PARK COUNTY • Atop Wilkerson Pass, across the flats stretching out to the snowy Collegiate Peaks, there’s something in view like a mirage: shimmering blue on the desolate plateau.

That’s Spinney Mountain Reservoir, reached on a dirt road past prairie dogs and pronghorn and idyllic ranches where buffalo roam. As first light spills over the hills, Tipton Cook prepares his boat.

He’s come again to this quiet place from his home in Bailey. The allure is simple.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he says, “and the fish are so big.”

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Tipton Cook, who has been fly fishing the Spinney Mountain Reservoir for about 20 years, piles his gear onto his pontoon for a day on the water on Friday, August 12, 2022. Spinney Mountain Reservoir is one of three gold medal lakes in the state of Colorado--known for its large trout caught on artificial flies and lures--designated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Spinney Mountain Reservoir is Gold Medal-designated water teeming with trophy-sized trout. It’s relatively shallow water where plants easily grow by the sun, fostering the food supply that fattens the fish.

“We’re talking 24- to-26-inch rainbows,” Cook says, eyeing my notebook. He winks. “Maybe make that 16- to-18-inch pig rainbows.”

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As much as he’d wish, Spinney is no secret; there’s a sign pointing to it right off U.S. 24. Nonetheless, it’s kept its reputation as “an isolated retreat,” by Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s description. “Intimate,” Cook says. More so than the fellow state park and oasis about 10 miles down the road.

Eleven Mile Reservoir is bustling this same morning, the familiar scene of beach-like parties and family vacationers soaking up the last days of summer. Eleven Mile is bigger than its counterpart to the west; 3,400 surface acres compared with Spinney’s 2,500 acres. The rules are different on the water — the angler is challenged by artificial flies and lures only at Spinney, where the bag limit is also stricter — and the opportunities are more by land at Eleven Mile, with ample campsites and trails.

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The South Platte River flows from Spinney Mountain Reservoir into the "Dream Stream" and then onto Eleven Mile Reservoir. Eleven Mile Reservoir is an oasis for backcountry camping, fishing, and other outdoor recreation activities like kayaking and paddle boarding. The manmade lake provides drinking water to Denver. 

However distinct, the two reservoirs share a connection. From dam to dam weaves the 2-mile Dream Stream, a glistening ribbon through the grassland.

It’s a destination to go with the South Platte River carving the granite realm bordering Eleven Mile Reservoir. The U.S. Forest Service calls the craggy, lush and forested Eleven Mile Canyon “an unexpected paradise.”

These are some of the natural wonders occupying South Park, this great expanse at the geographic heart of Colorado. The land caught the envy of the writer Virginia McConnell Simmons.

“One needs no special sensibilities to feel a sudden choke of wonder when he looks for the first time down across the immense upland valley of South Park,” she wrote. She continued: “That South Park’s resources have outlasted man’s effort to exploit them is part of its mystical allure.”

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The dams followed that history of exploit. Where the Ute held firm to the hunting ground before the wagons and guns of the gold rush, the growing city of Denver later saw an opportunity for water storage. The first was the dam that created Antero Reservoir, another go-to fishery of South Park today. The Eleven Mile dam was heralded an “engineering triumph” upon completion in 1932. The city of Aurora saw its opportunity later at the foot of Spinney Mountain in 1982.

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The South Platte River elbows its way down Eleven Mile Canyon Recreation Area on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The canyon is one part of a larger recreation area strung together by the South Platte river including Eleven Mile Reservoir, the "Dream Stream," and Spinney Mountain Reservoir.

It’s believed Lt. Zebulon Pike’s party ascended that mountain during the 1806 expedition ordered by Thomas Jefferson. The area had previously seen incursion by Spanish explorers and French trappers. But no wave was like the estimated 11,000 miners after gold was discovered in 1859.

“Within a decade, the grizzly bear and wolf were hunted to extinction,” according to an account by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Streams were virtually sterilized by dredges and hydraulic hoses.”

Mountainsides were stripped for wood to build mine shafts, cabins and the railway. Today’s road through Eleven Mile Canyon is the former bed of the Colorado Midland Railroad. From Colorado Springs, the train ferried the affluent to an area around Spinney Mountain for wildflower excursions.

The railroad ended in 1918, and the main thoroughfare eventually rerouted over Wilkerson Pass. And from atop the pass today, the view might not be so different than the one that inspired McConnell Simmons. As she seemed to suggest, nature still rules.

“The thing is, it’s not easy to fish,” Cook says here at Spinney Mountain Reservoir.

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A group of pronghorn forage along the banks of the "Dream Stream" between Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile Reservoir on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

The wind tends to be sudden and brutal; waves can swell 5 feet, CPW warns, threatening boats. Storms roll in fast. The cold and freeze close the reservoir starting Nov. 15.

So with the season and the unpredictable weather, the window of opportunity is short for a big prize. The daily limit for anglers is one trout 20 inches or longer.

“Most people release them anyway,” Cook says. “Because they’re such amazing fish.”

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