The Alpine Triangle occupies one of the most rugged mountain regions in the United States. Located within the shape made by connecting the towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City, the region was once the epicenter of a mining industry that fueled the frontier economy. Today it is a recreational paradise, with uniquely scenic roadways for off-highway vehicles, and some of the best high-country elk and bighorn sheep habitat in America.
The Alpine Triangle also contains myriad lakes and streams filled with trout. These lakes (as seen in this aerial shot) are sometimes little more than potholes bored into the mountains. Many are deep enough, however, to support trout throughout the heavy freezes of winter.
Here’s another stunning view of a high alpine lake within the triangle. Some of these lakes are so remote, they often require a full-day hike in steep terrain to access them. As such, they only get fished by a handful of intrepid anglers in a given season.
The Alpine Triangle also holds the headwaters to some of the most productive trout fisheries in Colorado, including the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, and the Animas River, which I believe is the most underrated trout river in the West. The Animas has seen dramatic improvement in recent years, as the effects of mining in its upper stretches have been partially mitigated.
While the lower sections of the Animas River holds healthy populations of brown and rainbow trout (some well over 20 inches long), the upper stretches and many of its feeder creeks, like Cunningham Creek near Silverton, are filled with smaller brook trout. You’ll also catch the occasional native fish, Colorado River strain cutthroat trout, thanks to the reintroduction efforts of Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups. The best part of fishing the high country is using light tackle, and dry flies throughout the season.
Part of the unique appeal of the region is its frontier history. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad now takes thousands of annual visitors on a long, slow climb through the high country. What used to be the lifeblood for supporting the frontier industry a century ago now serves the same role in terms of a tourist-based economy.
The train makes a few stops along its 3-1/2 climb from Durango to Silverton. Hikers, rafters, and anglers can make arrangements to ride the train up the Animas River, and be dropped of, then picked up again a day or two later. As the train makes its climb into the high country, riders will notice the dramatic climate change that accompanies the transitioning landscapes. We left Durango when it was 85 degrees and sunny, and arrived in Silverton to find showers and a thermometer reading 56 degrees.
Here the train twists along the Animas River (not far from where the famous cliff jump scene from the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was filmed. In its upper stretches, the river is marked by a steeper gradient, with many plunge pools and rapids.
After arriving in Silverton, we rented some jeeps, and headed straight out to Cunningham Creek to throw dry flies at brookies and cutthroats. Here, I’m casting a #2-weight fiberglass rod into a tiny little channel, which believe it or not, produced four fish, the largest being about a foot long brook trout.
We were accompanied on this adventure by Dylan Looze, a Trout Unlimited intern from Round Rock, Texas. Interestingly, Dylan had never caught a trout on a fly before. But he got the hang of it quickly. In fact, by the end of this little jaunt through the Alpine Triangle, he’d caught the Rocky Mountain slam–a brookie, brown, rainbow, and Colorado cuttie… all on dry flies.
Fishing by committee… of course, Dylan had help by way of guide John Flick of Duranglers in Durango, TU staffers and volunteers, and the Field & Stream crew, all of whom were more interested in seeing him catch trout than hooking any ourselves. Besides, when you’re in a place this pristine and beautiful, and the fish are eating dries, there’s really nothing better than trading shots among friends.
Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited who is spearheading the Alpine Triangle effort, shows off an average brook trout from Cunningham Creek, which ate a Parachute Adams… what else?
We even talked F&S photographer Kevin Cooley into putting down his cameras long enough to make a few casts (and catch some fish) himself. As the trip wore on, that was a regular occurrence.
Trout Unlimited’s mission with the Alpine Triangle is to essentially lock the region in place as it is. As such, the recreational interests of various groups, from off-highway jeepers and ATV riders, to hunters and campers, to anglers, will be protected for generations.
Our first day of the Alpine Triangle Adventure was an authentic “planes, trains, and automobiles” experience. Little did I know it when we made our flight to start the trip, but here I was looking down at the road we’d be taking over Cinnamon Pass to the town of Lake City on day two. And that would be another wild ride altogether…
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.