They are a pair of southern Colorado’s great escapes, the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. They offer so many adventures that making a list could turn into an all day exercise. The list of these benefits might start with the answer so many are looking for this time of year, where to go to escape the furnace-like summertime heat that blankets so much of southern Colorado. But wait, as an infomercial might say: There’s more!!
The parks’ expanse is vast and within each there is a laundry list of adventures including non-motorized boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, bird watching, camping and a whole lot more. There are even cabins to rent. Even better, for a lot of southern Coloradans, it’s less than an hour away. And right now is prime time though the winter offerings are also enticing.
Actually, the Pike and San Isabel National Forests make up only part of a 1.2 million acres of national forest that also includes the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, a swath of land that stretches across southern Colorado and into Kansas. The Cimarron is located in Kansas.
For Coloradans, Lake Isabel has long been a go-to location for a day or weekend of budget-friendly rest and relaxation. The lake which was built in the 1930’s as a reservoir for storing water for Pueblo’s CF&I steel plant (now Evraz Steel) is approximately 40 acres in size, an area covering approximately 25 city blocks. It sits between Pueblo and Custer Counties, the nearest town being Rye, Colorado.
From Pueblo, Lake Isabel is less than an hour away and more than worth the investment in time, said Alex Zipp, a sales associate at Pueblo’s The Drift Fly Shop. “I get both local and visiting customers headed to fish there,” he said in between customers on a recent Friday morning. The lake is always well stocked, he said, with brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout. But the lake is far from the only option for fishing in the national forest.
“There are countless numbers of alpine lakes and small streams, most of which have trout,” he said. Of course, Zipp cautioned, if the lake isn’t your first choice you may have to budget a little more time and a lot more energy. “Some of the places are easily accessible but the majority will require a moderate hike, adding, “You’ll be rewarded.”
While southern Coloradans may be more familiar with the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, those who haven’t experienced the region are in for a pleasant surprise. The Pike and San Isabel have some of Colorado’s most majestic vistas. The area contains the Buffalo Peaks, Collegiate Peaks, Holy Cross, Mount Massive and the Sangre de Cristo range. Greenhorn Mountain, one of the most eye catching peaks on the drive to San Isabel, and visible from I-25, is also part of the deal.
The region also boasts 19 of Colorado’s ‘fourteeners,’ peaks at least 14,000 feet in elevation. Two of southern Colorado’s most picturesque mountains, the Spanish Peaks, are also part of the region’s gems. But for the intrepid, hikers with bucket list commitments to scale a fourteener, the Forest Service warns that summer weather can change rapidly and advises climbers to plan trips carefully, beginning by letting someone know your plans.
Another important tip from the Forest Service is one on weather. A quick moving front has been known to drop the temperature precipitously, sometimes catching climbers off guard, the result being hypothermia, a condition in which the body’s temperature plunges to dangerous or even fatal levels. Even experienced climbers have been caught off guard. The same weather can also include lightning, an element that annually claims a life or two in Colorado’s high country.
The Forest Service says another downside of this Colorado high country popularity is one plaguing most of the country’s national parks and forests and one that it deals with on a regular basis. “Trash is one of the biggest ones,” said Crystal Young, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Pueblo. “One of the principles is to pack it out with you…and a lot of people just don’t do that.” Young also advises that while animals are allowed into the parks, owners should be responsible and pick up after them.
Fire is another serious issue, though, unlike some of the wilderness that has turned bone-dry across the West, the Pike and San Isabel have so far escaped that seasonal curse.
“We have been very fortunate and received above normal precipitation this spring and early summer,” said Paul Delmerico, Assistant Fire Management Officer for the Forest Service. Still, as long as climate change lingers and carves its initials into so many facets of our lives and people continue to enjoy the gifts of nature, a number that adds up to millions of visitors annually, fires and careless human activity will remain a constant concern across a sunbaked West.
The country’s national forests are a gift to be enjoyed by all, said Young, at the same time repeating a common-sense nugget that all park visitors should remember: ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.’
For information on fees for reservations in certain locations of the parks or fishing or hunting licenses, visit the U.S. Forest Service website at FS.USDA.Gov/PSICC.