May 03, 2016
Backcountry dry-fly fishing in Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.
Just a crow's flight west of Boulder, Colorado lies one of America's premier high-altitude backcountry wilderness areas. Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness Area (IPWA) starts at 10,000 feet and hiking 1,000 feet higher takes you where alpine tundra starts. More than 35 percent of IPWA is above the tree line. IPWA showcases seven peaks above 13,000 feet but being a fly fisher, I've never been atop a single one—there's no point—trout don't live on top of mountains. It's the valleys with their lakes, streams, and postcard campsites I'm most interested in.
One hundred years ago, much of the land within IPWA was intended to be part of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). But due to landowner greed and the potential for gold, silver, and of course liquid gold (water), the land was held privately until 1978. That's when the 95th United States Congress, under President Jimmy Carter, designated the Indian Peaks as a wilderness area via the guidance of the Wilderness Act of 1964. For the past 27 years, IPWA has become one of the top visited wilderness areas in the United States.
Unlike the nearby national park on the northern border of IPWA, there are no roads that go from one side to the other. In fact, there are no roads inside of IPWA whatsoever, and narrow gravel roads take you to the edge of the wilderness area where parking areas at each trailhead support early rising visitors. A majority of the IPWA is accessed via 15 trailheads. With the exception of the Brainard Lake trailhead, there is free parking at each trailhead, but space is often limited.
IPWA is much like RMNP, but in the same breath, worlds different. Where they are the same is being protected land for the public to enjoy—full of mountains, streams, lakes, glacial deposits, elk, mountain sheep, moose, and of course trout. In contrast to RMNP, IPWA is more wild. IPWA is more remote. IPWA is higher in altitude, a veritable high-altitude junkie's heaven.
What type of alpine fishing do you prefer? An lake full of risers at ice-out or a stream inlet or outlet full of fat cutthroat? Take your pick as IPWA has it all, but be prepared to hike to find the best rewards. Hike a little or a lot, there's plenty to choose from depending on your desire and level of fitness.
Twenty-eight trails traverse 133 miles, and most of the trails are flanked by streams teeming with fish, flowing from several high alpine lakes chocked with trout. Six of those trails cross over the Continental Divide giving adventurers unparalleled views of the Colorado Rockies.
Of the 50+ alpine lakes in IPWA, which average 10,550 feet in altitude, 33 have naturally reproducing trout populations. While the trout might not be on average as large as some other places in Colorado, they are certainly abundant. Eastern brook trout, Colorado River cutthroat, brown trout, splake, and rainbow trout all call the high-altitude climes of IPWA home.
The fish formerly known as the greenback cutthroat are also in one gorgeous cirque lake at 12,000 feet. A University of Colorado study authored by Jessica Metcalf in 2012 says these fish are not in fact greenback cutthroat trout, but speaking with significant experience, I believe these fish look measurably different than any other species of cutthroat found in IPWA and RMNP. As a fly fisher and not a scientist, I will continue to call them "greenies" until a better name comes along.
The High Road
The best way to experience IPWA is to hoist a backpack and venture off in any chosen direction for a few days. An overnight trip can take you to the Continental Divide and back. A three-day trip can give you more time for a larger hiking loop, or for a one-way trip over the Continental Divide to the other side. A four-day trip or longer will give you a high-altitude fishing adventure of epic proportions. For any travel in the IPWA backcountry, it's essential to obtain a copy of National Geographic's Trails Illustrated Map #102: Indian Peaks/Gold Hill.
One of my favorite times of the year is ice-out at IPWA. Timing this event requires a bit of reconnaissance from the locals, some planning, and a bit of luck.
The magic time of fishing these lakes when ice begins to break up and expose the frigid waters beneath usually occurs in early to mid-June. I say "usually" because some of the highest lakes don't begin to ice-out until the last week of July or early August, but that is rare.
Hiking before the snow melts often requires snowshoes to get through some soft snow areas. Always be careful when traversing across springtime or early summer snow. Be aware of what's underneath and don't take risks that aren't warranted. There may be creek crossings that are not apparent, and you don't want to fall through the ice/snow to find a raging stream below. For safety, hike with a partner or two during the early months of the year.
Expect temperatures during the day to reach as high as 50 F., although high 30s to low 40s is the norm. Temperatures during the night can get down to the frigid single digits, so be prepared with proper winter camping gear.
Backpacking during the prime summer months of July through early September is pure heaven. Runoff typically subsides by the second or third week of July, and the creeks clear up with lower flows delivering a plethora of bug hatch activity and rising trout. Temperate days in the 70s, and perfectly cool sleeping nights in the 50s require no more gear than a small bivvy or one-person tent and a 40-degree sleeping bag. It's often far more comfortable here than it is down in Denver.
Of course, on all overnight trips, be sure to pack water filtration, and whatever you need to cook your meals. The rest of your gear is personal choice.
If you backpack IPWA during the latter half of September or later, plan on sleet, hail, rain, snow, and anything else Mother Nature can throw at you. Indian Peaks is known for wind year-round, but some of the nastiest weather is in the fall. Fishing is good right until the water turns hard again, but the gear you choose will be similar to what you'd pack for ice-out fishing.
The U.S. Forest Service allocates backcountry permits for the wilderness from June 1 to September 15. A limited number of permits are available for each of the 17 backcountry zones. Permits are restricted to a first-come, first-served basis so request your permit as far in advance as possible. Permits are $5 per reservation. For more detailed information search "Indian Peaks Wilderness Rules and Regulations" at fs.fed.us.
Fishing high-altitude lakes doesn't require anything different than a typical trout stream. An 8- or 9-foot 5-weight is perfect for lakes and the companion wind that will greet you every afternoon. A shorter 3- or 4-weight is better for the streams—or take a tenkara rod for simple fishing and lighter backpacking with no reel.
For flies, bring your favorites, but if you don't carry ants and beetles in sizes 14 to 18, hoppers in size 12 to 14, size 14 caddis drys, and size 16 to 20 Para-Adams, then your high-altitude box is incomplete.
Some of the productive cutthroat and brookie lakes, such as Mitchell, Long, and the Rainbow lakes are nearly drive-to lakes with little more than a mile of hiking from their respective trailheads. For those short on time or the ability to make a multi-day trip, these lakes offer some quick high-altitude escapes. And where there are lakes, there are streams feeding them. You could spend a whole day fishing the stream up to Mitchell Lake, snatching up brookies and cutthroats.
The true gems in IPWA are the ones that require some backpacking equity. These are the lakes and streams that rouse fervent high-altitude fever in fly-fishing junkies. These lakes and streams are characteristically above 10,000 feet and take commensurate effort to get there. Eight such lakes reside above 11,000 feet, with another 23 lakes above 10,000 feet — all fine trout fisheries with primarily Colorado cutthroat and occasionally brook trout. Lake Dorothy, Betty & Bob lakes, King Lake, Blue Lake, Skyscraper Reservoir, Caribou, and Devil's Thumb lakes are certain to fix the high-altitude hiking and fishing itch. You can get there and back with a long day hike, but your experience will be better if you plan for a multi-day backpacking trip.
As the late Sheridan Anderson once penned, "The streamside paths are the tramplings of the uninspired herd; follow them and your rewards will be commensurate."
This sentiment is most certainly true when it comes to experiencing IPWA for yourself. Plan to hike some, backpack some, even stay overnight in a tent—but certainly plan to get off-trail to find some pristine high-altitude water you can call your own for a day. You'll be rewarded with unparalleled alpine fishing for colorful Colorado trout that are so complex in hue that photos will not do them justice.
Steven B. Schweitzer is the coauthor with Michael Kruise of A Fly Fishing Guide to Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness Area (2014 flyfishthepeaks.com) and also A Fly Fishing Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park (2011).