Do you crave cooler temps, unending top-water action, alpine vistas and some mother nature immersion? Feeling like a new adventure might be just what the doctor ordered? Are you willing to put in some effort in order to reap worthy benefits? If you’ve answered yes to these questions, you’ve come to the right place.
Nestled within the tantalizing Holy Cross Wilderness, Lake Charles and its close neighbor, Mystic Island Lake, are true local gems. Without a doubt, Eagle County boasts a plethora of backcountry routes leading to immaculate fisheries. But after 6 years of scouring the regional mountains, the Lake Charles trail captures my attention time and time again. And the list of reasons ‘why’ continues to grow.
As most of us have learned, Google Maps is an amazing tool. But that doesn’t mean it’s always accurate. My friend discovered this the hard way when he typed ‘Lake Charles Trail’ into his search bar. A drive that should have taken him about 25 minutes quickly turned into a frustrating 3-hour expedition. He did, however, tour some stunning mountain roads in search of the trailhead. If you would prefer to avoid that extensive detour, follow the turn-by-turn directions below.
From Eagle, Colorado, head southwest on Highway 6 (Grand Avenue) until you hit the roundabout near the outskirts of town. Turn onto Sylvan Lake Road and meander southeast until it intersects with Brush Creek Rd. If you’ve noticed signs for Sylvan Lake State Park at this point, you’re on the right path. Take a right onto Brush Creek Rd and drive roughly 9 miles through a lush, ranch-speckled valley. As the road transitions from pavement to dirt, you will come to a Y intersection. Hang a left onto East Brush Creek Rd (FDR 415) and begin your 6 mile ascent to the trailhead. Around mile 4, you will pass Yeoman Park & Campground on your right. Continue straight until the road terminates at the Fulford Cave campground. As your driving mission comes to a close, find yourself a parking spot in the lot to the left.
Let’s get the dry, statistical information out of the way before delving into the juicy highlights for this adventure. From the trailhead, the route to Lake Charles runs roughly 5 miles and ascends approximately 2000 vertical feet. If you continue on to Mystic Island Lake, be prepared to hike an additional mile or so. According to USFS, the trail receives heavy use and is rated as moderate. But I would argue that those two points are somewhat subjective. For example, if you make the trip during the middle of the week, you will see far less people. And the difficulty is largely based on your physical condition and experience with backpacking.
As you leave the parking lot, be sure to veer left onto the Lake Charles trail (to the right is the Iron Edge trail). Beyond that initial intersection, the route is a ‘straight’ shot directly to the lake. The grade is mostly gradual with the exception of two steep stretches.
Now, I’d pencil in an extra hour or two for your hike up. Because the fishing opportunities along the way are seemingly endless. There are no less than a half dozen sections where you can cast to brookies within feet of the trail. From beaver ponds and sinuous stretches of East Brush Creek to deep pools carved by waterfalls, the route leading to Lake Charles reminds me of a vertical waterpark. But instead of being surrounding by screaming kids and fat dudes in banana hammocks, you’ll be engulfed in a tranquil setting where wild trout lazily rise to passing flies. If you brought along a 3 or 4 wt rod, these areas present the perfect scenario for using it. Focus on the smaller runs and pools of the creek if you’re looking for more of a challenge.
After several false ‘summits’, the valley finally opens up revealing breathtaking views of Lake Charles and Fool’s Peak (12,953’). If a more secluded campsite is what you seek, take an immediate right (heading south) once you’ve reached the lake. There you will find several mini peninsulas offering primo spots for your tent. Depending on what time of day you arrive, the density of halos on the water will vary. But my guess is you’ll see dozens before dropping pack. Time to rig up and explore.
Both Lake Charles and Mystic Island Lake hold brookies and cutthroats. And although the largest I’ve landed of either species was around 15”, you can bet there are bigger fish holding in the depths. Unless you hauled up an inflatable raft of some type, casting from the shore and wet wading will be your two approaches. As for fly selection, I won’t go so far as to say it didn’t really matter. But I was honestly getting strikes with EVERY dry I tied on. I did, however, stick to neutral and earth-tone colors when choosing each pattern.
As with most stillwater fisheries, the dry fly action was very good in the mornings and totally on fire at dusk. From about 8pm until it was pitch black out, Lake Charles was boiling with risers. Some trout were sipping bugs off the surface while others were performing intricate acrobatics whilst feeding. At one point, my eyes started to feel a little stressed. Apparently, I hadn’t blinked in 5 minutes. Maybe it had something to do with my tireless focus on a size 18 Para-Wulff Adams 40 feet away in the waning light . In the end, it was totally worth it. This doesn’t happen often. But I actually stopped fishing because I had landed my fill.
Go Explore More
If you can stretch your trip to 4 days, do it. I just put in 3 days up there and barely scratched the surface of fishing possibilities. The trail connecting Lake Charles to Mystic Island Lake passes several large pools and some amazing tracts of stream. You could easily spend an afternoon working the bends and riffles there.
Up at Mystic Island Lake, there are countless rock outcroppings on the western shore that create deep pockets of water. I found that larger cutties continually patrol those shelves. If you make it there, I’d suggest applying a sneaky approach, maybe even casting from behind a boulder or bush. Even though you’re fishing a less-pressured alpine lake, the trout can get a little spooky. And on that note, once the middle of the day hits, the top-water action doesn’t exactly stop. But it does slow down. Tie on a midge or emerger dropper below your dry. Or go really deep using a full nymph rig with some weight on it. Hell, while you’re at it, throw a heavy streamer in there and let it sink deep. Cash in on the trifecta of fly fishing techniques.
Whether you fish one or both of the lakes, scope out the inlets and outlets. Lake Charles has an especially productive inlet on the far east end. As for the rest of your time up there, do some exploring. I’m sure there are secluded bends, pools and holes that rarely see a fisherman. Find them. Fish them. And consider telling a friend about them when you get home. Or maybe keep those rare finds to yourself. We all know that some spots are just too good to be shared.
Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers Content Writer, @sticks2snow