Cutthroats in the Sangre de Cristos

In the middle of an already-crazy summer, I was finding it hard to make time to get out in the field. A Calculus II class that I assumed would be a light background noise turned out to be more like a fulltime job. Weekend trips turned into single-day adventures, as that’s all I could fit in. But during my one week off around the 4th of July, we decided to cash in on the free time by chasing cutthroats in the Sangre de Cristos.

A forested area of the Sangre de Cristos

Having never been to the narrow strip of jagged mountains surrounded by flat prairie, we were excited to see what they had in store. We started our trip mid-afternoon, hoping to camp near the first lake on our itinerary. It was easy to assume that such a small (area-wise) mountain range wouldn’t hold such strenuous hikes, but what the Sangres lack in area, they more than make up for in ruggedness. Some of the most challenging 14ers live in the range, and we found ourselves steadily gaining elevation right out of the trailhead.

After a couple hours, we made it to the general area we’d hoped to camp. Even though the Sangre de Cristos see relatively light traffic compared to the more popular spots west of Denver, it was still a holiday weekend, and camping spots near lakes were at a premium. Though not the ideal spot, we found a small clearing with some almost-flat spots to pitch a tent. We were still about half a mile and a couple hundred feet below the lake, but decided to make a quick trip up for the evening rises.

A waterfall bordered by steep canyon walls
A tent pitched on a mountainside with snow drifts in the background

We weren’t disappointed.

Although we didn’t catch anything of any real size, the cutthroats were colorful, healthy, and very willing to play along. Quite a few made it to the net before the clouds started to gather for a somewhat unusual evening storm, hail included.

A woman holds a cutthroat trout caught in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

With the weather settling down and the usual holiday fire bans in full swing, we sat around the full moon until it got chilly enough to curl up for the night.

On day two, we packed up and headed up toward the Phantom Terrace, a narrow incline up to the ridge that was, admittedly, a little less scary than it was made out to be, but fun nonetheless. We also stopped at our first lake one more time to make sure the fishing was still good!

We also had the unexpected good fortune of running into Flyathlon founder, Andrew Todd, who was making a day trip out of our three-day backpacking loop. Talk about crazy odds.

Two hikers ascend along a narrow trail with cliffs to the right.

Once atop the ridge, a few of us proceeded up one of the 13ers in the area. It wasn’t the easiest hike, as there was no trail but plenty of rock scrambling. The views made it worth the trouble.

A man hikes up a mountainous ridge with open views in the background
A woman stands on a ridge with mountains in the background
A view of rugged mountains in the Sangre de Cristos

From the top, we could see our next lake far below us, one drainage over from where we started. Making quick work of the descent, we set off in search of another good fishing-accessible camp spot. While we did find one close enough to the lake, the willows around our side of the shore were horrendous. Terrible for our own access, but also great for keeping others out. Our fishing spot was entirely our own.

That evening was chilly but made for some good fishing. Although the fish weren’t quite as eager to eat as at our previous spot (and particularly not on the surface), these ones had some decent size to them and more color. Unfortunately, the cooler temperatures combined with stripping nymphs led to cold fingers pretty quickly.

A woman holding a cutthroat trout
A woman holding a cutthroat trout
A cutthroat trout
A cutthroat trout

The next day, our last, was a quick one. After hitting the lake in the morning for a few more beauties, we hit the trail for the car. It was the perfect trip to squeeze into one short weekend among all the chaos going on in the summer of 2020, and we’ll surely be back to the Sangre de Cristos soon.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jenny

    Great photos! Are those Rio Grande cutthroat?

    I love the Sangres, far enough from the Front Range madness to be relaxing; hopefully that is still the case.

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