Gorge Lakes

I was recently lucky enough to be invited by US Department of Fish and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist Chris Kennedy, to accompany him into the back country of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Chris specializes in greenback cutthroat trout, and spends a good portion of his summer doing field surveys of existing fish populations.  In late July, Chris, I and two other volunteers hiked into the Gorge Lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park to do a fish population survey in Arrowhead Lake. 

Biologist Chris Kennedy wades through willows above Arrowhead Lake in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.

Biologist Chris Kennedy wades through willows above Arrowhead Lake in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Gorge Lakes are some of the most difficult lakes in RMNP to reach.  There is no trail system that goes anywhere near them, so access requires miles of overland bush-whacking, above timberline and through extensive bogs.  Ironically, for all the difficulty in reaching them, once the lakes are reached, traffic can clearly be seen and heard on Trail Ridge Road, which is only a couple of miles away as the crow flies across Upper Forest Canyon. 

Miles of bogs had to be negotiated to reach the lakes.  Even with waterproof boots, after three days of this I was starting to develop trench-foot. 

Miles of bogs had to be negotiated to reach the lakes.  Even with waterproof boots, after three days of this I was starting to develop trench-foot. 

Once at Arrowhead Lake, Chris set gill nets at several locations around the lake to get an idea of the fish population, and if they are breeding or not.  Arrowhead is one of the coldest lakes in the park, and is right at the edge of cold and elevation tolerance of the greenback cutthroat.  The fish seem to be breeding, but not every year. 

Chris Kennedy uses a gill net to catch fish to estimate population and determine if the fish are reproducing. 

Chris Kennedy uses a gill net to catch fish to estimate population and determine if the fish are reproducing. 

The Gorge Lakes look so close and so inviting from Trail Ridge Road.  For a fisherman, the pull can be irresistible.  However, they are much farther than they seem, and the hike is very difficult.  Every year fishermen need to be rescued from the Gorge Lakes, and over the years, several people have died after becoming lost, or injured.  While the lakes are fairly pristine, without any of the trash, or "bootleg" trails found at other back country fishing sites, the lakes are in fact visited by fishermen.   For Arrowhead Lake especially, even though it gets very little fishing pressure, it contains relatively few fish, as it exists right at the edge of the greenback's cold tolerance. 

Mature greenback cutthroat trout in the inlet of Arrowhead Lake.

Mature greenback cutthroat trout in the inlet of Arrowhead Lake.