Home is where we are parked

Home is where we are parked
Home is where we are parked

Friday, June 24, 2016

CO -- South Fork, 27 May-3 Jun 2016

Map picture
Map picture

One week near South Fork, Colorado…

Why we came…

To explore the San Juan Mountains between South Fork and Wolf Creek Pass.

The campground…

Goodnight’s Lonesome Dove was decent.  We really liked the location, roughly five miles southwest of South Fork and 15 miles northeast of Wolf Creek Pass.  There are multiple lakes and streams loaded with trout and the mountains are beautiful. 

The campsites were all spacious back-ins on grass that were fairly level.  We were in the back row, farthest from the highway and against colorful cliffs.  Road noise was prevalent during the day, but tapered at night.  We barely had a cell phone signal…our phones were often useless.  The wi-fi was decent but had a daily usage limit.  We like this policy a bunch.  It keeps people from being data hogs and choking the campground’s wi-fi.  We just weren’t told about it and discovered it the hard way.

The facilities were maintained ok.  The rapidly growing grass was cut during our one week stay.  The picnic tables needed renovation and one of the dumpsters was overflowing.  The laundry and bath house was clean and well maintained, but stunk of cigarette smoke.  We were surprised that during the first part of our stay, Memorial Day weekend, there were just two other RVs camped there.  A couple of other RVs showed up before we left.  The campground owner said it fills up, by mostly Texans, before the 4th of July weekend and stays busy through Labor Day weekend.  We’d make a return trip but only during the less busy shoulder season.  Out of the three full service RV parks within a mile of each other, Goodnight’s Lonesome Dove appeared to be the best for us.

South Fork2-28 May 2016

The campground was nearly empty on Memorial Day weekend!

Nearby towns…

South Fork CO, population ~600 (varies depending on the source) and elevation 8,209 feet, sits along the Rio Grande and South Fork of the Rio Grande where the San Juan Mountains meet the San Luis Valley.  It’s a sweet location with access to a plethora of outdoors activities.  The small town has a try-to-provide-everything kind of store that can be like a treasure hunt when walking through the tight aisles and different sections.  There are a couple of gas stations, a few RV parks, hotels, bed and breakfasts, three or four outdoors shops, and about 10 restaurants.  Though Wolf Creek Ski Area is just twenty miles away, South Fork is quiet most of the winter.  Summer is another story!  The area population swells to roughly 5,000 between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  We really like the area and would consider settling down there someday.

The main supply towns in the area are Alamosa CO, 45 miles to the east, and Pagosa Springs CO, 45 miles to southwest.  They each have hospital services, a Walmart, a couple of grocery stores, hardware stores, and many choices of restaurants.


On 28 May we hiked up Tewksberry Trail…

We could still taste the morels we had found in New Mexico. With hunger burning in our belly, we set out to find more.

Tewksberry Trail is in the Rio Grande National Forest. The trailhead was close to our campground, but on the other side of the river. The multiuse path is 6 miles long, but we were just interested in the first few miles. After an initial steep and rocky ascent, the trail opens into meadows with stands of aspens and pines and Tewksberry Creek meandering about, a perfect environment for our hard-to-spot mushrooms. But there was so much to see in the pretty meadow: glacial poop boulders, snowball cactus, lupines, and fields of irises with Cattle Mountain and Demijohn Peak back dropping it all.

The aspens were scared with bunches of elk scrapes, an indication that elk spend the winter in the area. We saw one young cow that was in rough shape. We theorized it had missed the fall roundup and spent the winter by itself. It looked like coyotes or something had attacked it. We cheered the gutsy teenager and told it that it would have company soon. Besides, with tons of fresh grass available, it would be fine.

As we were checking out the last patch of aspens, I found a few morels. It amazes us how we can search for miles and hours and only find a few. It seems that if conditions are prime for a few, they should be popping up everywhere! We added the fresh morels to our eggs the next morning. It was a special treat!

Afterwards, we headed into South Fork to one of our favorite restaurants, the Firehouse. The last time we ate there was nearly four years ago when they were located in Creede. In their new location, they built a larger and more spacious place. Unfortunately, they no longer had my favorite burger but I found a tasty substitute and Arleen had her favorite BBQ chicken wrap.

South Fork-28 May 2016-hike    South Fork7-28 May 2016

Hike route on the Tewksberry Trail  /  A mountain bluebird

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Mountain lupine  /  Snowball cactus  /  We found a few morels and wild onions

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Open meadows in the mountains are beautiful.  The large boulders are glacial erratics which are deposited as a glacier recedes.  We call the rocks “glacier poop”!

South Fork14-28 May 2016b    South Fork13-28 May 2016

It was really nice to be back in the aspens!  /  These tree scrapes likely indicate that elk winter in the area

On 29 May I fished Shaw Lake, Big Meadows Reservoir, and the South Fork of the Rio Grande…

Arleen’s back was still bugging her so I headed out alone. We fished Shaw Lake in 2012 and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the “West Fork Complex Fire” hit the area in 2013 and Shaw Lake didn’t fare too well. Recent reports indicated that there were still trout, but the fishing was slow.

The dirt road climbs for three and a half miles from Big Meadows Reservoir. It’s mostly two lanes wide and well maintained. I rounded a ridge and entered the Hope Creek drainage and saw many acres of burn remnants. Below the charred tree skeletons, early season groundcover was thriving with varied types of flowers and many small aspens. It’s amazing how quickly nature recovers!

Shaw Lake appeared to be in good shape! The lake was only a couple of feet low and the water was clear. As I slowly walked to a good fishing spot, a fish rose to feed a hundred yards from the bank. It was a good sign and I picked up my pace.

I strung out some long casts from a fishy looking point. A couple of trout rose the first hour, but I couldn’t get any to bite. I tied on a leech fly and slowly twitched it back to me about eight feet deep. I got a good tug, set the hook, and reeled in a feisty cutthroat or cut-bow, a cross between a cutthroat and rainbow trout. It was only nine or ten inches long, but quite plump. I fished for another half hour or so and caught the twin of the first trout. I confirmed that there were still a few trout in Shaw Lake and that they were eating well!

I drove back down the hill to Big Meadows Reservoir. At over 150 acres, it’s a good sized mountain lake. It’s stocked heavily and very popular. It was Memorial Day weekend and there must have been a hundred people fishing!

I put on my waders and walked clockwise along the southeast side of the lake. Fisher folks were scattered all the way around, but surprisingly, I had a small creek inlet to myself. Between 30mph wind gusts, I caught 10-15 trout. One was a brook trout, and the rest were rainbows. They were all 10-13 inches long and hit leech flies fished slow and deep. Now I had caught a cutthroat, a brook, and a rainbow trout…could I catch a brown trout for the “grand slam”?!?

My route home, highway 160, parallels the South Fork of the Rio Grande. It was flowing high and murky with snow runoff, but would be my best chance to catch a brown trout.

The first place I stopped was a bust. The water was just too fast. The second spot had a few tight turns and some rock walls which slowed the water in a couple of deep pools. This would be my best shot.

I tried various techniques and flies for an hour to no avail. I was getting discouraged and began to think that the “grand slam” would elude me again. As I neared the end of my options, I tied on a size 16 red copper john nymph, added a small weight, and plopped it into the slow, deep pool. Sure enough, I got a tug, set the hook, and reeled in a small brown trout…I got the grand slam! I admired the pretty fish and then watched it dart back into the deep pool. I pulled two more brown trout out of the pool and declared it a special day!

South Fork22-29 May 2016    South Fork24-29 May 2016

A huge fire occurred during summer 2013  /  Posing near Shaw Lake and looking towards Big Meadows Reservoir

South Fork29-29 May 2016    Trout Grand Slam-29 May 2016

Fishing the South Fork of the Rio Grande  /  I caught a cutthroat, brook, rainbow, and brown trout on the same day…a “grand slam”!

On 30 May we went to Great Sand Dunes National Park…

We met my sister Nichole, brother-in-law, Gary, and their sons, Jordan and Austin, at Great Sand Dunes National Park - a perfect place for me to play with my nephews. On our way to the Dunes, we stopped in Montrose to pick up a rental sand board and sled.

We met at the visitor’s center where x year old Austin gave me a surprise gift…a “Number One Uncle” mug! Then we eagerly headed into the visitor center and had fun with the hands-on exhibits. Jordan liked looking at the magnified images of the sand.

Next, we drove to the dune’s primary parking area. We were there before 10am but it was Memorial Day and the weather was perfect. Hundreds of people were already there and the parking lot was full! We had to park up the road!

Normally, a tiny seasonal stream runs between the parking area and the dunes. During low snowpack or drought, the stream disappears into the sand. We were happy to see several wide braids, over a foot deep in places and flowing pretty good.

The boys were hesitant, but we all took our shoes off and waded across. Though the stream was entirely snow melt, it was surprisingly comfortable! Once Austin figured that out, he was very excited and wanted to stay and play in the water.

We headed to a good size dune, away from the crowds. While I rode the board, everyone else took turns on the sled. The first hill was not steep enough. So we moved up…and then moved to the steeper backside. We all took a few hard tumbles and got a bit beat up. Eventually, Nic, Gary, and Austin headed back to the “river”. Jordan was still amped up to go higher and slide faster.

We scoped out a target dune and headed up. Arleen tagged along as our official photographer. Jordan did great! He was most impressed that our combined tracks looked like a “J”.

By the time we got back to the water crossing, hundreds of children splashed about, cooling themselves from the warm spring weather. It was a great day and I look forward to more adventures with my sister’s family!

South Fork31-30 May 2016    South Fork43-30 May 2016

Austin gave me a surprise gift!  /  Medano Creek had a bunch of water and fanned out across the sand.  Even though it’s snowmelt, the water was comfortable, and there were hundreds of people playing in it!

South Fork40-30 May 2016

Climbing a high dune.  Mount Herard, elevation 13,345 feet, is ahead

South Fork38-30 May 2016    South Fork37-30 May 2016   

Jordan, me, and Austin  /  My sister’s big wipeout  /  A race down the hill.  Jordan won.

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Jordan and I sliding down the dunes

On 31 May we fished our way around Big Meadows Reservoir…

I returned to Big Meadows, but this time with my girl. We walked the north side of the lake to a creek inlet and fished for a while letting our leech flies flow with the current. Arleen caught her first Colorado trout of the year!

After that we continued to walk counter-clockwise to the south side of the lake. We tried a few dry flies in the shallows but did not have any luck.

Next, we stopped at the primary stream inlet. We fished a floating grasshopper fly with a leech fly two feet below. The action was consistent for rainbow trout to 16 inches long. Most of the trout hit the leech, but a couple smacked the grasshopper…our favorite way to catch them! There were other people fishing the inlet so we didn’t stick around too long. It’s a sweet spot to fish, especially when wading. There is a lengthy sand bar that enables wading fisher people to hit some good water. We caught 15-20 trout and had a good day!

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Hike route around Big Meadows Reservoir  /  Making some graceful casts in a beautiful place

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Posing above Big Meadows Reservoir

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Rainbow trout caught at Big Meadows Reservoir on leech flies

On 1 June I fished Alberta Park Reservoir…

Alberta Park Reservoir sits at 10,150 feet near Wolf Creek Ski Area. It’s the only lake in the area with special regulations. You’re allowed to fish with flies or lures (no bait) and can keep two trout. It’s rumored to have cutthroat and brook trout, and with special rules, some of them may get big.

I parked at Wolf Creek Ski Area, put on my waders, grabbed my gear, and started walking down the closed forest service road. It was covered in snow, still a few feet deep in places. It’s an easy hike. The one and a half mile route steadily drops 400 feet to the lake. It goes right between two of the ski area’s lifts and provides good views of the ski routes.

The lake was 75% covered in ice! Only the shallow inlet had open water. I walked up the creek a bit and then followed it back to the lake. There were no signs of fish. I expected to see cutthroat trout spawning in the creek and hanging out in the shallow inlet. I thoroughly fished the inlet for an hour and continued to see no signs of trout. Poop! I was in the right place at the right time and it didn’t look good.

I moved up the bank a bit to a point that had a drop-off a ways out. I made a long 50-60 foot cast, let my leech fly sink about six feet and stripped it slowly back. There was a weak tug and I set the hook. The fish pulled hard and stayed deep…it wasn’t a cutthroat trout. They stay near the surface and often jump. A couple of minutes later, I got a glimpse of a thick bodied fish with blue, red, and orange spots, orange fins, and a big square tail…a brook trout! I ended up catching 10-15 brookies that were 12-16 inches long and well fed. It was a lot of fun.

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Hike route to Alberta Park Reservoir  /  This 30 foot high waterfall was in Wolf Creek Ski Area

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Alberta Park Reservoir was 75% frozen  /  The brook trout averaged 12-16 inches long and hit leech flies fished slow and deep

On 2 June we both fished Alberta Park Reservoir and Tuckers Ponds…

I was excited to return to Alberta Park Reservoir. I had done a reconnaissance mission the day before and knew that Arleen could handle the hike despite her sore back. I really wanted to share it with her.

We carefully hiked down the snow packed road, and I pointed out everything I had noticed the day before: the ski lifts, ski trails, restrooms, and the pretty waterfall.

As we walked, a little yellow bird kept pace with us, jumping from branch to branch. Arleen checked her handy Audubon Guide app and discovered it was a Western Tanager. It was first discovered on Lewis and Clark’s expedition.

When we arrived at the lake, Arleen was impressed by how much ice there was. We shared the lake, now about 60% frozen, with just one other fly-fisherman. We gave each other plenty of room and nearly felt like we were alone.

We fished from the dock which allowed us to make short casts to deeper spots without having to wade in the ice cold water. Unfortunately, we did not get any bites there.

So, we moved closer to the inlet and waded into the cold water. We made long casts to the deeper water and worked our leech flies slowly back to us. Just like the day before, it worked! We both hooked and landed a few pretty Brook trout.

It was early afternoon and I wanted to check out another spot: Tuckers Ponds. The two, small 5 acre ponds, are stocked with rainbow trout.

We drove five miles back down highway 160 to Pass Creek Road (forest road 390). The dirt road is maintained fairly well, but is mostly a lane and a half wide with an occasional pull-out. The three miles to the ponds get consistent traffic, some folks towing RVs or ATVs, so we proceeded carefully.

Both ponds are easily accessible, especially the lower one which has well maintained trails and two fishing docks. It’s a good place to take kids or those with disabilities. We spotted an occasional fish feeding, but it took us awhile to fool one.

I waded into the submerged grass, tied on a floating grasshopper fly and a leech fly two feet below, and cast ahead of a feeding fish. It worked! My grasshopper dipped below the surface as a fish struck the leech fly. I set the hook and a plump 15 inch rainbow trout shot two feet out of the water, landed with a splash, and took off. It took me a few minutes to subdue it. I admired the thick body, darkly colored with a faint red stripe and lots of spots. It was a “holdover” trout that was stocked the previous season. I caught 10 similar trout during the next hour…it was a blast!

South Fork55-2 Jun 2016

Need a couple of feet of snow to access the outhouse!

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Alberta Park Reservoir near Wolf Creek Ski Area

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Arleen fishing Alberta Park Reservoir back-dropped by Wolf Creek Ski Area  /  A colorful brook trout

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Fighting a brook trout at Alberta Park Reservoir

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Fishing the lower Tucker Pond.  We caught 10 rainbow trout mostly on leech flies.


We had a busy week near Buena Vista CO.  Now we are in Westcliffe CO, one of our favorite places, and will be here for a month.  Then we will spend two weeks in Crested Butte CO, two weeks in Ouray CO, three weeks in Silverton CO, and five weeks in Pagosa Springs CO.  It should be a great summer in the Colorado Rockies!

Parting shots…

South Fork21-29 May 2016    South Fork6-28 May 2016

We like marmots!  These guys lived in the rocks behind our trailer and were quite entertaining.

South Fork66-3 Jun 2016    South Fork68-3 Jun 2016

Hawks hung out near the cliffs behind us

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A brightly colored western tanager  /  We found this little engineering work of art on the ground