These trips offer the best of both backpacking and fishing. You get the chance to see some of America’s last wild places, and fly fish in rivers and lakes that may only see a dozen anglers a year.
If there’s one thing I regret about my high school years, it’s that I didn’t take full advantage of all the backpacking trips I could’ve had. I grew up on the side of a mountain in rural Utah but never ventured too far from the peaks in my backyard. Now, even though I’m still young and spry, I don’t say “yes” to every backpacking invitation like I used to.
Apparently, years of running around the wilderness catches up and reminds you that two 10-plus mile backpacking trips in consecutive weeks will hurt. It’s a good reminder to have, if only because it pushes me to go on as many trips as possible. The day is a long way off – but approaching – when my knees won’t stop hurting.
I should note that among my circle of friends, a backpacking trip is more of a “fishing in as many remote lakes and streams as we can” trip than traditional backpacking. Any weight saved by using the lightest packs, bags, and pads is cancelled by the wealth of tackle everyone brings. I went on a trip once where a guy hauled a float tube, fins, hand pump, and waders 18 miles in the High Uintas Wilderness here in Utah.
Anyway, the point is these trips offer the best of both backpacking and fishing. You get the chance to see some of America’s last wild places, fly fish in rivers and lakes that may only see a dozen anglers a year, and have an experience that relatively few other people do.
The following list is made up of places I’ve been and a few that are still on the bucket list. Whether you’re a diehard fly fisherman and want to fish untouched water, or you’re just along for the hike, these trips are for you.
Wyoming’s Pole Creek Lakes lie at the base of the Wind River Mountains. With altitudes near 9,500 feet, the Winds offer a unique backpacking challenge that culminates in some of the area’s best trout water. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant.
The last time I did this trip I came home with altitude sickness and an alarming realization that I’m not in as good of shape as I thought. Apparently, the kid who ran a 5:45 mile in high school is buried beneath the dad bod I’m rocking these days.
It’s a beast of a hike, at a good elevation, but it puts you on some of the best trout water in the Wind River Mountains. I was lucky enough to be in the area for the 2017 total solar eclipse, and even then it wasn’t crowded.
The Pole Creek Lakes have a ton of brookies in them, but golden trout are there if you know where to look.
The Winds are remote, beautiful, and dangerous. If you’ve never been there, haven’t spent a lot of time at altitudes above 9,500 feet, or haven’t spent much time in the Rockies in general, I’d strongly recommend a guide for the first time. Someone who knows the area, the fish, and the wildlife is invaluable in helping you have a great time.
If native trout anglers have a mecca, it’s a tie between Pyramid Lake and the Golden Trout Wilderness.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains are incredible, if overcrowded these days. The Golden Trout Wilderness, though, is remote enough to dissuade the masses.
And, there’s the perk of it being home to the Kern River, a river to which golden trout are native. When it comes to rare fish, golden trout are at the top of nearly every angler’s wish list. They don’t get as big in the Kern River as they do in other places throughout the West. It’s a bit ironic that they’re small in their native range and grow to trophy sizes elsewhere, but this is one of the few places in the world you can catch golden trout from the rivers they’ve swam in for thousands of years.
Whether you’re a diehard fly angler and want to fish untouched water, or you’re just along for the hike, a backcountry fishing trip will offer the adventure of a lifetime.
This is one of the most popular hikes in Utah’s Uinta Mountains. That said, Wall Lake has the space to accommodate many people. Just don’t be surprised to find the trailhead parking lot nearly full.
Wall Lake makes this list because it’s a great backpacking trip for those who just want to get some peace and quiet next to one of Utah’s more scenic lakes, and those who want to put some miles on their boots in pursuit of big trout. Wall Lake itself has a decent trout population, and it makes a great base camp for day excursions to a few dozen surrounding ponds and lakes, all of which are home to big trout.
It’s appropriately named.
Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America, with canyon walls on the Idaho border rising some 7,993 feet above the Snake River. It’s deeper than the Grand Canyon, to put it into perspective.
What makes Hells Canyon such an attraction is the sheer amount of undeveloped wilderness. A total of three roads run through the area, which leaves the rest of the river accessible only to those willing to hoof it.
This is one of the most remote areas in the country, and home to some of the Pacific Northwest’s biggest Class IV rapids. It’s also known for being a great first-of-the-year trip for backpackers, since the elevation at the river is so low.
Hells Canyon has the extremes for those who want them, and the laid-back trails for the rest. And the fishing is spectacular year-round, though it picks up more during the fall when the steelhead run.
“As much as I love backpacking, I love where it takes me more,” said writer and angler Spencer Durrant. “I think that’s why a lot of people do it, and I know it’s why I’m willing to strap 30 pounds of gear to my back and hike for miles.” Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant, taken while fly fishing the Pole Creek Lakes in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.
As much as I love backpacking, I love where it takes me more. I think that’s why a lot of people do it, and I know it’s why I’m still willing to strap 30 pounds of gear to my back and hike for miles. The fishing is always the main attraction, but the scenery along the way isn’t bad.
If you’re new to backpacking or backcountry fishing, I highly recommend finding a fishing guide. I can’t stress enough how helpful they can be. The backcountry, especially out here in the Rockies, is an unforgiving place. It’s not an area for rookies on their own. But with the right planning, good maps, and light packs, you’ll be able to have an unforgettable time in any of these places.
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