The trout literally leaped to snag our hooks as we cast them again and again into the small pools of Trout Creek as it cascaded down through the brush, waterfalling from rock to rock. No, really, that is one of those rare memories from childhood that stands out as a boggling phenomena, one of few that I clearly recall. Beyond that I don’t bank a lot on my abilities to recall a lot from years past, and this trek into the Colorado backcountry almost seems like a journey to OZ.
Trout Creek was a small side creek to the Anthracite in western Colorado between Paonia and Crested Butte up on Kebler Pass. I was 13 years old, and trekking into the Raggeds Wilderness with my buddy Steve, his dad and brother. We followed an obscure overgrown trail around Marcellina Mountain down into the fabled Dark Canyon to fish and camp, following Anthracite Creek out to the other trailhead.
My family had driven over Kebler Pass many times, and Marcellina Mountain stood tall and daunting right near the road, jutting up in the Colorado backcountry to a lofty 11,348 feet within the Raggeds Wilderness. That we were actually going to backcountry trek around that peak, hiking through the Raggeds Wilderness and down legendary Dark Canyon – a childhood dream come true.
To get there, we followed Highway 133 around 16 miles east up the North Fork of the Gunnison River from Paonia, Colorado to the road fork below Paonia Dam. Turning right the road leads up Anthracite Creek 5 miles to Erikson Springs Campground and a switchback, the road leading up Kebler Pass. Around 5 miles past the switchback, forest Trail 836, leads east into a tall stand of aspens. Trail 836 leads to Trout Creek following it down to Anthracite Creek and the heart of Dark Canyon, connecting with Trail 830.
Our trail circled Marcellina Mountain looming tall south of Dark Canyon. North of us, the Raggeds Mountains rose tall and inaccessible as we worked our way down toward Anthracite Creek. Herein lay the wonder of the trek into this rugged backcountry. Crossing into the Raggeds Wilderness, we hit Trout Creek, receiving our fishing instructions from Steve’s dad. Issuing each of us a small barbless hook, we tied them to our lines, and were then instructed to enjoy.
Never since have I experienced such amazement. Trout Creek, true to it’s name was teaming with trout as this wild little stream crashed through the brush . With no fly or bait on the hook I expected nothing. Instead to my disbelief, every cast into a pool below a rock prompted a rush of trout, all fighting to grab that shiney treat hitting their waters. Every time – boom – a set of trout would strike, one of them seizing the prize and the point of a hook. The majority of course, were far too small to be of any use whatsoever and were all tossed back – hence the barbless hooks. As Steve’s Dad pointed out, we would catch more than enough for our dinner and breakfast down on the Anthracite.
We boys whooped and hollered at cast after cast. It was beyond unreal, falling into a category of sport fishing I had never encountered before. Working our way down the small creek through the brush we finally hit Anthracite Creek, and headed down through the fabled Dark Canyon, a deep and mysterious gorge through surrounding benchlands of aspen and spruce. The canyon narrows with rimrock cliffs and caves in the outcrops above. The narrow valley and the walls of Dark Canyon close in high above, casting deep shadows as the rock cliffs rise 1,700 feet above the river in the darker stretches. As the day waned, the trail grew dark and narrow, as it led through a deep forest of aspen and enormous spruce trees.
Following our narrow trail around 5 miles from our beginnings up on Kebler Pass road, and down into Dark Canyon, Steve’s dad knew the perfect place to set up camp on the banks of Anthracite Creek. We set up our meager sleeping quarters in a park-like setting under the towering spruce. I strung my best tarp between two trees, staking the corners and figuring a good spot to sleep on the ground with a couple of wool blankets Mom was able to spare for this adventure. Within minutes after hitting the nearby pools of the Anthracite, we had more than enough fresh trout to ccommodate our evenings dining pleasure. Fortunately for us boys, Steve’s dad was skilled at wrapping the trout in foil with butter, quickly cooking them in the campfire coals to nothing short of gourmet erfection.
The shadows grew longer with a deep, dark night settling upon us, far down in Dark Canyon, a prime Colorado habitat for bears in the heart of the Raggeds Wilderness. Despite that brief concern, our exhaustion from the days journey and excitement brought a deep, restful sleep to the bunch of us. Dawn came early even as the sun seemed to take forever to pierce into the canyon and warm us. As another of those wonderful memories of this journey into Dark Canyon, Steve’s dad had rustled up a morning catch of trout, and was again foil cooking a mouthwatering breakfast on the campfire to start our day.
We packed our gear and later that morning hit the trail for the next 6 miles of trail to follow the rest of the way down through Dark Canyon. As the day progressed we paused along the trail to pull in yet more wonderful trout, filling our limits working our way down stream. The canyon and the surrounding forests were a wonder as we worked our way through old-growth spruce and aspen, with views back up the small side canyons toward the surrounding peaks. Finally in late afternoon we straggled out the other end at the trailhead at Erickson Springs Campground where Steve’s Mom picked us up.