Way up high at 11,000 feet above sea level in the San Isabel National Forest, the North Fork Reservoir is a scenic alpine lake that is well worth the painstaking drive to reach. Approximately an hour and a half from Salida, the remote lake is found north of Monarch Pass in southwestern Chaffee County.
Accessible only with an AWD or 4WD high-clearance vehicle, the rugged reservoir holds a capacity of approximately 600 acre-feet, with a maximum depth of about 25 feet. Managed by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy, the reservoir is fed by Island Lake and Billings Lake and found along the North Fork of the South Arkansas River.
Located within the Salida Ranger District, the North Fork Reservoir is surrounded by seasonal wildflowers, towering trees, and picturesque Rocky Mountain views, with features such as Calico Mountain, Sewanee Peak, Mount Shavano, and the Great Continental Divide nearby.
North Fork Reservoir Accessibility
With high clearance absolutely necessary, motorists can reach the North Fork Reservoir by exiting north onto County Road 240 off Highway 50 near Maysville. From the highway, proceed about 4 miles uphill to reach the Angel of Shavano Campground. With the campground on your left, continue straight up the rough and winding logging road for six miles. At the fork in the road, go left to reach the North Fork Reservoir and Campground.
Despite its seemingly hidden location in the national forest, the North Fork Reservoir is a popular outdoor destination when the road access is open during the summer and fall. As such, the area can be crowded on weekends throughout the peak season.
With no facilities and limited cell signal on-site, reservoir visitors must come prepared for rapidly changing weather patterns and rugged road conditions with the proper personal and vehicular equipment.
Activities near North Fork Reservoir
To further explore the area, continue past the North Fork Reservoir on County Road 240 about 1.5 miles up the hill to reach Billing’s Lake and the abandoned mining town of Shavano. Visitors are advised to use caution and respect the historic buildings by leaving no trace.
Among the dilapidated relics, sightseers will find the impressive “Pride of the West ” mine portal and the crumbling foundation of a large 19th-century hotel.
Birding and Wildlife: The North Fork Reservoir is frequented by many species of wildlife such as deer, moose, bear, and chipmunks. In the air, the area’s dense forests and rushing waters attract many migrant birds like sparrows and osprey. To protect the native species of the national forest, visitors must pack in and out all of their trash while never intentionally feeding or approaching a wild animal.
Boating: The still clear water of the North Fork Reservoir is a great alpine destination for non-motorized boating. Motorists should not attempt to bring a trailer up the rugged road, so all boats must be strapped to the roof of a vehicle or secured in the bed of a truck.
The reservoir is popular for hard-body and inflatable kayaks, canoes, belly boats, and stand-up paddle boards. Boaters may put-in from any location along the shore, which offers shallow waters for easy launching.
Camping: On the north shore of the reservoir, the North Fork Campground has nine first-come, first-serve campsites available for a small overnight fee. Each site is equipped with a picnic table, tent space, and fire pit and campers have access to a vault toilet, but no running water or trash services.
During its short season, the US Forest Service-managed campground is popular, with an 8-person limit enforced at each site. Around the paid area, there are also dispersed camping opportunities found nearby throughout the San Isabel National Forest.
For both in campground and primitive camping, visitors should use caution when considering a site that is surrounded by dead trees. For this reason, some areas around the reservoir may be closed to the public to prevent potential safety risks.
Read about the camping near Salida and Poncha Springs.
Fishing: As the area’s main attraction, the North Fork Reservoir is well stocked with trout by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department for licensed anglers to enjoy. With plenty of room along the water’s perimeter and atop the North Fork Dam, the shallow reservoir is primarily used for shore fishing, though many visitors also enjoy the serenity of float fishing on the surface of the small, scenic lake.
Address: North Fork Reservoir, Salida, CO 81201
Season: Summer and fall
Coordinates: 38°36’34.7″N 106°19’22.2″W
Access: High clearance required, 4WD recommended
Map (PDF download): data.fs.usda.gov/… (PDF)