As residents on the southern end of the Front Range, one of the real deficiencies is quality access to good bodies of water. Sure, Lake Pueblo is just an hour away, and in big water years, you can chase wipers and ski for hours out at John Martin. But then, you can die of sun stroke, too, and Pueblo Reservoir is one of the more crowded impoundments in the state. If only we had a little miniaturized version of Lake Tahoe…
For serenity and the feeling of enjoyment amidst grandeur, Lake Vallecito north of Bayfield five hours west of Colorado Springs via Highway 160 is the kind of place that slaps you upside the head and say “is this a great state or what?”
Set right at 8000′ elevation, Vallecito as it name implies, dams a wee little valley where two San Juan Mountain drainages converge, Vallecito Creek from the north and the Los Pinos River from the east. The result is a splendid lake with around 12 miles of shoreline. For the angler, northern pike and smallmouth bass are the primary pursuit, an oddity of warmwater fishing at this elevation in the middle of summer. Rainbows and browns can be found in the shallower water in the spring and summer, and kokanee salmon anglers have their days as well. A wonderfully healthy aquatic mass keeps fish churning, as evidences in the abundant osprey population, especially on the northern shore.
Four different campgrounds can be found, with three off of the dirt road on the southern shore, and a fourth around the bend on the western shore. None are near the marina. If camping isn’t your bag, and you’d rather have a B&B or little mountain cottage experience, there are several options from the Vallecito Lake Chamber of Commerce website. There’s a general store “in-town” on the northerly shore that will load up the camper with ice, worms, Snickers or truck stop coffee.
What sets Vallecito apart however is that it’s the end of the paved road and is surrounded by the daunting majesty of the rugged Weminuche Wilderness, at over 499,000 acres, the large wilderness in Colorado. Twelve to 13,000 mountains ring the lake tipped in year-round snow. The backside of the lack on the east side has a two mile rutted dirt road drive to the trailhead access for the southern Weminuche. Backpackers depart for an eight mile hike to the first dedicated campsites, the first two miles of which are along a public easement through one of the prettiest ranches you’ll ever set your eyes on. After two miles, public access opens up with the lovely splashing freestone song of the Los Pinos River carousing through the woods. Trout to 16″ can be found in here, and not just on the dainty-stuff: the terrifying looking minnow-crossed-with-a-dragon mottled sculpin that famously lives in the Animas River and helps the brown trout grow to prodigious sizes can be found at this oxygen-deprived elevation as well. Something else to be in Colorado Wildnerness slinging a palm-sized fat-head bugger through the deeper runs. On the north side of the reservoir the road continues into the backcountry as well. At a fifth, streamside campground is the trailhead to go north into the Weminuche. After two hairpin-filled miles, the trail finds it’s way to a breathtaking canyon along Vallecito Creek. Here the fish are smaller, but less pressured, and frankly, dumber, more readily seduced by anything hackled that floats. If you’re into paying for a guide, there’s also a stretch below the dam that is private water. The San Juan Angler offers a service on this tailwater stretch, but apparently one better book early; it’s famous for good reason.
Last, but not to be missed is the boating on Vallecito. Have a kayak or a canoe? Well this is a dream. Have an outboard or even an inboard? Be prepared for mussel-inspection (especially if you frequent Pueblo) and have fun. Don’t have a boat? No problem. Everything from SUP’s to pontoon boats are rented at the marina. The lake is in the upper 60’s from mid-July into September making it an especially refreshing place for a dip in the dog days of summer.
Vallecito is just 50 minutes from downtown Durango and a tad over an hour from Pagosa Springs, north of Bayfield. For a real taste of Colorado budget at least four days to maximize your fun.