Best Wild Places: Exploring The Alpine Triangle

Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days with Trout Unlimited exploring the Alpine Triangle, a rugged expanse … Continued

Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days with Trout Unlimited exploring the Alpine Triangle, a rugged expanse of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, so named because the region is loosely contained within the shape made by connecting the towns of Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton. TU wants Congress to declare the place a National Conservation area to protect its streams from mining expansion and new road development. Here’s what they found.

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The “Alpine Triangle” is a rugged expanse of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, so named by the Bureau of Land Management because the region is loosely contained within the shape made by connecting the towns of Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton.

I jumped at the opportunity to cover this story when the Field & Stream editors were divvying up the “Best Wild Places” assignments, because the region has been my home away from home for 25 years. It’s where many of my formative trout fishing adventures happened, and near where I still make an annual elk hunting camp. It is, without question, my favorite wild place on earth.

Yet, as familiar as I thought I was with the Alpine Triangle region, I had never experienced it from as many angles as I did on day one of the Trout Unlimited/Field & Stream adventure. We kicked off the tour with a full-on “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” agenda…

It started with pilot Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight (www.ecoflight.info), flying me, TU backcountry coordinator Ty Churchwell, and photographers Kevin Cooley and Bridget Batch, from Durango up the Animas River valley and over the heart of the San Juans. Taking advantage of calm morning weather, we skimmed by 14,000-foot peaks, soaking a raptor’s perspective of one of the most jagged mountainscapes in the Lower 48.

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After the fly-over, we embarked on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (www.durangotrain.com) for a slow, rumbling climb up to the town of Silverton (see first photo in this post). This railroad was once the lifeline for the region during the frontier mining boom. Ironically, it still serves that role, only the “mother lode” is now money paid by tourists to take in the unique scenery that most people can only access via the railway. More adventurous types can arrange to have the train drop them off along its route; people can get out, hike, fish, even camp for a few days, and then have the train pick them up for the ride back downhill. Chicago Basin is a particularly beautiful stop, and the creeks that feed through that drainage are full of trout… nothing huge, but they eat dry flies every day.

As for the Animas River itself, I’ll say for the record that I think it is the most underrated trout river in the West. And when conditions are right and the hatches are “on,” the Animas is one of the top five rivers in Colorado. Most of the best action is found in the downstream stretches (e.g. right in Durango), and the hot fly pattern is often a flying ant dry fly. Brown trout 20-plus inches long are certainly possible.

The upstream sections of the Animas, however, while they have gorgeous plunge pools and swift runs, are still affected by the heavy metals from mines, and they don’t fish as well as they could. That’s part of why we’re here. The river has indeed been improved dramatically over the past few decades as mine impact has been mitigated, but this trip demonstrated there’s still a long way to go. Given the right cleansing and protection from dramatic new mining expansion, the Animas could become one of the top five freestone rivers in America, no question.

When we finally arrived in Silverton, we rented two jeeps. The Alpine Triangle is also home to some of the best off-highway vehicle routes (The Alpine Loop) in America. And as such, a wide range of outdoorsy interests are vested in the future of the Triangle–off-roaders, as well as hikers, campers, hunters, and anglers. What Trout Unlimited aspires to realize is making the Triangle a National Conservation Area (a congressionally-designated area managed by the Bureau of Land Management). If this happens, the area will effectively be locked in place, “as is” for generations, and protected from mining expansion and new road development that could further threaten some of the most fragile headwaters of major trout rivers in the country.

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We ended our action-packed first day by experiencing one of those delicate headwaters, Cunningham Creek, firsthand with guide and co-owner of Duranglers fly shop (www.duranglers.com), John Flick. John put us on pools stacked with brook trout, and we traded shots… one guy made casts, while the rest of us soaked in the surroundings.

The highlight for all of us was watching TU intern Dylan Looze from Round Rock, Texas, hook his first ever trout on a fly rod. If you’re going to make a grand entrance into the sport of fly fishing for trout, I cannot think of a better time and place to do it…

By the time that day ended (it was 39 degrees and drizzling… in July), we’d all had enough. But we were only one-third of the way through the Triangle, and the next day would involve an “over-the-top” jeep adventure to Lake City…

Click here to see more photos from day one of our trip.