I wanted to take a longer than usual hike at high elevation mostly to harden up for the upcoming elk season.
The Rich Creek/Rough and Tumbling Creek Trail Loop near Weston Pass fit the bill perfectly. It's a nice 12-mile loop all above 10,000 feet with an elevation gain of 2,900 feet that isn't that bad if you consider it's nicely spread out over the first 6 miles of the Rich Creek side of the loop. The trail is almost completely contained in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area, which for me is another plus.
The most stunning features of "the loop" are the long, broad meadows on both creeks. It's one of my favorite first-of-the-season backpack trips because there is good beaver pond fishing in both creek drainages.
The fishing is what initially complicated an otherwise simple autumn walk in the high country. I started thinking that if I'm going be up there anyway I might as well carry my fly rod and a box of flies. I told myself that I'd never fished the beaver ponds at the end of the season and it might be interesting to check a favorite out-of-the-way pond that I know holds nice sized brook trout in the early season. So, the fly rod, reel and flies went into the pack.
I also wanted to see how the Weston Pass wildfire had impacted the area, so the camera and maps went into the pack, too. Before long I'd added hiking sticks, a SPOT Gen3 Satellite messenger since I was travelling solo, a survival kit, rain gear, extra clothes, water purifier and lunch. I rationalized that the now heavier-than-expected pack would be a good training addition in preparation for elk season.
I've had elk on my mind ever since I found out there was a precipitous drop in their population in the area I've hunted for the past 30 years. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division markedly dropped the available limited licenses in the unit in response to the population decline. Neither I nor my hunting partner drew a cow tag, and, according to the big game biologist I talked to, we probably won't have a good chance of drawing one in the foreseeable future.
I was still the first truck to arrive at the trailhead parking area last week even though I'd stopped to photograph some of the wildfire burn areas on the drive in. As weird as it sounds I was pleased with what I saw. This was a lightning caused fire that did little or no damage to structures and was mostly kept out of the wilderness area. The burn was patchy, meaning there were areas that burned hot, but there were also more lightly burned areas and some places untouched by fire. It will be textbook perfect elk habitat when the grass starts growing there next spring.
Once I got going on the trail it took my aging lungs a few miles to get used to the elevation, but afterwards I settled into a nice pace. I wanted to make it to the pass between the two drainages quickly to beat the predicted afternoon showers and still allow myself a little fishing time. I managed that and after lunch headed for the beaver ponds. I didn't know what to expect, but was pleased when a nice sized brookie slashed at my first cast. I saw its dirty white belly as it rolled the fly, but didn't take it. I was less pleased when a somewhat larger brookie did the same thing a few minutes later. I started thinking that the fish must have smartened up over the summer and decided to tie a smaller size 16 midge pupa imitation on.
That turned the trick and I hooked up on the first cast, but lost the fish. It was a good one, too. After that the trout just turned off. I kept thinking all I needed was one more cast, but that's not what the brookies were thinking. Eventually, thunderheads began pushing over the ridge and I couldn't stay. I wanted to be off the meadows and into the timber before the weather hit. As I hustled down the trail I chided myself for thinking the brookies would be easy just because brookies are always easy. These fish were selective to the size of the fly and they turned off when I'd disrupted their water too much. It could have been a Montana spring creek for as careful as they were.
It rained and got cold before I made it into the timber, but there wasn't any lightning. I settled into an even pace knowing that I still had 5 or so miles to cover. When I came into an area of mixed decadent aspen and limber pine I spooked two raghorn bull elk and heard another take off down the hill. I won't be hunting this area in the fall, but I take seeing the elk as a good omen.
Check EdEngleFlyFishing.com to see Ed Engle's blog, "The Lone Angler Journal."