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Sylvan Lakes come alive

Kathy Heicher, David L'Heureux and Connie Steiert

There’s any number of reasons why visitors refer to Sylvan Lake State Park as a crown jewel of the state parks system.

Maybe the phrase is a reference to the way the ruddy patches of sunshine and purple shadows play across the spine of Red Table Mountain on the far side of the lake. Or it could be a comment on the dense green of the surrounding woods, and the fact the park is the gateway to hiking, biking and exploring the surrounding White River National Forest.

Then again, maybe that kind talk has been inspired by the silvery flash of a brook trout being pulled from the lake or from the tumbling waters of East and West Brush creeks. Or maybe its the fact that just a few years ago, some 89 percent of the 1,427 mountain acres that comprise the park was privately owned, and slated for development of yet another up-scale Colorado ski resort.



In December, 1999, after 30 years of wrangling with government approvals, citizen opposition and other complexities of large-scale development, the landowner eventually sold his 1,272 acre of property on East and West Brush Creek to a coalition of state, local, and federal government agencies for use as a state park.

That newly expanded state park is both loved, and used, throughout the year. These days, visitors pay a minimal $5 per day to reach great trout fishing, beautiful scenery, and the kind of solace only the mountains and open spaces can bring.



Sylvan Lake State Park Manager Doug Secrist’s records indicate that during the past fiscal year, some 93,275 people visited the park. He estimates 65 percent of the visitors are local. The remainder come primarily from the Front Range area and out of state. Sylvan lake is particularly popular with visitors from California, Arizona, and Texas, Secrist says.

The state has built up the park slightly. There are nine cabins available for rent at Sylvan Lake and three new yurts just above the switchbacks on East Brush Creek. Fishermen can stroll all the way around Sylvan Lake on well-marked trail and some additional parking spots and day-use areas have been built along either creek.

The vast majority of the park has been left in its natural state.



“One of the things we push for is to find a balance between development and providing recreation access, yet still maintaining that rural, rustic flavor this is all about,” says Secrist. “There is a whole new realm of recreation available up here that wasn’t here before.”

Although the park is just a short drive from Eagle, once in the park, many visitors choose to spend a day or two ” the park can accommodate.

At Sylvan Lake itself ” located about six miles up West Brush Creek from the park’s visitor center ” there are 46 campsites wit space for tents, trailers, and campers, with some pull-through sites for larger units. Each campsite has a table and grill. Showers are available at the Camper Services building.

Fees for camping sites are $14 per night for non-electric; and $18 per night for sites equipped with electric service.

Currently, the park has eight cabins for rent adjacent to the lake. Each cabin has beds for up to six people, with picnic tables inside and outside, and a small gas heater capable of keeping the cabin cozy in cold weather. Work will start soon on a large cabin that will be equipped with a full kitchen, a bathroom and bedrooms for up to 12 people. Cost of the cabins, including reservation fees, runs about $64 per night. Cabins may be rented year-around.

Three yurts are available for rent on East Brush Creek, near the Old Fulford Road, which was once the stagecoach route to the mining boom town of Fulford. Yurts are something of a cross between a tent and a cabin. The yurts rent for about the same price as the cabins.

The park has several educational, hands-on nature programs. Led by naturalist Melissa Hayes, there are programs on owls, bats, animal tracking, trees and Native American Indian lore.

“I wanted the programs to be educational. I wanted kids to learn something about the outdoors and why it’s important,” says Hayes, who developed most of the nature programs at Sylvan Lake. “At the same time, I wanted it to be fun ” I didn’t want to stand up and be talking at them.”

Hayes’ most popular programs is “Bats, Bats, Bats,” uses games and devices to demonstrate how bats identify each other and how they use echo location to find their way. Then Hayes leads participants on a night excursion to see the creatures in action.

“Educating people about the environment they are in here is an important part of what we do at the park,” says Secrist.

The nature programs are held every weekend at Sylvan Lake. Some are during the day, such as “Habitracks,” where participants learn to differentiate animal tracks on the trail. Others, such as the program on owls, are held under the stars, followed by a bedtime story or Indian folk stories told by lantern light.

The park serves as a gateway to the surrounding White River National Forest and Holy Cross Wilderness areas. The choice of trails ranges from short, mellow hikes around Sylvan Lake to more rigorous routes requiring a full day and a packed lunch.

“I think families really like the trail around the lake,” says Secrist. “It’s short and reasonable for kids, and there are a lot of indigenous plants and animals to be seen around the lake.”

McKenzie Gulch trail is an easy hike off of the West Brush Creek Road. The moderate climb up McKenzie Gulch takes hikers through aspen trees, mountain maple and wild rose. As it progresses, the forest becomes mixed with spruce and fir and is excellent for bird watching ” wood thrushes, house wrens, dark-eyed juncos and mountain chickadees are just a few of the birds you might see.

The 2.6-mile trail tops off at McKenzie Spring.

For those looking for a little longer hike, a trip up East Brush Creek Road to the Lake Charles Trailhead is a good option. The trail follows East Brush Creek to Lake Charles and continues on to Mystic Island Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness. It is a fairly gradual hike except for a couple of steep sections.

The trail accesses some great fishing, as well. East Brush Creek has rainbow, brook and brown trout, while Lake Charles and Mystic Island Lakes have Colorado cutthroat trout.

Those who make the 4.4 mile hike to Lake Charles will be treated to spectacular views of 12,947 foot tall Fool’s Peak on the other side of the lake.

The options for mountain biking at Sylvan Lake State Park are limited. But what’s lacking in quantity, is made up for in quality. Riding here is not, however, for the faint of heart. By mountain biking standards, the trails are both steep and technical.

“We haven’t seen a lot of mountain biking yet,” said Secrist. “Most people we get up here follow the four-wheel drive roads and forest service roads because the trails are so steep.”

If you take the time to pedal your way to the top of the Sneve Gulch Trail, the trip back down will be a gravity-driven affair tailor-made for adrenaline junkies.

The trail begins with a steady climb to an overlook of Sylvan Lake. From there, the trail continues climbing at grades varying from four percent to 22 percent. Riders will wind their way through open meadows, aspen, spruce, fir and lodgepole forests.

The trail has views of Red Table Mountain to the southwest, and the high-sandstone cliffs of Mount Eve to the north.

For more details call Hayes at (970) 328-2021, ext. 206.

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