Snow, runoff crimping summer pursuits around Aspen

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Can’t hike, can’t fish: What can you do? Go rafting, or get on a bike.

Considerable quantities of snow still clinging to the high country and swollen rivers that won’t drop until the last vestiges of winter finally melt away are cutting into the traditional summertime pursuits of many an Aspenite.

On the other hand, local rafting companies are continuing to run Slaughterhouse Falls on the upper Roaring Fork River, just below Aspen, long after receding flows would have closed off that stretch in a more typical summer.

“We’re still in high water. It’s pretty awesome,” gushed Jim Ingram, owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting.

He’s hoping that stretch of river remains runnable through the rest of July.

Hikers and anglers, on the other hand, are watching the seemingly endless torrent of water pouring out of the mountains with annoyance.

The hike from Aspen to Crested Butte, a summer tradition, is still out of the question for all but the most intrepid hiker.

“I think it’s going to be late July, into August, before people start to hike over,” said Martin Catmur, owner of the Christiana Guesthaus in Crested Butte. The lodge has seen several weekend cancellations as a result of the conditions on West Maroon Pass, the most popular route between the two resort towns.

And, the road to the trailhead on the Crested Butte side is blocked by “the plug” – a mass of avalanche debris that piles high across the road in some years, but not others. Unless it melts, it prevents vehicles, including taxi service for hikers coming from Aspen, from getting all the way to the trailhead.

“I don’t think they could even plow it right now,” said Catmur, who hiked beyond it a week ago. “The snow plug was 50 to 60 feet deep.”

Even those willing to posthole through snow at high elevations may not want to attempt the stream crossings on many popular trails, including both the East and West Maroon routes to Crested Butte. Fast water or potentially dicey snow bridges await.

“It’s at least annoying,” said Alan Richman of Old Snowmass, an angler who favors hikes to mountain lakes. “It’s very frustrating. I’m dying to go fishing.”

So far this summer, Richman said he’s made it to Thomas Lakes at the base of Mount Sopris, encountering “a ton of water” on the way. He was turned around at the trailhead to Sawyer Lake in the upper Fryingpan Valley last weekend, having tried the more easterly of the two approaches to the lake with a couple of youngsters in tow.

“We got to the trailhead – there was so much water coming down we just aborted immediately,” he said. “The creek crossing, it’s usually a hop and a skip – it’s just impassible.”

Katie Martinez, a Forest Service recreation planner trainee in Aspen, headed to Savage Lakes in the Fryingpan Valley last weekend. There was plenty of snow on the upper part of the short hike, which stays in the trees, and enough snow and soggy ground around the lakes to thwart would-be campers, she said. And, there was still some ice on the lakes.

“Later in the day we were postholing. We were up to our knees,” Martinez said.

Snowmass Creek Outfitters was running overnight horseback trips by mid-June last year, but has yet to set its camps up near Snowmass Lake and up the East Snowmass Creek valley this year, according to partner Chris Wyckoff.

“We’ve already had to turn down so many trips,” he said.

At the creek crossing below Snowmass Lake, the water is up to the stirrups – doable for a seasoned rider, but not necessarily comfortable for a novice, Wyckoff said.

Hikers, picking their way across on the logjam at the crossing, report the lake is still locked in snow, he said Saturday.

Trails and Jeep routes throughout much of the White River National Forest contain snow, water, mud or all three, according to reports from the field to the Forest Service’s Aspen office.

The Forest Service has held off opening Kobey Park Road above Lenado because of lingering snow, according to Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

Moran headed up to Margy’s Hut north of Lenado on Wednesday and wound up walking the last mile because snow blocked the road, she said.

Other summertime users of some ski huts are being warned they can’t drive all the way to their destination.

When high-elevation, four-wheel routes like Pearl Pass, south of Aspen, will open to vehicular use is anybody’s guess.

“There’s a ton of snow up on Pearl,” said Karin Teague, a frequent hiker and Basalt resident who looked toward Pearl Pass from Electric Pass – a hike she said is doable though she bushwhacked around snow on the way up. Cathedral Lake, near Electric Pass, and American Lake are also accessible, she said.

A sampling of reports from wilderness rangers in the field over the July 4 weekend document the challenges of travel in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness: lots of snow on Buckskin Pass, West Maroon and on the Avalanche Creek Trail above 10,000 feet; flooding on about a quarter-mile of trail below Conundrum Hot Springs, where nine of the 18 designated campsites are snowed in.

From the Maroon Bells couloir, a crew looked down on wintery conditions to the east.

“They looked at the Fravert Basin and said, ‘Oh, my God,'” Moran said.

Down in the valleys, where a year ago anglers had already tasted epic flyfishing keyed by the annual green drake hatch, the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers are high and muddy with runoff and, lately, afternoon downpours. Even the Fryingpan River above Basalt, controlled by the dam at Ruedi Reservoir, is moving swiftly these days.

Crystal Fly Shop in Carbondale offered a discount on guided trips in June, and extended it into the first week of July, said owner Dave Johnson. Fishing on the Fork remains an exercise in nymphing at present – fishing with imitations of underwater insects and a weighted line.

The shop moved this year from downtown Carbondale to near the City Market store, but Johnson suspects a notable drop in business so far in July has more to do with fishing conditions than the change in locations.

“There aren’t as many people in buying flies and buying tackle because not as many people are fishing,” he said. “A lot of guys are working on their golf game.”

Still there are fish to be caught, say both Johnson and Tom Trowbridge, manager of Roaring Fork Anglers in Glenwood Springs.

“We’ve been putting people on some big fish, for sure,” Johnson said.

A float trip these days basically means running rapids between spots of slower water, where anglers can stop and fish with nymphs, Trowbridge said.

“Not everybody can fish in these kinds of waters right now,” he added.

When the waters do drop and clear, the fishing’s going to be crazy, Johnson predicted.

“It’ll come. Eventually, it’ll come,” Trowbridge said.


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