far enough into the backcountry to have rather high expectations. As we finally broke through the brush that separates the trail and stream, we were filled with anticipation of a good day ahead. Crimson bee balm brightened the scene even further.


I was already rigged and ready while my buddy Pat still had that task to do. Thus, I quickly eased into the first pool and made a few casts. A couple of wild rainbows inspected the fly, but overall they were surprisingly skittish. Or maybe I should have said suspiciously skittish. Backcountry trout are supposed to be pushovers. That's why we go to all this effort anyway. Still, the day was young and my expectations high. Moving up to the next pocket, I didn't expect much since it was fairly small. When I was greeted with no fish, I just assumed it was too small of a spot.

The third pocket had some potential but was also smack dab in the middle of a big sunny patch. When I drifted my flies through just right, one quality fish made a beeline for my flies before backpedaling and disappearing in the direction it had approached from. Things were definitely looking strange. 

By this time, Pat was rigged and ready so we started to leapfrog. Somewhere around this time, I finally got a small rainbow on my dropper nymph. Then, as I was sneaking past Pat to get to the next spot without spooking his fish, I saw my first clue in the form of water drops on the rocks. Paying careful attention, I found a few more. This was a person (or creature anyway) that knew how to move in water. The tracks were not obvious nor definitive. They could have just as easily been an otter as a human. Still, between the shy trout and the marks on the rocks, I was convinced we needed to adjust.

After consultation with Pat, we decided that the thing to do was to move to another nearby stream. That is always a good choice when it is feasible. We were lucky to be in an area with so much water. A short walk put us on some different water. While it wasn't fast and furious, we were soon finding enough fish to confirm our decision as the correct one.

Backcountry streams in the Smokies all fish similarly but each with its own unique character. These particular streams both have long sections of flatter water with some really great quality plunge pools mixed in. The flatter water is conducive to the occasional brown trout, but the majority of the residents are rainbows. Brook trout also turn up from time to time, becoming more numerous not more than a mile or two upstream from where we were fishing. On this day, I was destined to catch just rainbows, but some of them were memorable. 

We appear to be in the middle of another big fish cycle. Maybe not as much on the brown trout, but definitely on the rainbows and maybe brook trout as well. This is due in no small part to the multi year high annual precipitation event we've had for the last 3.5 or 4 years now. We have lost at least the majority of two age classes for the brown and brook trout due to high flows in the fall and winter. Rainbows have been impacted to at least some extent. The benefit is that we are now seeing some better than average fish. this is part of the natural ebb and flow of life on these streams. Some years the numbers are through the roof, but fish seem to average 5-7 inches. Other years the numbers seem slightly impacted, but the average size is a legitimate 8 or 9 inches.

The fishing was good but somewhere short of phenomenal. Those rare days where every fish seems to be eating any fly on the first cast don't come along too often, but on this day, fish would at least eat if the drift was right and you showed it to them a few times. In fact, I was surprised at how many drifts it took in some pools. 

One particularly good hole was producing lots of hits, but few hookups. I have always caught several fish in this pool and expected no less on this day. My buddy Pat was somewhere just downstream, so I had time to relax and really work the pool. My first several casts produced strikes but no fish. Yes, everyone misses fish on occasion but this is especially true in the Smokies. Eventually, I finally hooked one and realized the problem had been as much the small size of the 5 inch trout. Those little ones eat and also spit the hook back out the fastest making them tougher to hook than the nicer trout. 


Slowly I worked into the head of the pool. Throwing my dry/dropper rig right into the fastest water started yielding more promising takes. I think it was after the second or third trout to hand that the nice fish came up and all but ate my dry fly. Realizing that it was a trout I really wanted to hook, I settled down to show it as many different angles as possible. Finally, several casts later, it happened with the dry fly diving hard into the current. When I set the hook, I was attached to the big fish of the pool. Big on these streams usually means 8-10 inches. 

The fight was fairly short lived. Soon I was admiring a gorgeous wild rainbow that was clearly the top of the pecking order in this pool. I let the rainbow rest in my net while I fished the cellphone out of my pocket. A quick picture and the fish was back swimming in the pool again. These fish are too special to harvest, so all of mine go back.


Right as I looked up again, I noticed something interesting. Way over on the right side of the pool was a small current that curled around some rocks and over a shallow, rocky bottom before rejoining the main flow in the middle of the pool. It was the sort of spot I would generally ignore, especially with the bright sun overhead. Still, what I had seen was definitely a rise, and I'm a sucker for rising trout.

I worked some line back out and made the long cast and a quick mend upstream since I was fishing up and across the current. The correct move would have been to carefully cross the stream and fish from the right side, but I'm always up for a challenge. Right before the line started to drag in the middle of the pool, the dry fly slowly sucked under. I knew it had to be the rocks on the bottom, but out of habit, I set the hook anyway. This was one of those times that I was probably more surprised than the fish on the other end as a gorgeous rainbow exploded out of the water. 

I quickly fought the trout and repeated the process from the previous trout. In the net, rest, a quick picture, then back into the water to enjoy another day. Neither fish was out of the water more than a few seconds. Both will be healthy and there when I return unless someone else harvests them.


 

At this point, we had probably been fishing a grand total of an hour or so between the two streams. Certainly no more than an hour and a half. I was getting antsy though. With a newborn at home, I've been finding more and more excuses to get home fast at the end of a day. We continued leapfrogging upstream, but I had already caught my fish and was thinking more and more about getting back home. At this point, I was enjoying watching Pat catch fish as much or more than catching them myself. One particularly nice fish had me asking for a picture and he obliged. 


Finally, after one last really nice pool, I decided to take my leave. Pat was planning on fishing a little longer, so we parted ways, and I hit the trail for the hour walk back out. Getting back home in time to fix supper and relax was nice on my day off.


Lately, I've been getting the itch for another backcountry jaunt, perhaps with the backpack and making it an overnight. Then again, I might just spend more time at home. Either way, I enjoyed this opportunity to get into the Smoky Mountains backcountry for myself that is becoming rarer these days. Hopefully it will happen again soon!

Monday, April 05, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two: A Bitter Disappointment and Baby Bull Trout

Have you ever had one of those rare trips where all the good things happen right at the beginning? My hunt for bull trout very nearly turned out that way. The first day gave me a taste of what hooking one of these fish was like. If you haven't read that story yet, do so HERE first, and then come back and read this sad tale. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), the good things didn't happen at the beginning. If they had, we probably would have missed out on some really cool experiences and the story wouldn't have turned out as good. 

For several months, I had been formulating a game plan for the fishing part of our trip. The main part of this fishing excursion involved lots of hiking. That wouldn't be a problem after all of our Glacier National Park hiking. We had hiked 75 miles in eight days. Two or three of those days had been rather short hikes while the longest was a hair over 20 miles. In other words, we were in peak hiking condition, at least for us. The tricky part was going to be hauling our fishing gear. My poor wife does not do well hiking in wading boots. I decided it was probably better for my feet to wear normal shoes as well. So, we packed our heavy wading boots the five miles in to our fishing spot.

The day went downhill right from the get go. We were planning on starting about five miles in, but as we approached the area where I expected to start, I was surprised to see a couple of backpacking tents and a campfire. Someone else had beat us there. They looked just about as shocked as we were feeling. This simply wasn't the kind of place you expected to come up on another angler. After exchanging brief pleasantries, I asked them which way they were fishing so we could go elsewhere. The tributary creek I had been banking on had already been fished. Seriously. They had just hit all the water we had drove across the country and hiked a ways to fish. 

Immediately, I had a sinking feeling. Maybe, just maybe, catching a bull trout wasn't going to happen for me on this trip. Luck was clearly not on my side, at least not yet. We contemplated hiking well up the canyon above where they had turned around. In fact, we forded the main creek and hiked a decent distance on out the trail that followed the tributary. We had switched to wading boots to ford the creek, so my wife was now hiking in them. After probably a mile or so, I finally had to admit that the trail just wasn't going to get down close to that creek. That was valuable information for a possible future trip.

After giving up on my first stream choice, we headed back to the ford to fish up the main stream instead. As it turns out, our plan B wasn't so bad. The cutthroat were willing, plentiful, and really nice sized. The wildflowers were phenomenal as well. Later on, I would begin to suspect that it might have been the best choice for bull trout after all. On this day, however, all I could think about was that the wheels were starting to come off on my trip plans.



As we worked our way up the stream away from the trail crossing, we had to remind ourselves that the only way out (that we knew of), was going to be back downstream the same way we came up. There was no trail access into the upper reaches of this drainage. While we might have located some game trails, we weren't counting on that possibility since we were in an unfamiliar area. I don't like taking chances unnecessarily.

The first section of stream was fast riffle water with a few deeper pockets thrown in for good measure. The largest fish we saw in this section was maybe six or seven inches. It felt a lot like fishing back in the Smokies as far as the fish size was concerned. The only difference is that we were catching native westslope cutthroat trout. Fish were rising well to our big foam dry flies that doubled as a good strike indicator. Even more fish were attacking our nymph droppers.



The first good pool we approached looked incredible. I figured that maybe, just maybe, there might be a bull trout in this one. I switched to the streamer rod and gave it a good workout. Unfortunately, there just weren't any fish willing to play, at least not any bull trout. The larger cutthroat trout in this pool made several valiant attempts to eat the streamer. I even hooked a couple that shook off after a brief fight and landed one.

A quality cutthroat
A quality westslope cutthroat trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


I had my wife try the dry/dropper rod and she picked up a couple of fish here and there as well. We soon got into a good routine. When I could, I would fish the larger streamer rod. Everywhere else, I let her fish for the most part. Of course, every once in a while I would borrow the other rod and catch a fish or two that way also.

By this point in the day, we were already getting hungry. Breakfast had long since worn off and we began looking for some rocks or a dry bank to sit on for lunch. The only problem was the numerous wildflowers. Neither of us wanted to crush the beautiful flowers. Finally, we found a spot that had both wildflowers and a small area we could sit. We had carried in hummus and pita chips along with some other goodies. This is always a great backcountry meal, both healthy and filling!

With my hunger under control, I turned towards some of the gorgeous flowers growing along the stream banks. My favorites were the purple monkey flowers (last flower picture). These tend to be a rich fuchsia or magenta, at least the ones I've come across in the northern Rockies. Otherwise, we also saw more flowers than I can count. Here is a small sampling from throughout the day.


Indian paintbrush ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Sticky Wild Geranium ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Showy Fleabane ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Musk Monkeyflower (I think...?) ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Purple Monkeyflower ©2020 David Knapp Photography


While the purple monkey flowers were probably my favorite, the western monkshood was an unusual treat that I don't recall seeing before. New to me flowers are always fun. These were growing along the stream, apparently liking the wet environment.


Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood ©2020 David Knapp Photography


Lunch consumed and flowers photographed, we packed up and continued upstream. Probing every likely spot with either the hopper/dropper or the streamer, we caught plenty of cutthroat but no bull trout. The shadows were soon getting longer and longer over the water. I didn't want to get caught back here in the dark. We had plans other than spending the night in the backcountry. 

Then, in one likely pool, my wife hooked a small fish that immediately looked different and got me excited. Upon landing the fish, I knew we had found our first bull trout. Of course my wife would be the one to catch it. At this point, late in day two, I was getting concerned about catching a bull trout. I would have gladly taken a baby just to knock this species off the list. I was happy for my wife, of course, but even more wanted to catch one for myself.


baby bull trout in Idaho
Baby Bull ©2020 David Knapp Photography

My wife's baby bull trout
My wife's baby bull trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


We soon started to develop a good rhythm. My wife would fish the dry/dropper rig through a hole. Then, I would drag the streamer through a couple of times. She started to catch some really nice fish. In one deep bucket in a hard corner, she hooked the largest westslope cutthroat trout of the day. The fish was in fast water and took some careful maneuvering to land. I jumped in with the net and scooped the fish before it could get in the fast water heading downstream. Of course, we had to get a quick picture of this fine trout!


My wife's big westslope cutthroat trout
My wife's big cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


In one particularly good looking hole just upstream, I had something slam the streamer. It looked a lot like a cutthroat, but I only got a brief glimpse before it bored back under a log. Try as I might, I couldn't turn the fish and soon the hook popped free. The fish had wrapped me around the log and used it as leverage to throw the barbless fly. While I was 95% sure the fish had been just another cutthroat, the power and strength had me questioning that assumption.

It was about this time that we really got serious about the hike back out. We both had some ideas that required daylight to successfully enact. Thus, after one or two more pools, we turned a corner upstream and saw nothing but shallow pocket water for an extended distance and knew our day was over. Hiking back downstream to the trail crossing didn't take as long as expected. However, from the trail crossing, we still had a solid five mile hike out.

Just downstream, the two backpackers had packed up and left. I couldn't resist hitting the junction pool where the other tributary entered and found one last quality cutthroat trout there. Still wanting to find a bull trout, we also hit a couple of spots on the hike down. However, most of the water was generally inaccessible from the trail without a lot of hard work. Our schedule at this late hour didn't allow for much hard work.


One more cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


On the hike in, we had noticed a good supply of huckleberries all along the trail. In fact, there were so many huckleberries that we didn't know what to do. We wandered from one bush to another, filling the ziplock bags I had brought just for such a situation. I had one more bag of homemade pancake mix and we hoped for some more huckleberry pancakes in the morning. In other words, the next day would be a slower day again. We discussed some roadside fishing and decided to try that again. After all, the only bull trout I had definitely hooked so far was just below camp. We filled our two bags fuller than full. These were going to be good huckleberry pancakes. I could already taste the delicious pancakes, but first we needed to hike out and get a good nights rest. Maybe, just maybe, the next day would bring some bull trout finally.