The best policy is to keep walking. The fishing at Elk Creek ranges from so-so to pretty darn good, and the hiking keeps getting better as the creek climbs and loops through wood and meadow. The aspens flutter and the air is thin as you climb, but the views are worth it: Keep walking.
The trail begins near the confluence with the Conejos River in southern Colorado, and it leaves the stream, meandering through the forest, but it eventually meets the creek again. The map shows a series of meadows – first, second, third and fourth. This is cattle country, and some years the meadows are a little beat up, but the scenery is lovely, just the same.
Also, the meadows can be tough to fish, especially second meadow, a spooky brown trout depot where fish take cover at the slightest movement or footfall. There are some big fish at second meadow, but it’s one of the toughest places I’ve ever fished.
I did catch a riser on a little blue winged olive once. There were a few rings along the bend of the river, where some nice browns were rising to the mayflies. I crouched behind a bush and dapped to one of these fish, and he ate. All hell broke loose, and it was fun while it lasted, but once I landed him, all the other fish stopped rising for the rest of the day, and the next. If you get frustrated fishing to these spooky fish, walk to faster water, or keep walking, to third meadow, for example. The fish will be smaller, but you should have more success.
Around midsummer the green drakes may hatch, but so do the mosquitoes. A small fire, just enough to raise a little smoke, will discourage them. As for the green drakes, the fish up this high aren’t fussy. They’ll eat just about anything, as long as it’s a size 12 dry fly – adults, cripples, even an Adams will do the job.
If you push on to third meadow, the air gets thinner and so does the traffic. By the time you get to fourth meadow, the trail fades and splits and life gets messy. There was a lot of brush and deadfall when we got in there a few years ago. I set a fly rod down during a map check and started hiking again without grabbing it. I never saw it again. But we had fun, hiking around high country lakes and roaming grassy knolls and small lakes beyond camp.
The Elk Creek Trail is easy to follow, but once you get past fourth meadow it gets skinnier. It links to the Continental Trail, but the link can be easy to miss. I seem to remember we thought about doing some kind of loop, but fishing, and life, in the form of a lost fly rod, got in the way of that, so we did the four meadows and noodled around some high country lakes and did it as an out-and-back.
The nitty gritty
Access: Elk Creek is off the beaten path in southern Colorado, east of Pagosa Springs. It’s a tributary of the Conejos River, which is located in a little valley between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. From Antonito, travel west on Highway 17 about 23 miles to Elk Creek campground. From Chama, take Highway 17 over the mountains into Colorado for about 26 miles. The turnoff for the Elk Creek campground will be on you left, just before you cross the Conejos.
Best time to go: late spring, summer, early fall.
Maps: Rio Grande National Forest. National Geographic: South San Juan Del Norte, Colorado. USGS: Cumbres, Victoria Lake, Spectacle Lake.