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Trout and Solitude in the Holy Cross

The Holy Cross Wilderness lies south of I-70 as it snakes its way through Eagle and Vail. Remote and intimidating, while passing through this collection of massive peaks and glacial valleys it is easy to forget about the fur coats and hotel resorts just north over the ridge. There are endless options here for the adventure ready compadre, but this weekend Lake Charles was in my sights. Five miles and 2000 feet of elevation in, the Lake would serve as a hub for what I hoped to be a network of streams and ponds ripe with trout.

The trailhead started at USFS Fulford Cave Campground and hugged the curves of East Brush Creek for the majority of the ascent taking me out of the Montane and into a lush valley floor. A few creek crossings provided a variety of opportunities to rob banks and pick pockets, from meadow fishing to white pillow water. Once at Lake Charles I had about a half dozen or spots to call home for the night. I opted for the east shore in order to soak up the last golden rays of the day on what appears to be the edge of the world. Fools and Gold Dust Peaks cradled me under a blanket of new moon stars.

A light drizzle served as my alarm. I wasn’t quite ready to leave my synthetic cocoon so I opted to study up on my Holy Cross topography and plan out the day’s fishing exploits. The rain eventually burned off as I emerged from my shelter for breakfast. French press grounds with a nip of Baileys and maple syrup is my preferred antifogmatic in the backcountry. Breakfast would be pancakes, and I loaded those flap jacks up with cinnamon, vanilla, frozen raspberries, white chocolate chips, and chopped walnuts along with a side of maple candied bacon. After scarfing those bad boys down it was time to focus my attention on the underwater residents of Mystic Island. I broke camp and slogged my way through partially flooded alpine meadows to reach the trail’s terminus.

A sweeping ridge of talus and snow connect Eagle Peak to the Gold Dust Ridge. At the base of this impressive feature sits Mystic Island Lake, a roughly 25 acre lake with a small island close to the south shore. I quickly assembled my graphite wand to begin casting spells on the cutties and brookies that were patrolling the water. I am thankful that I had brought most of my arsenal because these fish knew the game and not just any old fly would do, no sir.

I managed 3 trout in about 2 hours before the first roll of thunder politely reminded me of my guest status in these parts, and of my responsibilities still waiting back at the house. My time in the Holy Cross wilderness was coming to a close. I held on here and there taking time to smell the Chiming Bells and Penstemon as I scoped out some fishy riffles for the next trip up my Brush Creek backyard.

My trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Bonfire Brewing for some post-trip libations. Make sure you stop here on your way out too. Tell Brian and Jamie that Zach pointed you their way.

For those of you looking to get away from the crowds, I highly suggest this trip. The western portion of the Holy Cross Wilderness harbors no 14ers and the trailheads are a good bumpy ten miles up roads not made for rental cars which means it might very well be just you, and the trout. Here’s a few things to know before you head out.

Trip Map: 


Do This:

Bring your bouldering or fly fishing equipment (hell, why not both?) East Brush Creek gets little to no fishing pressure, and despite many massive boulders scattered about the talus, there seems to be no chalk marks or flattened down grass where crash pads might be placed. Looks like a few opportunities for first ascents on some challenging and solid alpine rock.

Create a food-storage game plan. I saw a lot of evidence of bear activity in the region. Bring a bear canister, or hoist your food / waste up in a tree and away to avoid any unwanted visitors to your campsite.

Take a high-clearance 4WD vehicle in. The road up to Fulford Cave Campground is ten miles of washboard grading, rocks, ruts, and pot-holes. Save yourself the sweat and take a car that can handle the terrain.

Not That:

Skimp out on your fly selection. There is a huge diversity of fishing scenarios throughout this portion of the Holy Cross, and these trout are picky. You’ll want the mental confidence of a full lineup. Go small on your leader and tippet.

Avoid open fires using dead and downed wood. The sites around the lake have been heavily used, and the evidence is obvious. Don’t be that guy. Practice proper leave-no-trace guidelines and just bring a small camp stove or JetBoil instead.

Forget about the weather. The topography here (as with any alpine area) makes for unpredictable weather patterns. Things can turn nasty without much warning. Keep your head on a swivel and check the skies every 30 minutes or so. If you’ve got a watch that can read pressure, keep an eye for low pressure spikes.


Hybrid Camp Jacket. The alpine is notorious for making your forget what month it is. If it's cold enough to keep snow year round, you should probably pack some layers. The Hybrid Camp Jacket is the perfect weight piece for a little added warmth in the morning.

Utility Fleece Blanket. Works beautifully as a beefed up sleeping bag liner if you're willing to pay the space/weight tax.

RIMBY Trucker. Keeps the sun out of your eyes, holds some tackle, and even works as a fishing net in a pinch. Plus it looks darn good.

Standard 1/4 Zip Insulator. Read above for the Hybrid Camp Shirt.

Mosquito Repellant. The glacial valley which houses Lake Charles and Mystic Island Lake has a very gentle rise, which makes for easy hiking, but also for slow moving and stagnant water. This setting means mosquitos are abundant. Plan ahead by packing some of your go-to repellant.

Light Camp Stove. Read above about open fires in this area.

Zach Schwasman possesses a deep passion for the outdoors, and does his part to give back as a full time park ranger. Catch him on the trail in CO, or scope his instagram for some solid perspective on living in balance with nature.