The Piedra River
A flyfishing hike that's worthwhile

by K. Christopherson

Colorado holds a plentiful amount of beautiful spots to fish. But there aren't that many that offer unusual canyons coupled with good fishing. If you like to hike, and can take a day or two, one of the best hiking and fishing destinations is along the Piedra River in Southwest Colorado.

The Piedra starts in the Weminuche Wilderness. Three forks (the East and Middle Forks plus Williams Creek) travel to the south and merge into the main stem of the Piedra. The main river then travels southwest and south, mostly within the Piedra Wilderness. Ten miles of river are only accessible by hiking, and this is one fishing trip that is definitely worth the hike!

Hiking in to fish the Piedra River
The start of the Piedra Trail from the northeast end. It is deceptive as it seems rather plain. But just wait until you turn the first bend.

As the river has followed its course over thousands of years, it has eroded down through reddish sandstones and volcanic rocks. This has created very dramatic canyons and overhangs along the river. It also has created a diverse selection of fishing opportunities from deep, bend pools, to flat meadow sections to plunge pools. And the fishing isn't bad either - mainly browns and rainbows with some cutthroats thrown in.

This type of river also attracts other river creatures. River otters were placed here by the Colorado Division of Wildlife - keep your eyes open for the frolicking critters. And, if you're fishing during higher water, be wary of the kayakers who find the stretches a challenge that increases as they move downstream.

Overhangs on the Piedra River Colorado
Pools under rocks - it doesn't get much more scenic than this

There are two ways into the main portion of the river. You can start at the northeast and hike downriver along the trail. Then work your way back upstream. You can wade through and up the stream during lower water times. This can be done as a day hike, returning to the parking area off FR 631.

Alternatively, you can start at the south end. The FR622 follows along the river from Hwy 160. It may look like the road is close to the river on a map, but it travels about 800 feet above the stream, and it's a steep climb down. It's better to drive upstream to one of the parking areas and follow an established trail to the Piedra.

One of the most fun ways to enjoy the Piedra is to make a two or three-day trip, taking along your backpack and camping gear. It is about ten miles of trail from the southern trailhead to the northeast start. A great concept is to take two vehicles, leaving one at each trailhead. Sure this takes some planning, but your trip will be worth it. Regardless of how you do your trip, wear hiking boots in and out, carrying wading gear for when you fish. The trail can be rather tricky and slippery in places. And take water, food, and raingear with you. A map and/or gps is almost a necessary requirement. It can be easy to loose track of where you are.

Beautiful canyon walls Piedra River in Colorado
Large rock exposures loom above the river - no wonder early explorers named it the 'Piedra' which means 'stone' or 'rock' in Spanish

For several reasons it's best to fish the Piedra after the high water and runoff. The flows can get enormous as the high-country snows start melting, increasing the river's water ten-fold. After runoff, the trip will be safer and easier (since you can hike closer to or in the river), you'll avoid the cloudy water, and you won't have to dodge as many kayakers. Time it right, and you could witness a great stonefly hatch.

You can also fish the upper waters, such as the middle or east fork. Much of these streams are on National Forest lands (or in the wilderness areas). The upper reaches hold more cutthroats.

Piedra River Canyon
Portions of the river are perfect for wading upstream.

How to get there?

  • Southwest end of Piedra (main stem): Take Hwy 160 west from Pagosa Springs for about 20 miles, to the small settlement of Piedra. Turn north on FR 622. The road follows the river (somewhat) for almost nine miles. There is a parking area at the trailhead - Piedra River Trail
  • Northeast end of the Piedra (main stem): Going west from Pagosa Springs on Hwy 160, take the Piedra Road to the north. Follow the road (it turns into FR631) to the bridge. After crossing the bridge, there is a parking area and trailhead on the left.
  • Middle Fork: Take Piedra Road north from Pagosa Springs (as above) and follow for about 17.8 miles. Turn right on Middle Fork Road (FR636). The road follows close to the Middle Fork - some of this is private property. The road ends at a trailhead where you can hike up the Middle Fork into Weminuche Wilderness

Resources:

  • Colorado fishing mapsClick here to buy a topo map for this area. You need map 145 which covers most of the Piedra north of Hwy 160. Maps are produced by National Geographic Maps
  • Colorado fishing books Buy an ebook on CD: Fifty Colorado Tailwaters: A Fly Fisher's Guide Click here for info or to purchase. Includes information on tailwaters in this area (some other places to fish!)

Special Rules:

  • From Piedra River Bridge (on Rd 631) to 1.5 miles above Hwy 160: Fishing with artificial flies and lures only; CATCH and RELEASE on all trout. This is almost the entire extent of the Piedra after the three forks merge and travel to the main highway west of Pagosa Springs.
  • East Fork: Fishing with artificial flies and lures only; catch and release on ALL cutthroats.

Where to stay?

There are a few National Forest campgrounds on or near the Piedra River. There are also some cabins available near Piedra Ranger Station, or you can stay in Pagosa Springs.