Fish Lake (South San Juan Wilderness)

  • Rating: Difficult

  • Distance: 17.6 miles (out and back)

  • Elevation:

    • Trailhead: 8980 feet

    • Gain: 4500 feet

    • Max: 12,080 feet

    • Lake: 11,870 feet

  • Road Status: Castle Creek to Fish Creek TH (FR660)

  • Trail: Fish Lake (574)

  • Trailhead Directions (25.2 miles southeast of Pagosa Springs)

  • Trail Map

  • Notes: Lots of elevation gain at high altitude, with large sections above treeline (lightning warning).  Not recommended for day hikers.

Nestled deep in the South San Juan Wilderness near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Fish Lake is a beautiful, deep glacier tarn located just below the Continental Divide in the headwaters of the Blanco River.  The lake lives up to its name - it supports a healthy cutthroat trout population thanks to its depth, adequate drainage area, and remoteness.  Although the distance and elevation gain keeps the crowds away, the trail is well engineered.  The spruce beetles decimated the old growth spruce and fir, which means there is a good chance that you'll encounter deadfall across the trail.  The wildflowers are taking advantage of the extra sunlight in the understory of the standing dead.  

The trailhead can be accessed without 4WD, although you have to cross one drainage that could pose problems for low clearance vehicles during spring runoff or after a rainstorm.  Fish Creek Trail and Fish Lake Trail share the same trailhead, splitting shortly after you cross Fish Creek.  Fish Creek could be difficult to cross at high water, but there are a few cottonwoods spanning the creek just upstream of the ford. 

 

Shortly after the creek crossing, a trail sign directs Fish Lake traffic north (downstream).  The trail drops about 200 feet in elevation as it follows a scenic meadow that parallels Fish Creek for about 1.3 miles.  At that point, you will cross the North Fork Fish Creek and begin following that drainage to the lake. 

 

After you cross the North Fork for the 3rd time at mile 3, be prepared to climb relentlessly for the rest of the hike.  You'll cross a tributary at mile 4.7 and then cross the North Fork for the last time at mile 5.1.  After crossing 2 more tributaries, you'll begin traversing the mountainside via long, broad switchbacks.  You'll reach treeline at mile 7.5 and the broad switchbacks will continue across the tundra, offering sweeping views of the backside of Blackhead Peak, Quartz Ridge, and Gunsight Pass.  At mile 8.6, you'll reach the highest point and be rewarded with your first glimpse of the lake, 200 feet below you.  The outlet of the lake enters a snow-filled gorge before dropping steeply into the abyss below.  The lake sits above treeline so there's no cover in the event of a storm.  Fly casting is easy since the lake is not lined with thick willows.  

 
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