American Fly Fishing

A Primitive Road Pilgrimage
By Aaron Reed

Medano Creek, CO

This is the good stretch of the Medano Pass Primitive Road. Eight stream crossings—some of them floorboard deep—along with tight squeezes between boulders and climbs over jumbled cobble, make for an exciting drive to the top.
Photo by Dave Fason.

Energy levels and spirits were at low ebb as we crossed the border into New Mexico at Texline sometime after midnight in September 2018. It had been a long day, nine hours from central Texas in a Jeep stuffed with four grown men and a week’s worth of camping equipment and fishing gear.

Mason Tyndall, a senior economics major at the University of Texas, celebrates a colorful Medano Lake Rio Grande cutthroat. The Tyndall family has, for years, made a mountain pilgrimage between the end of the summer sports seasons and the start of school. Mason refers to the Medano Creek visit as a “a slice of heaven”. Photo by David Tyndall.

Only minutes after the lights of the state-straddling High Plains town faded in the rearview, I slammed on the brakes. A magnificent bull elk looked disdainfully over his right shoulder at us, then bounded up the hill on the verge of US Highway 87.

“It was at that exact moment,” Chris Barclay later said, “that I knew everything was going to be all right.”

Two years later, I wondered if the memory was manufactured—if we had been subject to some sort of collective Western hallucination. The mountains were still miles ahead of us. We were really, really tired.

“Commonly, no, you don’t see it, but it’s not like you’re seeing lights near Roswell,” Mike Atkinson told us. Atkinson, the district ranger for the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands in Clayton, New Mexico, said that elk and even black bears sometime traverse the alfalfa fields and broken plains on their way up to the Dry Cimarron country in the northeastern corner of the state.

By the time we turned west onto Huerfano County Road 559 between Gardner and Westcliffe, Colorado, the elk tally was three, and we were all looking forward to long morning naps in hammocks slung between aspens lately turned gold with the change of seasons. That plan was foiled by the proximity of Medano Creek (locals pronounce it “MEHdunno”) and the jewel-toned fish we could see lazily rising in a pool just a dozen steps from our campsite. Sleep could wait.

“It really was the most perfect introduction to the Mountain West I could have wished for,” recalls Barclay, whose home waters are the brookie streams of the southern Appalachians. “The fish are just gorgeous. Really, really special.”

Nearly a year after that expedition, sitting in the driver’s seat, I refreshed the web page for the third or fourth time.

I was at Costilla Gas and Grocery, and the past few days of exploring Comanche Creek and Middle Poñil Creek in the Valle Vidal unit of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest had been fine—extraordinary, even—but I had my heart set on introducing my three boys to Medano Creek. A near-record snowpack and late runoff had kept the Medano Pass Primitive Road, which normally opens around Memorial Day weekend, closed, and work to clear and reopen the track was progressing slowly. I sighed in frustration and contemplated plan B. Maybe the forks of the Cimarron above Silver Jack Reservoir would be clear enough to fish, I thought.

We drove on and spent the night in Montrose. Over coffee the next morning, and more out of a month’s habit than anything else, I clicked through to the Great Sand Dunes National Park website one more time. There, in large, red type: “The Medano Pass Primitive Road is open.” I called to confirm, then gathered my boys: “Fellas, we have a change of plans. Again.”

The next three days were pure magic. All three boys caught fish, practiced campcraft— the younger two under the tutelage of their Eagle Scout older brother—and explored the upper reaches of the creek. A very loose plan, aided by a note in a Ziploc bag pinned to a sign where the road forks, came together when a good friend from back home stopped by with two of his sons. They, too, caught fish—the youngest, his first on a fly.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The sand dunes appear as a tan smudge on the horizon. Against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range, which abruptly rises 7,000 feet above the high desert of the San Luis Valley and boasts four “fourteeners,” they at first look insignificant. As the miles wind down, however, the majesty of the dunes is revealed.

A healthy Rio Grande cutthroat from the middle section of the creek shows off the species’ distinctive large spots near the tail. Photo by Mason Tyndall.

These mini-mountains of sand are a popular playground and retreat. Dark skies provide outstanding stargazing, a store just outside the park boundary rents sleds and discs for the young and adventurous, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the beach created by the cold waters of Medano Creek that wash the base of the dunes before sinking into the sand.

The creek was the reason we were here, and the reason I have returned nearly every year for much of the last decade. The dunes are fascinating, and make for a fun half-day for the kids at the end of a trip, but after a stop at the visitor center, anglers will want to shift into four-wheel drive, negotiate the deep sand as they skirt the dunes, and head upstream.

The Medano Pass Primitive Road crosses the creek eight times (look for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep near the third crossing, where there is a natural salt lick; fishing picks up at this point, too) on the way to the pass at 10,040 feet above sea level. It takes a prudent driver about an hour and 45 minutes to get to the top. A curious angler, or a native trout-starved Texan, will take far longer.

In the 1980s, Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service identified Medano Creek as an ideal location to establish a population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Now inhabiting only about 12 percent of its historic range, the species was the first salmonid described by a European in North America, when an expedition commanded by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado encountered the fish in northern New Mexico in 1541 or 1542.

Medano Creek likely never hosted an aboriginal population of trout of any species. A 1976 survey found only imported brown trout in the creek. But the sand dunes that prevent the stream from reaching the Rio Grande also protect the fish in it from genetic introgression, or hybridization. After removing the brown trout, in 1985 biologists transplanted native fish from two nearby creeks, West Indian and Placer, to establish a genetically pure reservoir of cutthroat.

The verdant beauty of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is a reward reserved for those willing to endure the bony, charred remnants of the 2010 wildfire to reach the aspen and spruce-clad upper reaches of Medano Creek. Photo by Mason Tyndall

“It’s robust. To me, it’s a real success story for Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the Forest Service, because it’s a pretty great habitat,” says Fred Bunch, chief of resource management at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. “Thirty square miles of dunes makes a great barrier. When we do surveys there, it seems very productive.”

Medano Creek Rio Grande cutthroat, wild and native to the region, rarely exceed 13 inches (though biologists report some 17-inchers in the beaver ponds). Two- and 3-weight rods are the order of the day here. Photo by Dave Fason.

In 2010, the Medano Fire burned more than 4,000 acres of the high-country preserve. As one negotiates the rough road up to the pass, charred standing timber, downed trees, and a profusion of young aspens testify to the devastation a decade ago.

Chris Barclay casts to a likely spot in a pool on the upper section of Medano Creek. For every willow-choked reach and slot canyon on the creek, there is a broad meadow or beaver pond to relieve casting anxiety. Photo by Dave Fason

“We mobilized right away, while the fire was still burning,” Bunch explains. “Thanks to John Alves [the state’s senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region], we were able to save quite a few fish in the lower reaches.”

The restoration effort has been so successful, a coalition of agencies and nonprofits, including Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Western Native Trout Initiative, and Trout Unlimited are in the process of restoring the other year round stream in the park, Sand Creek. After the prolonged runoff in 2019 delayed the project, the first phase of that operation—removing hybrid and invasive fish from the upper section of Sand Creek and the two lakes there— happened in September, with the remainder of the creek scheduled for restoration in 2021 and 2022. Altogether, the effort will add some 12 miles of Rio Grande cutthroat habitat. The fish slated for stocking ultimately will come from Medano Creek.

Alves notes that Medano Creek holds one of the state’s most robust, naturally sustaining pure Rio Grande cutthroat populations. “Right now, we’re using Medano as a source to repopulate our brood-stock lake. It has a lot of genetic diversity,” he says. “It took off. It did really well. It’s still doing well, even after the fire that went through there. Hopefully Sand Creek will be the same.”

Mark Seaton is a retired National Park Service employee and president of the San Luis Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Alamosa. Members of that chapter are providing some of the volunteer labor in the Sand Creek restoration, and Seaton finds inspiration in his experiences on Medano. “It’s just such a beautiful place. It’s definitely off the beaten track and not busy,” he says.

“If you can get a fly in the water without getting it caught in a bush, you are more than likely to catch a fish. Also, you have to want to go there to get there. A lot of people don’t care that much about catching 8- or 10-inch trout.”

August 2020

The man pumping gas next to me at the neighborhood convenience store in Georgetown, Texas, looked over and, through his pandemic mask, asked, “Been catching anything?”

My Jeep’s back window is a sticker farm, so I figured he had simply deduced I was a fellow angler.

Turned out David Tyndall had recognized me from the photo on the back flap of my recent book. After discussing the state of the local rivers for a few minutes, Tyndall mentioned that he was making an end-of summer trip to Colorado with his family and wondered if I had any thoughts on places he should put on the itinerary. I told him I’d send him an email.

Fast-forward a few weeks. I’m scrolling through Instagram and stumble across a series of photos that were unmistakably taken along Medano Creek and at Medano Lake. In a further coincidence, it turned out that Tyndall’s college senior son, Mason, was one of the founding members of the Texas Streams Coalition and someone I knew. It was a connection I had not made, initially. I asked him what he thought of the stop at Medano. “It was real cool,” said Mason. “It was off the grid. We didn’t see anybody fishing at either the creek or the lake. Not many other anglers we ran into in Colorado had heard of it. In the creek itself we caught a bunch of little cutthroats. There were fish in every hole.”

Moreover, he and his sister climbed a fourteener together—and the hike from the trailhead near Medano Pass up to Medano Lake was harder. The trail, which wends through the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, follows the creek and gains more than 2,000 feet in 2 miles. There are fish nearly every step of the way. The tarn at the end of the trail is home to Rio Grande cutthroats weighing 3 and 4 pounds.

“It was amazing,” Mason said. “I walked out onto a point and there were huge trout rising everywhere. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, kind of in your own slice of heaven, tossing a fly. It doesn’t get much better
than that.”