Nearly two weeks in Westcliffe, Colorado…
We stayed at Grape Creek RV Park ( http://grapecreekrv.net/ ), about a mile south of quaint little Westcliffe, Colorado. Mark and Sandy do a great job of maintaining the tidy campground. We enjoyed the manicured camp sites with rustling aspen leaves and a great view of the dramatic Sangre de Cristos. Everything worked properly and was spotless. Our neighbors were quiet and the sunsets were spectacular! Sleep was peaceful each night after tough hikes. We liked it here and should have stayed a month. Our 13 days flew by much too quickly!
Westcliffe and the spectacular Sangre de Cristos were brought to my attention about 20 years ago by my Dad’s friend, Bill. Bill grew up in Westcliffe and hiked all over the rugged mountains. He was kind enough to circle his favorite lakes on my map. Then, in the mid-90s, I ended up at Ft Carson in Colorado Springs for a year and a half. I made two or three solo trips to the area and fell in love. Fast forward about 10 years, when Arleen made her first trip here and also fell in love. Shortly after, we made a goal to come back to Westcliffe together and spend more time exploring the incredible mountains.
NOTE: Click on any picture for a better view.
- Hike 1: Music Pass Trail to Upper Sand Creek Lake
A high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for the last two miles of road. We were pushing our luck with the big, long wheel based Dodge Ram, but made it to the upper trail head alright. At roughly 10,600 feet elevation, this was one of our highest starts. The trail is rated “moderate” and climbs steadily for a mile and a half and up 800 feet to Music Pass before dropping into the scenic Sand Creek Valley. After a short walk along the cascading creek, the trail leads up another 800 feet to the lakes. This was one of the few hikes that ascended a pass, dropped to a valley, and then climbed again to lakes.
We caught about 10 pretty cutthroat trout. Though there was surface action, I couldn’t get any on top. I was successful with size 16 gold ribbed hares ears and size 16 pheasant tail nymphs. The average fish was 10-12 inches and the biggest was about 15 inches long. They were brightly colored and gorgeous!
Wild flowers were everywhere. We especially liked the Colorado State Flower: Blue Columbine.
The marmots were entertaining! Arleen made friends with one that cheesed it up for the camera.
Blue Columbines and Tijeras Peak
At the top of Music Pass, looking down to Sand Creek Valley and up towards the lakes
Fishing Upper Sand Creek Lake
A beautiful cutthroat trout
Arleen’s marmot friend
Arleen’s sister, Mary, and her husband, Kendel, came to visit on Father’s Day. Their son, Erin stayed three days and planned do some serious hiking. We are very proud of Erin. He has just completed four years of school at St Gregory Seminary and will spend the next five years studying at the Vatican! During his last couple of weeks in Colorado, he will try to conquer 14’ers. His tells his Mt Humboldt adventure below.
- Hike 2: Goodwin Lakes Trail to small meadow and stream
Mary wanted to get out and hike too. We chose the Goodwin Lakes Trail and planned to turn around about two and a half miles up the trail for a five mile hike. The trailhead is called “Comanche-Venable” and was the easiest one to drive to… a regular passenger car can make it. At just over 9,000 feet elevation, it’s also one of the lowest which results in a long, steady climb to lakes over 11,500 feet high.
The trail was a bit rocky and fairly steep. Erin and I took off at a steady pace. My heart and lungs worked hard making it very difficult to converse with my barely working 22 year old companion. We went just over three miles up the trail and turned around to meet the ladies at a nice meadow a half mile back. Erin charged down the hill to catch Arleen and Mary, and encouraged them up the challenging trail to the pretty meadow. They enjoyed a rest and a snack and soothed their sore feet in the cold stream. We had a lot of fun posing for pictures and wandering around the meadow.
We got back to the trailer sufficiently worn out and hungry. Arleen made an outstanding grill basket with steak, shrimp, and veggies. We chatted awhile and then Mary and Kendel headed home. Erin spent the next two nights with us.
Mary and Arleen enjoying a good conversation and shade from the aspen
- Hike 3: Comanche Trail to Comanche Lake
This was the second time we started a hike at the easy-to-get-to “Comanche-Venable” trailhead. Our goal was Comanche Lake, about four miles and 2,700 feet higher than where we parked. Erin’s goal was the “Phantom Terrace”, another two miles further, and over 1,000 feet above the lake at 13,000 feet. The trail was rated “difficult” for steepness and some exposure across steep slopes with long drops. However, we thought the trail was more moderate and enjoyed the steady pitch. It was less rocky than the Goodwin Lakes Trail, and it had nice views over the Wet Mountain Valley and a lengthy stretch across an open meadow full of wild flowers surrounded by rugged peaks. The winds were gusty and made fishing tough. We only caught two small cutthroat trout though we saw a few nice ones chasing each other in the shallows. They acted like they were spawning and we left them alone. Erin took some nice pictures looking down a thousand feet to the lake. If you look closely at a couple of the pictures below, you may spot us standing on the snow bank by the lake (click the pictures for a better view). Erin’s self portrait on the ridge is great! Remember Hanz and Franz, the old Saturday Night Live skit? "We’ll pump you up!” The wind was a bit strong up there.
The Wet Mountain Valley and Wet Mountains
Tentatively crossing a snow field See us standing on the snow bank by the lake?
Comanche Lakes Look for us in the bottom right corner
“I’ll pump you up!”
- Hike 4: South Colony Trail to Lower South Colony Lake…Erin climbs Mt Humboldt
We weren’t too sure about this one. We heard multiple stories about the condition of the road and the trail. However, South Colony Lakes was on our wish list, and Erin wanted to summit 14,064 feet high Humboldt Peak. The road was very rough and again we pushed our luck with the big, long wheel based Dodge, but made it. The road was closed about two and a half miles from the upper trail head. This meant an additional five miles and 1,500 feet of climbing. It was day number four of hiking for us and our bodies were tired, but we thought we could handle it. We trudged up the steep and rocky road. I was thankful over and over that I didn’t subject our trusty truck to the challenge! We arrived at the upper trail head and had a decision to make: the shorter, steeper trail or the longer, gentler one? We heard that downed trees made the going tough both ways. We chose the shorter, steeper route…bad decision! We had to climb over, under, and around a lot of downed trees. It made a tough trail even tougher! We made it to the lake whipped. Erin had an interesting perspective of the trail:
I am Erin, Arleen and Shawn’s nephew. I recently had the opportunity to spend a couple days with them in Westcliffe. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the Mt Humboldt hike, last of three hikes that I went on with my aunt and uncle.
It was a twelve mile hike which led me into the heart of the Crestone Peaks, and culminated with me summiting Mt. Humboldt. The hike begins with a pretty good incline along an old four-wheel drive road that is now out of commission. While there is nothing particularly spectacular along the trail itself, one does on occasion get tantalizing glimpses of the Crestone Peaks. These mountains, famous for their jagged, almost Tetonesque look to them dominate the skyline when the trees allow. On the trail itself however, the only unique features were the numerous trees that had been snapped, up-rooted, and in general demolished, by a windstorm that ripped through this area of Colorado late last year (2011). After about two and a half miles of hiking the three of us arrived at the old trailhead. This trailhead is currently out of commission, partially to deter mobs of hikers who were damaging the environment, as well as to give the forest service a break on road maintenance. The later reason is my own idea, but it would make sense because this road would be extremely difficult to maintain. At the old trailhead you are rewarded with a decent view of the Crestone Peaks, but the trees still partially blocked the view. From here we took the trail north which would lead us toward Mt. Humboldt. This trail, while not impassable, had been blocked in several places by downed trees which the forest service had not yet had an opportunity to remove.
After hiking along this trail for a mile we arrived at lower Colony Lake. From there I continued on a trail that led me north. This trail, which began above tree line, leads the hiker along numerous switchbacks to a ridge from which the hiker makes the final assent of Mt. Humboldt. This trail provided me with breathtaking views of the Crestone’s, and that is probably the only thing noteworthy along this trail. After I reached the summit I was granted a panoramic view of the entire valley, including Westcliffe, as well as a ‘face-to-face’ view of the Crestone Peaks. At this height, just over fourteen thousand feet, you feel like you are almost level with them. After looking at them for a lengthy amount of time I made my descent and regrouped with my Aunt and Uncle. Together again, we made our way back to truck and ultimately back home.
While Erin conquered Humboldt Peak, Arleen and I relaxed and fished for a couple of hours. We caught about 15 colorful cutthroat trout, 10-14 inches long. All but one fish hit size 16 gold ribbed hares ear nymphs fished about two feet deep. The water was so clear, we could see the trout hit the fly…it was cool! The one fish that didn’t hit the nymph, hit a floating grasshopper fly…my first one of the season! I love watching trout whack grasshopper flies. The “hopper season” is just beginning and peaks in August. Hopefully I’ll see many more trout attack my grasshoppers this summer!
Two marmots giving us the eye
Erin looking up at 14,197 feet high Crestone Needle Fishing Lower South Colony Lake
Dwarfed by 14,000 foot peaks (click on the pics for a better view)
One of Erin’s pics taken from Humboldt Peak, looking down at Lower South Colony Lake
Posing in the thin air at 14,064 feet with Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak in the background
Hike 5: Lakes of the Clouds
We were drawn to this one by its name and it was one of our favorites!
The drive to the trailhead was good until the last half mile or so. Even then, a very slow moving passenger car could make it.
We took the short, but steep and rocky Swift Creek Trail up to the lakes. The mile after the creek crossing was especially challenging, but we made it. To avoid the tricky section on the way down, we chose a longer, less steep, and more enjoyable route. However, it added over two miles to an already long hike. We ended up doing almost 11.5 miles and climbed over 3,300 feet.
The middle lake had fewer but decent sized fish. The upper lake was loaded with trout and was a joy to fish. The water was so clear we watched trout rise from the depths to hit our offerings. Arleen did especially well, catching about 10 feisty ones on her small spoon lure. We caught quick glimpses of a couple of people camped in the woods near the lakes, but we were the only ones fishing and had the pretty lakes to ourselves. Like the other lakes, the scenery was incredible and unforgettable.
Arleen fishing the middle lake on left; me fishing the upper lake on right; 13,423 foot Spread Eagle Peak in the background
Hike 6: Goodwin Lakes
Brian and Maggie, his boarder collie companion, joined us. Sections of the trail were steep and rocky. I caught my first brook trout of the season in a pretty section of creak flowing through a meadow. The two lakes were shallow and we could see fish easily. They hit grasshopper flies and small spinners with abandon. We bushwhacked and climbed to the upper lake to discover that though it had trout, it would be difficult to fish. We suffered “the grass is greener” syndrome and should have stayed at the lower lake. Maggie was an excellent hiker, but a lousy fishing companion! She was too excited by the water, fish, and us, and made a litany of constant noises, often sounding like she was in pain. We saw nobody else at the lakes and enjoyed having them to ourselves. When it was time to go, Brian and Arleen got a 10 minute head start as I filtered water for the hike down. It hit me that I was completely alone. The lake and surrounding peaks were mine for this short time. It was a special moment in a special place.
Brian & Maggie fishing lower Goodwin Lake
Lower Goodwin Lake on left; Upper Goodwin Lake on right; 13,507 foot Eureka Mountain in background
Arleen traversing a flimsy beaver dam on the upper lake Overlooking Lower Goodwin Lake
Gorgeous trout in a gorgeous place!
Hike 7: Horn Lake
The Horn Creek Trailhead is very easy to get to…any passenger car can make it. The trail was a steady five mile uphill climb to the lakes which are tucked into the cirque at 11,800 feet. The lower ponds were shallow and surrounded by marsh so we passed them in favor of the largest lake, the upper one. We were blown away as we crested the last small rocky hill and looked down at the serene lake surrounded by dramatic mountains. Initially there were just two other fisherman, but they left shortly after we arrived. We had this amazing place all to ourselves! Between strong wind gusts, the lake was very enjoyable to fish. There was nothing behind me that would snag my fly-fishing backcast. We could easily hit a nice drop off where we saw trout cruising. The colorful cutthroat trout averaged a healthy 10-12 inches with a couple in the 15 inch range. We caught about half on floating grasshopper flies, and the other half on size 16 gold ribbed hares ears fished about two feet under the hoppers. This lake and this hike were among our favorites.
Arleen crossing a creek
A wide variety of wild flowers
Me fishing on the left and Arleen fishing on the right dwarfed by 13,931 foot Mount Adams. (Note the drop off in the left picture.)
A beautiful place to fish with beautiful trout
Hike 8: Dry Lakes
We headed up here with trepidation. Would the lakes be dry? Would there be trout?
This hike also begin at the easy-to-drive-to Horn Creek Trailhead. At around eight miles, this was supposed to be one the shorter lake hikes, but it was also one of the steepest. It was the toughest trail. There were three lengthy, rocky and steep sections that approached our limit of a 1,000 feet gain per mile. It was brutal on bodies that had already done a bunch of miles and climbing! There are four lakes in the chain and I intended to check out the lowest two. We crested the last, very steep hill and saw a splendid lake that looked very fishable. The view over the Wet Mountain Valley towards Westcliffe was spectacular. It was amazing how much we had climbed! I worked my way to the south shore where it looked like I could fly-fish slightly deeper water unimpeded by stuff behind me. There were hungry fish everywhere! Standing on top of large rocks looking down 10 feet to the water, they were easy to see. I caught about 50 cutthroat trout in three hours! This was the easiest fishing yet. Twice, I had two trout at once! Many other times, while I was fighting one fish, another trout would hit the other fly! These trout were hungry! They averaged a skinny 9-11 inches with 12 inches being the largest. Again, it was about 50/50…half hit the floating grasshopper and the other half hit the size 16 gold ribbed hares ear fished about two feet under the hopper. It was so much fun, we never left the lower lake! This was a great way to end our Westcliffe adventure.
The view over the Wet Mountain Valley from the lower lake at 11,800 feet.
Lower Dry Lake with 13,554 foot Fluted Peak in the background
Pretty cutthroat trout in the clear water
Total Ascent (feet)
|Upper Sand Creek Lake||8.54||2,378||Tough drive; nice hike over pass; healthy trout|
|Goodwin Lakes trail to meadow||6.39||1,765||Partial hike to pretty meadow|
|Comanche Lake||9.37||3,325||Great hike with excellent views; saw decent trout but couldn’t catch them|
|Lower South Colony Lake||8.63||2,462||Tough drive; south fork of trail nicer, but longer; caught decent trout|
|Lakes of the Clouds||11.4||3,339||Long route added two pleasant miles; caught lots of trout at upper lake|
|Goodwin Lakes||10.4||3,321||Shallow lakes difficult to fly-fish; caught decent number of trout|
|Upper Horn Lake||10.9||3,266||Nice, steady uphill hike; beautiful lake; healthy trout|
|Lower Dry Lake||8.62||3,303||Tough hike; a spur trail near the bottom is .75 miles shorter; caught lots of trout|
Note 1. Distance includes bushwhacking up and around lakes.
Note 2. Total Ascent includes all uphill sections which is usually hundreds of feet more than the difference between the lowest point and highest point.
- Comanche…The trail was rated “difficult” but it was a steady climb with just a few rocky and tricky sections. The were consistent views over the valley during the first half. Much of the second half crossed open meadows with great views both up and down.
- Horn…Though this hike was a bit long, it also was a steady uphill climb with just a few rocky and tricky sections. There were lengthy sections of nearly level trail with no rocks through pretty aspen groves. We were in the trees more often than not, so the view of the valley was limited but the shade was appreciated. After crossing the creek about a mile from the lake, it opened up with lots of wild flowers and a great view of the rugged peaks and dramatic cirque.
- Lakes of the Clouds…This was another long and steady uphill climb. Other than the portion of the Swift Creek trail that climbed steeply from the creek, it was very pleasant and traversed through lots of aspens. Using the Lakes of the Clouds trail both ways would be very enjoyable, but would also result in a roughly 13 mile hike.
Best lakes for quantity of fish:
- Lower Dry Lake…I caught about 50 trout in three hours…there were lots of hungry cutthroat! The average length and girth were a little less than other lakes…they were skinny. However, they hit and fought aggressively and were very colorful. I had a great spot to fish with nothing behind me and lots of trout I could see in front of me. My first couple of casts resulted in a feeding frenzy as multiple fish attacked my grasshopper. It’s the most fun fishing I’ve had in quite some time.
- Upper Lake of the Clouds…There were lots of hungry and aggressive trout in the upper lake. The average length and girth were on par with most of the other lakes. We had great spots to fish where we could watch them attack the fly or lure. There was a deep drop-off in front of us and nothing behind us.
Best Lakes for quality of fish:
- Upper Horn Lake…This was one of our favorites all around! The average length and girth were more than most of the lakes. The trout were healthy and gorgeous. Though our largest trout were just over 14 inches, I am confident there were bigger ones around.
- Upper Sand Creek Lake…Similar to Upper Horn Lake, the average length and girth were more than most of the lakes. These were the most colorful trout we caught. A few of them had dark red bellies, pronounced spots, and the tell-tail slashed gills. Check out the picture in the Upper Sand Creek section above…that’s one of the most beautiful trout I have ever seen! I’m sure larger trout lived in this productive lake too.
Hikes to do in the fall:
- Swift Creek and Lakes of the Clouds loop…Walk through a lengthy stand of aspens along the Swift Creek trail, then make the tough climb up to the Lakes of the Clouds trail and look across the valley at tons of aspens.
- Horn…The nice, steady climb with good footing goes through quite a few aspens.
General notes, observations, and lessons learned:
- Expect to hike 8-11 miles and 2,500-3,000 vertical feet to get to the lakes. Add a few ups and downs and you will climb a total of 3,000-3,500 feet on many of the hikes.
- Overnight backpacking trips to the lakes would be more enjoyable than day hikes. It would split up the long hikes and provide more time to enjoy the lakes and good fishing.
- The trails generally have moderate ascents of 400-600 feet per mile. Notable exceptions were three sections of the Dry Lakes trail, Swift Creek trail after crossing the creek, and the north fork trail to South Colony Lakes. These portions of trails approached a 1,000 feet climb per mile.
- Trails alternated between relatively steep sections with lots of loose rock to glorious undulating sections through pretty meadows or groves of aspen. There was nearly always a source of water nearby that we could filter and drink.
- A big wind storm in November 2011 uprooted and snapped many trees. The Forest Service and various outdoors groups have done a good job of clearing much of the mess. However, lots of debris remains. In most cases, recent foot traffic has already lead to faint detour trails around the obstructions, but be prepared to climb over, under, and traverse around downed trees.
- There was usually a spider web of faint trails near and around the lakes making it easy for groups to get separated.
- Lakes were difficult to navigate. The banks consisted of either large rocks, thick brush, swampy marsh, or were very steep.
- Spots to fly-fish along the bank were limited. Ideally there would be nothing behind you to snag your back-cast and a drop-off within easy casting range to fish. Wet wading with sandals would be great if you could tolerate the frigid water. The water might be warmer by August…I don’t know. A real motivated person could drag a pair of waders up to the lakes. We did fine from the bank once we found suitable places to fish. Just be aware that some lakes only have a few good spots to fly-fish. If people are in those spots, you will have a hard time fishing.
- Critters…we didn’t see too many. We saw a few deer, some prong-horned antelope in the valley, interesting birds, a couple of harmless snakes, and a bunch of entertaining and sometimes bold marmot. We did not see elk, big horn sheep, or bears. There were only a couple of remarks about bears in the trail registers. We saw just one pile of few-day old bear scat.
- Weather…June is usually mild and dry. With high temps around 90F in the valley, it was warm during our visit. Winds blew every day and were inconsistent, especially at the lakes where there was no predominant wind direction and the speed would go from nearly nothing to 50mph. This would happen all day long, fluctuating every 15-20 minutes. Imagine calm winds, then a 50mph headwind, then calm, then a 50mph tailwind. It makes fishing frustrating, but wait a few minutes and it can be great. The temps at lake level were around 70F, but the erratic winds and any cloud cover made it chilly. July marks the beginning of the monsoon season in the southern Rockies. Afternoon summer thunderstorms are nearly always possible in the high country and must be respected!
- Ice out…In a normal year, ice melts off the lakes by late June or early July. We only had to walk across a few small snow fields and there was no ice. In a heavy snow year, ice out and snow make things difficult into July.
- Lesson reinforced…Do not leave fish to find fish! The grass is not always greener! But then again, what kind of adventurers would we be if we didn’t want to see what’s around the next bend, over the next hill, or in the next lake?!?
- STORY TIME…Lesson learned: So there we were hiking up the tough Swift Creek trail to Lakes of the Clouds. Just 10 or 15 minutes into the hike, my feet were getting hot. I got a minor sunburn two days prior and thought that was the culprit. Then I wondered if it would get better or worse and if it got worse, could I tolerate it. Five to ten minutes later I was closer to an answer…it was getting worse! I held out hope and thought I could tolerate it and did my best to ignore the inferno. Just a half hour from the start, I couldn’t take it anymore! I plopped my butt on a log, quickly took off my shoes and socks, and doused my feet with water! Arleen caught me 5-10 minutes later and was glad to see me…she had the same problem! She got a minor sunburn the day before and initially thought the sunburn was the problem. As the burning got tremendously worse, my smart girl deduced that it wasn’t the sunburn. It was the menthol based foot cream we rubbed in the night before! It was torture. We doused our feet a couple of times and tried to rub the hell cream out. The water provided sweet relief and the burning subsided. We put our shoes and socks back on and hit the trail. Within 30 minutes the pain was more than we could stand. This time we stopped at a creek and submerged our feet in the ice cold water…oh it felt so good! Now we also deduced that the hell cream was in our socks. We soaked and wrung out our socks many times hoping the problem was solved. Guess what…you got it…another 45 minutes up the trail, we made another emergency stop! At least we made it a bit further so things were improving. From there, we were uncomfortable, but made it to the lake where we soaked our feet and rinsed our socks for the last time. Lesson learned: Do not apply menthol foot cream on your feet before hiking. The hell cream went into the trash minutes after we got home!
The view behind our home. We made it to Horn and Dry Lakes.
Next we head to Nathrop, Colorado in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. Family will join us to celebrate the 4th of July. We’ll hike among the incredible Collegiate Peaks, fish remote lakes, and check out sections of the pretty Arkansas River. Two more great weeks in a great place…stay tuned.