Since Cassie and I bought our place in Westcliffe, CO nearly 5 years ago, the Rito Alto Four Pass Loop has lurked near the top of my running / fishing to-do list. Truth be told, I hadn't attempted the route in all that time because even on paper, it is more than a little daunting for a nearly 50 year old "Clydesdale" runner like me. Sure, I've done a lot of strenuous running / fishing in that time with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains sitting right behind our cabin (e.g. a door to door 50 mile November loop with 26 miles on the Rainbow Trail), but with its 7,000ish feet of incline and sustained drop onto the west side of the Sangres, this one always seemed like the one to do next year...
But my motivation to do something epic skyrocketed following a June Troutman failure to launch (see last blog post). And who else would I reach out to to join me than my trusty college-roommate-turned-middle-aged-adventure-buddy, Amarillo, TX resident Connor O'Rourke. Truth be told, on the eve of this adventure, I even tried to talk Connor out of it, stemming from what felt like an inadequate training base and a few too many pre-run IPAs. Thankfully, he was having none of my last minute waffling, so at 5 am on the morning of Friday, July 14th, Connor and I pointed his Subaru adventure wagon toward the Comanche / Venable Trailhead.
As the sun began to rise, we began our adventure from one of my favorite jumping off points in the Wet Mountain Valley, the Comanche / Venable Trailhead. We headed north on the Venable Access trail to reach the Rainbow Trail, a short (0.4 miles) and steep (250 feet of gain) climb, and some of the worst trail on the whole route due to loose rock and dust. Once on the Rainbow Trail, we continued to head north towards Goodwin Lakes. Over the next 3.75 miles on the Rainbow Trail, it is a gradual mix of climbing (~900 feet gain) and descending (~200 feet loss). In it's Custer County section, the Rainbow Trail is designed to allow passage of narrow ATVs (<50 inches), so the trail is nice and wide to run / hike side by side with a friend! Along this stretch, you will pass trailheads for Venable Lakes and for Goodwin Lakes and will cross several small creeks.
At the intersection with County Road 160, Connor and I made a hard left turn and begin the approximately 6-mile (3,100 feet of gain) hike to the summit of Hermit Pass. Just a quarter of a mile up this road, we broke off to the Middle Taylor Creek dispersed campground and picnic area where I managed to pull a brook trout and then a cutthroat out of this small creek (and spooked many more fish). For those of you with high clearance vehicles, this is a great little camping area if you are looking for a place to crash / fish, but there are no pit toilets, so please pack it out. After a short break, we hit the road ascent again, intermittently fishing along the creek on our way up to the first of our four lake adventure, Hermit Lake. (Despite hooking several trees, Connor managed to land a brookie out of the creek just before Hermit Lake).
About 3 miles up from the junction of CR160 and the Rainbow Trail, a short (0.25 mile) trail leads over to Hermit Lake. More spectacular than I had imagined it would be given that it falls near a road and therefore outside of wilderness, Hermit was actually a really nice lake. I quickly hooked a brook trout in the lake, and then somehow managed to pull a cutthroat out the beaver pond complex just below the lake. There were fish rising everywhere in this pond, but they appeared to be taking super tiny flies that frankly, in my advancing age, I couldn't / wouldn't tie on to catch more fish.
As we left Hermit Lake and began to rise above tree line back on the road to Hermit Pass, the views just kept getting better. Eventually, our second targeted lake, Horseshoe Lake, appeared and following some basic willow navigation and running shoe wading, I hooked up with a Horseshoe Lake cutthroat. Wanting to get Hermit Pass out of the way, I waded back to find Connor who was unsuccessfully hunting cutthroat in the shallow outlet of the lake. As the sun climbed higher into the sky, Connor declared that he was going to throw just five more casts and we would head out. As I pounded down a Snickers bar (the ultimate running food), filtered some water and packed up my gear, I heard a triumphant squeal from the lake and looked down to see Connor hooked up with his first cuttie of the day!
Once we left Horseshoe Lake, we began the final ascent of Hermit Pass, which was another 1.6 miles and 1,000 vertical feet of gain to the top. Looking back on the Middle Taylor Creek valley as we ascended, we had incredible views of the road we just climbed, both Hermit and Horseshoe Lake, and a third lake (Eureka Lake) perched up in the southern end of the basin. At the top of Hermit Pass (the highest point along this loop at just under 13,100 feet), we took a couple of deep breaths and pictures in panorama mode and prepared to begin our descent into the Rito Alto drainage.
The drop from Hermit Pass to Rito Alto Lake is not insignificant, falling about 1,700 vertical feet in about 3 miles. Note: All day, these descents were mentally challenging as you knew that you were going to have to gain a lot of that elevation back eventually. The first stretch is fairly obvious, as the trail is really an old road grade that eventually reaches some long abandoned historical garbage at about a mile down. From here, the next mile or so involves some route finding through the headwaters of Rito Alto Creek, but if you look south and west, you can see where Pass #2 climbs steeply out of the valley. Point towards that and stay out of the willows to your right and you will eventually find the trail junction, with a left taking you up Pass #2 and a right taking you further down valley to Rito Alto Lake. We went right.
The experience at Rito Alto Lake was terrible. The waterfall cascading off of the cliffs to the west was irritating. The cutthroat trout weren't vibrantly colored, plentiful or large. The views were lame. We left as quickly as we could.
I'm not going to lie, the climb out from Rito Alto Lake to Pass #2 was a grind (~1,000 vertical feet in just over a mile) filled with switchbacks, first in the trees and then out in the open. But from the top, we could see our past (Hermit Pass and Rito Alto Lake) and our brutal future looming off in the distance (Pass #3).
Since we were three for three on cutthroat in our first three lakes, we decided not to add the mileage and elevation gain to hit San Isabel Lake (though it is part of a future Six Pass / Six Lake / Six Cutthroat Loop that I am now scheming). Instead, we put our heads down and banged out the 2.25 mile (550 foot drop and 900 foot regain) trek over to the top of Pass #3.
As we crested the top of Pass #3, it became painfully obvious that there was no obvious / easy path back up and over to the east side of the Sangres. Instead, the trail began a steep and sustained drop down the North Crestone Creek valley. On the way down, the incredibly majestic Groundhog Basin gradually appeared on our right, at least temporarily distracting from the fact that we were going down instead of up. About a mile down this trail (and 750 feet drop), we came to the trail junction with a right heading way down valley to the San Luis Valley town of Crestone. Our route was straight ahead, and from this sign, we could see the switchbacked Venable Pass route well above us cut into the mountainside (1.3 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing).
Following a slow but steady ascent peppered with occasional f bombs and excessive heavy breathing, we reached the top of Venable Pass where we looked down on our final lake of the day (Lower Venable Lake) and our final descent down the Venable Trail back to the trailhead. As a board member of the Westcliffe based Trails for All nonprofit, I knew we were in for a smooth descent as we had recently removed all downed trees and encroaching willows from this trail. And as a regular visitor to Lower Venable Lake, I knew the cutthroat would be cooperative. Following a short section of route finding from the Venable Pass, we arrived at Lower Venable Lake where we quickly caught a couple of fish (and took a very brief but refreshing swim) before pointing for home (4.5 miles and 3,000 feet of drop).
After just over 13 hours in the Sangres, we made it back to Condor's car where we drank a celebratory beer to make the Fastest Known Fish of the Rito Alto Four Pass loop official. I had the amazing Westbound and Down School Night while Connor drank the much more approachable Bell's Two Hearted Ale. All and all, it was an amazing day, one that I plan to replicate in the future. The Sangre de Cristo mountains are an amazing and rugged place that I am hoping to completely explore before I can't anymore. Please reach out if you want to be a part of that exploration!
When we started scheming the first Troutman attempt of 2023 back in late 2022, June 17th seemed like a reasonably safe bet. According to most SNOTEL sites, mid-June corresponded with absent or severely diminished snowpack, which is important for a timed challenge like the Troutman.
Our original plan was a well-coordinated assault on Colorado's Grand Mesa, a sport fishing Mecca with countless opportunities to pick up 4 species of salmonids. Trouble was, in early May 2023, following an epic snow season on Colorado's Western Slope, sensors on Grand Mesa were reporting more than 100 inches of snow remaining. So we decided to pivot.
One thought was to return to the Huerfano River basin, a favorite of mine that was very successful in 2022 and produced many a Troutman. However, in looking at satellite imagery from about a week before go time, it became apparent that a pivotal lake may or may not have still been frozen and there was certain deep snow stacked up on the ascent to said lake. So no go there... But fortunately, (long time Flyathlete and seeker of a Troutwoman title) Katie Mazzia suggested that we hit Sylvan Lake State Park near Eagle, CO, a snow free course in her own backyard. So we loaded up our gear on the 16th and headed to Vail.
Following an incredible Friday night team meal at Katie's house, we woke up bright and early on Saturday and began the short drive to Sylvan. The weather forecast was inauspicious at best, with rain and cold temperatures forecast until at least mid-afternoon. But we are Flyathletes, dammit, and nothing was going to stop us from completing our Troutman mission...
Which only turned out to be true for a couple of us.
My day began with rain and a rainbow trout. And then another rainbow trout. And more rain. Rainbow trout. Rain. Over and over again.
The pre-run fishing / scouting report had indicated that the cutthroat trout was set to be the toughest fish to catch with only 500 stocked in the rather large lake several just under a month prior. So when news around the lake emerged that both Katie and Ridgway, CO resident Kevin Browning had both caught cutthroat trout and were headed out on the roughly 9 mile loop to gain the required mileage (26.2 miles) and elevation gain (at least 3000 feet), spirits were high!
And then the temperature dropped. And the rain intensified. Big time. And the rest of us retreated to our vehicles to warm up and dream of the cutthroat that never was.
After a few minutes (and beers) in the car, I began to get concerned about Katie and Kevin, as it was clear that just a couple hundred feet of vertical higher, the rain was snow. At that point, my wingman (and two-time Troutman) Cole and I decided to drive down to the intersection between the road and the trail that they were on, thinking that we could potentially be a warm place to land after what was undoubtedly a lonely and frigid 9 miles.
We only waited for about 45 minutes before Katie emerged down the trail, looking tough and moving well. So well, in fact, that we had to force her to stop to give us reassurance that she was good to go, which she quickly did. "Going to get my brown, and then all I need is the brookie!" So bad ass!
Now we were just short Kevin, who we quickly spotted on our drive back up the road. He had all four species and was banging out mileage at a furious clip.
With our newly found confidence that all peeps were alive, Cole and returned to the lake to await the return of Katie and Kevin.
More beers were had, new friends were made (see photo below), and (long story short) my $500 prescription polarized sunglasses ended up at the bottom of Sylvan Lake. Good times!
In short order, Kevin returned triumphant to the lake, setting a new Fastest Known Troutman record in the process! Beast!
Katie was shortly behind him, but still needed a brook trout, 8 miles, and about 500 feet of elevation gain to get'r done. The brookie came fairly quickly and then Katie was joined by long time friend and the only other Troutwoman on the planet, Kristine Hoffman, to bang out the remaining mileage.
At the lake, more questionable choices were made (mostly by me) awaiting their return, which happened in just under 10 hours, cementing Katie Mazzia as a Troutwoman in her own backyard!!!
An awesome day for everyone. Sometimes I can't believe how lucky I am to have found such an incredible group of people who are willing to do incredibly challenging and slightly idiotic things with me!
All hail two-time Troutman Kevin Browning and the second-ever Troutwoman, Katie Mazzia!!!
It should come as no surprise that pairing trail running and fly fishing (and craft beer / spirits) (but never never ever when driving) requires a bad ass vehicle. That vehicle should be rugged enough to get you to the remotest of trailheads on the gnarliest of roads, should be big enough to swallow tons of gear and serve as overnight lodging accommodations (even for a wood rat...), and reliable enough to know that it won't break down at the worst possible time in the worst possible place...
For many of us at Running Rivers and the Flyathlon, the best choice has been obvious for years. At any given Flyathlon race or Running Rivers volunteer event, you will see countless Toyotas in their natural environment. Tacos and Runners and Seqouias, oh my! (see photo gallery of Flyathlon Toyotas in action below, and if you would like to add to the gallery, please send us a photo!)
So you can imagine how excited we were when we found out that Bighorn Toyota in Glenwood Springs, Colorado wanted to be a major sponsor of the 2023 Flyathlon race series in Colorado! With their incredible support, we will be able to yet again step up the experience for our Flyathletes in Colorado with a goal of raising more money than ever before for projects benefitting our state's native cutthroat trout species.
I can personally speak to the amazing experience that Bighorn provides at their dealership as they helped me locate and secure my black 4Runner at a great price during the heart of the pandemic, a time when finding a 4Runner was like trying to throw a 30 yard cast with a size 20 dry fly in 40 mph circling winds. And now that bitchin' vehicle takes me and my tiny terrier army wherever we need to adventure!
Thanks to Bighorn Toyota for their commitment to the Flyathlon and our mission of conservation of native trout in Colorado through recreation!
As we move towards the summer of 2023, it is my intent to use this brand new "run. fish. beer. blog." to document the important happenings within Running Rivers and our various programs. Admittedly, I am new to blogging and may end up being terrible at it, but given that I love to write and we have a lot happening at Running Rivers these days, I thought I'd give it a shot. Apologies if I prove to be overly verbose (as I have been often called by my Board Members and wife) and/or irritating, or if blogs are no longer and effective communication tool and I missed the memo that states that I should instead solely craft wacky 8-second videos including cats. But here goes...
I will lead off this blogging experiment with the important announcement that Running Rivers recently received a generous grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Partners in the Outdoors program to support the delivery our Colorado Flyathlon program in 2023! The stated goal of CPW's Partners in the Outdoors Program is to create a platform for networking and collaboration to advance and balance outdoor recreation and conservation in Colorado. At Running Rivers, we firmly agree with the charge contained in Colorado's Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) that “recreationists need to be a part of the solution for stewardship of our natural resources”. By design, our Flyathlon races create epic outdoor experiences that simultaneously build an ethic of stewardship and responsibility in our Flyathletes while raising money via the use of an “incentivized crowdfunding” model to employ our race participants to crowdfund for conservation.
With this CPW funding, in 2023 we will be able to substantially elevate our two Colorado-based Flyathlon events, the Middle Creek Flyathlon and the Lake Fork Flyathlon, with a goal of reaching more people and raising more money for native fish through our Conservation Through Recreation approach!
And though we are beyond excited for this "new" partnership, the truth is that Colorado Parks and Wildlife has always been an integral partner in Running Rivers' mission to advance native trout conservation in Colorado. For example, within the past five years, we have partnered with CPW (and our other Conservation Partners) to help support all sorts of important cutthroat trout projects in Colorado including a massive effort to reintroduce Rio Grande cutthroat trout throughout the northern watershed of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, a multi-year project to evaluate the success of native trout stocking in high mountain lakes in and around Colorado's San Luis Valley, and a brand new project to protect important populations of the green lineage Colorado River cutthroat from further non-native brook trout invasion. We truly love getting our hands dirty (and/or fishy) with the aquatic biologist colleagues at CPW for the benefit of Colorado's unique and spectacular native trout species!
We look forward to a great 2023 Flyathlon season which I expect will be bigger and better than ever, in large part thanks to the support of our incredible Partner in the Outdoors, Colorado Parks and Wildlife!
For more information on the Flyathlon program, please visit this link. If you would like to support a Colorado Flyathlete in their effort to "crowdfund for conservation", please visit the fundraiser page for either the 9th Annual Middle Creek Flyathlon (benefitting Rio Grande cutthroat trout projects) and/or the 7th Annual Lake Fork Flyathlon (benefitting Colorado River cutthroat trout projects). Or if you want to support the Running Rivers organization in general, click here!
Dr. Andrew Todd is the Founder of Running Rivers and the Flyathlon. Dr. Todd is a slow but stubborn trail runner, a decidedly average fly fisherman, an enthusiast of dark and mysterious barrel aged beers, and a guardian of three fierce adventure terriers