Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fishing, Food & Lodging : An Essential Guide to Sugarite Canyon State Park, NM / Lake Dorothey, CO

Sugarite Canyon State Park, NM / Lake Dorothey, CO

“She's a surprise this old earth, one big surprise after another since before she separated from the moon who circles and circles like the mate of a shot goose.”

― Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

Where: Raton Range, Colfax County, Sugarite Canyon State Park, Colorado/New Mexico border
Nearby Towns: Raton, NM, Trinidad, CO, Walsenburg, CO
When: best from ice out, mid-April through mid-October,  also ice fishing on Maloya 
Water: three lakes connected by Chicorica Creek, 2 tributary streams w/ riffles, pools
Flyshops: none in the area
Maps: Sugarite Canyon State Park,  another park mapArea map
Species: Rainbow, Cutthroat, Yellow Perch  
Bugs: Caddis, hoppers, Chironomids, leechs, gnats, mosquitos, ants, worms, moths, beetles
Report: Lake Maloya Report
Streamflow: N/A
Altitude:  7800 ft.
Suggested Flies: 
Orange coneheaded Woolley Booger (black/purple)
Stimulator (orange, yellow)  #12-14
Humpy (red, yellow) #14
Elk Hair Caddis (tan, gray) #16-18
Hares Ear (olive, tan) #14-16
Pheasant Tails #14-18
Royal Wulff #14-16
Dave's Hopper


On the map, Sugarite Canyon State Park seems precariously wedged between the Colorado-New Mexico state line. But the actual drive up the meandering New Mexico Route 526 seems to make a liar out of that map. The park opens up like a geologic jack-in-the-box as Lake Maloya appears over your hood.

Every so often, a trout angler finds a spot that seems too good to be true. Like those few special places, Sugarite has it all--solitude, great camping, nice trails, rock climbing, bird-watching, elk, turkey, perfect water, and healthy trout. And not just one body of water to fish, but several.


Lake Alice

Lake Alice is the first pool in the park along NM 526. It's petite, usually off-color and not a very practical fishery for fly rodders. If you only cast flies, pass it by. God invented Lake Maloya just fo you. : ) However, if you're a bait-chunker and/or a spingear-geek, a lot of your type of people have good luck at Alice. Give it a whirl with your usual trout-duping spinners, lures and dough baits.

Lake Maloya

With 120 acres of trout-infested snowmelt, Lake Maloya is the centerpiece of Sugarite. Gas motors are not allowed on the lake, so electric motors, paddles, and flippers keep the noise level down to a quiet hush, making this the ideal environment for those who enjoy quietly fly fishing from canoes, kayaks, float tubes, and even from shore. Try Pistol Petes, leech patterns, Chironomids, and any array of beaded nymphs, such as Prince Nymph, Damselfly Nymph, red Copper John, Black or Purple Woolly Boogers. The cutthroat and stocked rainbows will take any of these flies during certain times of day, and season. (I used a black Woolly Bugger with a fluorescent orange cone head on one particular day on landed about 10-12 trout

Schwaccheim Creek

Schwaccheim is a smallish rivulet that flows into the north side of Lake Dorothey from Fishers Peak Mesa. During the first signs of runoff, trout move up into this rivulet and are easy to see and catch with a 2-wt to 4-wt setup and dries. We’ve not hiked much more than thirty minutes up the creek, but if water is running through it, it’s your Huckleberry.

You’ll catch rainbows, cutthroat and cuttbows averaging 10 inches in this little trib. But don’t get too far into the woods alone. There is a thick bear population in the canyon, as well as mountain lions. Always fish with a buddy. 

Lake Dorothey, CO

Mark emailed me at school one gorgeous April Friday, way back around 2005. Our correspondence went something like this:

MDW: “Hey Mac, want to go to Sugarite Canyon. Lake Dorothey. Tomorrow. And net some trout?”
Mac: “I’m in.”
MDW: “Sweet. How about you come pick me up around 4:30 tomorrow?”
Mac: “In the A.M.?  WTH?”
MDW: “Affirmative. Get a jump start on ‘em.”
Mac: “Good Lord. Might as well get a time machine and we can be there last week.”
MDW: “See you at 4:30 then?”
Mac: “ … “

(2 hours later…)

MDW: [email]  “You still in, Mac?”

I ignored Williams for a spell. I’m an early riser and all, but 4:30 seemed ridiculous.

MDW: “Mac?”
Mac: “What?”
MDW: “Still in?”
Mac: “How ‘bout 6:00 AM. It’s only a 2.5 hour drive!”
MDW: “Fine. We’ll go at 6:00. But make it sharp. You drive. And we’ll speed and make up the time.”
Mac: “ … “

(1 hour later…)

MDW: [email]  “Mac?”
Mac: “What?”
MDW: “See you then?”
Mac: “Fine then.”

When I showed up at 5:50AM, Mark was vomiting through his hands into the bathroom sink. I would call it a hangover, except, it wasn’t over. He was sorta still hangin’. And hell, I had been up for an hour already and arrived ten minutes early, and, by God, we were going fishing whether Williams had alcohol poisoning or not.

I had seen Williams in this condition before. But never before a fishing trip. He and two buddies came to my house one night to toss horseshoes and have beers. It was a last minute thing, and I didn’t have enough beers for four dudes (especially the dudes who were coming over), “so stop and grab something,” I told him. 

Instead, Williams brings a bottle of lower-shelf whisky. A big, plastic sumbitch too. Spin-off cap and everything. Real classy stuff, ya know. That’s how we do it. Anyway, when the guys finally left that night, it was late and I thought they had driven away, so I went to bed like any normal fool. Turns out they all took turns chumming on my fence at the side of the house for a half hour. I found the scene of the slime the next morning when letting the dog out. I telephoned Williams. “What the hell happened to my fence?”
“Aaron threw up on it. What time is it anyway?”
“What?! Why didn’t he hose it off at least? It’s 8:30.”
“He was drunk. I’m going back to bed.”
“By the way,” Williams chortled, “Huseman called to dinosaurs on it too.”
“Truth be told, we all tossed sidewalk pizza on it, Mac. Sorry. It was a beef throw trifecta. I’m going back to sleep.”
“Dude! Seriously. I have neighbors ya know.”
“Yeah, they came out to make sure we were ok. Brought us ice water. Good people. Ciao.” Mark snapped his flip phone closed with a noticeable click.

I tried to hose the splatter patterns off the fence, but whatever was in that whiskey seemed to make the fence water-repellent for about 6 months, and sorta camouflaged-looking too. Every time it rained, the dark stains beaded up with water and reminded me of plastic bottle whiskey.

But this event was different. This was before a fishing trip -- major Bro Code infraction. And he was going fishing no matter how bad it hurt. “I’ll put your gear in my Jeep. When you’re finally dry heaving, come on out. I don’t want you chumming in the floor of my ride. Got it?”

I waited about 20 minutes. The porch light flicked on. Amy, (Mark’s saint of a wife) practically fireman carried her husband to the door. Together we sort of navigated Mark to the passenger seat of my truck the way you might negotiate a half-full waterbed mattress into a dumpster. Moving a drunken Mark Williams from point A to B is similar that.

About two hours down the road, Williams’ eyes became tiny slits, fluttering between open and closed due to the brightness.
“Am I dead?”
“No. You’re in New Mexico, asshole. But it’s snowing like it's Norway. Seems our timing was a day off. We should have come yesterday when it was Hawaii Five-O weather.

Williams’ head lolled over like an underdeveloped infant’s and hit the window. He was out again.

When we finally reached Sugarite, we went straight to Dorothey. As Williams and I crossed over Lake Maloya’s dam, he was still slumbering. I thought, if it was nicer weather I’d like to fish Maloya. But the banks are gradual and exposed to the elements and although the ambient temperature wasn’t that low, it would be quite a bit colder when standing on the bank of a lake that had just thawed out. I’d fish it another day. On to Lake Dorothey.

When you arrive at the parking lot to fish Dorothey, one still might be skeptical. Don’t be. Dorothey is full of rainbow trout, with a handful of cutthroats, and they’re easy to catch if you know where and when to be there. We like to arrive when the snow first begins to melt, and the lake has been thawed for a few weeks.

Williams reluctantly geared up, knowing full well that he had to hike a quarter mile uphill in altitude to get to Dorothey. But, he made it. And the most admiral part was, he didn’t complain one time. We started pitching beadheads and such near the dam, but weren’t having much luck.

The snow stopped shortly after we arrived, and so did the wind. Next thing we knew, the clouds were breaking up, the sun popped out, and the 4 inches of snow was beginning to melt away rather quickly. At first we thought this a bad thing. But when I peeled off on my own and went to the north side of the lake where the inlet of Schwaccheim Creek feeds in, I noticed that the runoff was nice and mostly clear and fish were feeding like college students after a frat party. I snapped a few great pictures of fish in the creek, then started fishing.

Dorothey is approximately 10 acres, so it doesn’t take much time for Williams and I to cover the banks. I’d heard from a buddy that black Woolley Buggers work well at the inlet. So, I tied one with a gold bead, and Williams utilized a black conehead Bugger. (I also recommend a beaded Prince Nymph, and red Copper Johns at the inlet and around the edges of the entire lake.) We stood near the bank where the inlet rushed in, and cast our prizes out into the seam. We stripped back upstream in the crease between the still lake water and the slightly off-colored, quick-moving inlet water. Time after time, trout would mount our flies and take off for the deep with them. For about two hours, we laughed and giggled, tugging in trout after trout, until we figured we had no less than 25 apiece. Each fish looked like a clone of the one before it. Same size. Same coloration. Same fight. We caught so many we got bored with it. I had to change something up. I wanted moving water, so I headed up Schwacchiem Creek, the feeder, to see what I could see. 

Although fishing Schwaccheim was (and always is) fun, it wasn’t nearly as productive as the lake inlet that day. For some reason, the fish were all hanging out in one mass. But there were a few fish in the creek. I caught three in the next hour and a half. And one every thirty minutes isn’t nearly as fun as one every two minutes. So we went back to the inlet and caught about ten more fish each before it was time to head to town and grab a bite, then cruise home.

Chicorica Creek

This creek connects Dorothey to Maloya, and then Maloya to Alice. The best parts of Chicorica  are the inlets and outlets. Rainbows are stocked at some of the turnouts below Maloya, and this is where Wesley missed the biggest “bow” of his seven-year old existence (at the time).

He had done everything so well. He saw the fish and casted to it. The water was so calm it spooked the trout at first, but then it turned and saw it was a bug and launched mouth agape at it. Wes set the hook and had him. HE HAD HIM!!! But when Wes backed up, the fish got snagged on the bank, the tippet popped, and Wes nearly cried he was so disappointed in himself. Plus, he thought he’d disappointed me. It took me an hour to get him to smile again. He finally caught one smaller one an hour later!

Fish these turnouts with extreme quietude and total focus. These fish are spooky because they hear and see quite a bit of visitors from the campgrounds. But if you’re in ninja mode and sneak upon them, cast lightly, keep a low profile, and walk gingerly, we’ve caught 6 fish from the same pool before. Be patient and trout will follow!

Segerstrom Creek

I've never fished Segerstom, and only know about it because one of a park ranger's suggestion. I was on the phone with this man discussing what bugs resided in the lake, and he asked if I'd ever nailed "Seger." I replied, "I know Night Moves, Against the Wind, Turn the Page..." He replied, "I see your Turn the Page and up you a dozen cutthroat an hour." We talked more and he said when the stream flows from snowmelt, cutts run up and find places to spawn. I figured that would be a great time to photograph some trout, but have yet to make it back up to do so. But you heard it from the horse's mouth. A dozen cutthroat an hour are available in the creek that feeds into the west side of Lake Maloya, when it's flowing. I know that Opportunity Trail hits Segerstrom, then turns into Segerstrom Trail. If you have the wherewithal to hike over the mesa and down to the water, take your flyrod and see what you can see. My bet is you'll strike it rich

Favorite Sugarite Trout Holes: 

  • The turnout on the east side of the road just shy of the Maloya dam 
  • Segerstrom Creek in early spring when it's flowing 
  • Schwaccheim Creek in early spring or when it's flowing 
  • The rocks of the Maloya dam are a good place to cast from and see cruisers 
  • The southwest inlet where Segerstrom Creek seeps into Maloya
  • Upper Chicorica Creek between Maloya between Dorothey is fun and full of small trout
  • The inlet at Lake Dorothey 
  • The east bank where some logs jut out of Dorothey  

Fishing Tips

  • Fish a medium-length 3-wt on the streams (7'6"-), and longer 5-wt rod on lakes (8'6"+) 
  • Even if you catch a trout in a pool on Chicorica Creek, keep fishing the pool. You'll catch more than one fish in each pool. 
  • Fish the turnout just , but also wade upstream and down, away from the road
  • Toss flies into lake inlets, and hit the grassy/drop-off edges on the streams
  • Wade into the thickets along Chicorica Creek and Schwaccheim Creek quietly. STEALTH! 
  • The lakes fish well early in the mornings, throughout midday, and again in the evening 


Add caption
Raton, New Mexico is close enough that you could Home Base in town if you didn’t want to camp, and return at night for dinner. My buddy, Page McKinney, took me to eat at Icehouse Restaurant once for their BBQ sandwich. It was one of the best I’ve had. They’re located at 945 S. 2nd Street, ‎(575) 445-2339. 

Look at this thing!!!

Killer Burgers too!! 

Also try the Oasis (pictutred below) at 1445 S 2nd Street, (575) 445-2221. Although it might look like Norman Bates relocated and set up shop here, don’t let it’s looks fool you. This place serves a really good Red Chile Enchilada plate, and hand made hamburgers that will make you slap yer momma.  

Oasis Restaurant & Motel


Camping in Sugarite is what makes this place so magical. There are 11 sites at the Lake Alice Campground with electric hookups -- 41 developed sites in Lake Alice and Soda Pocket Campground offer exceptional tent camping. Picnicking is permitted at both campgrounds. Group shelters are located in Gambel Oak Group Area. Soda Pocket Campground is a first-come, first-serve campground which does not require reservations. 

Overhead view of Soda Pocket Campground, Sugarite Canyon State Park - one of the best campgrounds in New Mexico.

An adjacent campground, the Gambel Oak Group Camping Area, is now available by reservation via the internet at or by calling toll free at 877-664-7787. There are multiple trails to hike which take you through oak and conifer forests, across the tops and edges of 100 foot vertical basalt cliffs, next to creek sides and lake banks. You stand a great chance of spotting deer, elk, bear, mountain lions, turkeys, bald eagles, numerous varmints, lizards, snakes, and countless species of birds. The colorful blankets of wildflowers blooming in the spring make the canyon feel exceptionally inviting. Bring a lot of water on your hikes, and lots of snacks.


In 2011, the Track Fire wildfire burned much of Sugarite Canyon, especially effecting Lake Dorothey and related trout streams. In many cases, it takes years, sometimes a decade or more, for habitat to return to a habitable state. Before planning a trip to Sugarite Canyon State Park, please contact the main office for camping and fishing reports. 

Robert McIvor


211 Highway 526
Raton, NM 87740

About Mac

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I am W. Chad McPhail. I'm an outdoor/travel writer, book author, former English teacher, and Amarillo native. 

I spend my spare time traipsing around the mountains and streams of the southwest in search of wild trout with my family, friends, various freeloaders, and other flotsam and jetsan. I used to teach English & Creative Writing. These days I am a Right of Way field agent with Coates Field Service, representing Sharyland Utilities during the construction of a 345 megawatt transmission line from Hereford to Panhandle, Texas. I love exploring the outdoors, fly fishing, backpacking, camping, hiking, kayaking, and yes, writing outdoor and travel books and pieces. I am a field writer of flyfishing, backpacking, camping, and kayaking articles for I have written many articles for magazines such as Southwest Fly Fishing, Texas Fish & Game, Rocky Mountain Game & Fish,, and more. I have co-penned three books with fishing buddy Mark D. Williams; Colorado Flyfishing: Where to Eat Sleep Fish, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado, and An Introduction to Fly Fishing for Trout.