Well, it wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke: Lake Nighthorse actually opened Sunday.
“We’ve just been dying for it to open,” said Liz Lahdekorpi, a longtime Durango resident. “Now we’re just happy to be here. It’s a historic occasion for Durango.”
Though the original concept for a water storage project a few miles southwest of Durango dates back to the late 1960s, construction on the reservoir didn’t begin until 2003, and it wasn’t until around 2011 that the lake was considered full.
Since then, residents have clamored for the area to open up for recreational use, a matter delayed while local agencies decided on management of the lake, ultimately taken up by the city of Durango.
On Sunday, all that history was put to rest as the gates to Lake Nighthorse opened for the first time to the public.
John Flick of Durango was the first person to cross that threshold. He said he already had to wake up Sunday at 4 a.m. to see his son off, and after, he decided to head to Lake Nighthorse.
Flick arrived at 5:20 a.m. He said by 5:30, there were five other cars parked behind him. And what did he do for the next several hours until the gates opened at 9 a.m.?
“Slept,” he said, laughing.
Cathy Metz, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, took a sigh of relief while in between directing cars Sunday afternoon. “It’s been just great,” Metz said. “Just awesome.”
Metz said city staff expected a high turnout, and that’s what they got. Just before the lake was opened at 9 a.m., she said there was a line of cars that spilled out onto the highway.
By noon, the parking lot was full and city staff was shuttling people back and forth from the parking area at the lake’s entrance to lower down below by the boat ramp.
Metz said the opening went relatively smooth. She said some people had to be instructed not to go 25 feet beyond the high water mark of the lake, which is off-limits, and lake staff even had to launch their patrol boat to get people out of the area where water comes into the lake.
“People are still learning the lake and the rules,” Metz said. “And we’re here to keep everyone safe and informed.”
Anglers, boaters and hikers were scattered everywhere along the landscape that for nearly two decades was off-limits.
Leroy Johnson, who made the trip from Cortez, took home 22-inch and 18-inch rainbow trout after waiting 30 minutes in line to get to the lake. Trout isn’t his favorite fish to eat, but luckily, it was for a friend. “It was nice fishing out there,” he said.
Lake Nighthorse will be open on weekends and allows only non-motorized boats until May 15, when the lake becomes open daily. At that time, motorized boats will be allowed, with designated no-wake days Mondays and Wednesdays.
In the meantime, Durango has a new recreational attraction to be explored. Liz Lahdekorpi, along with her husband, Timo, and son, Eric, were out having an Easter picnic. “We’ve been waiting for years, and I didn’t know what to expect,” Timo said. “And it’s awesome.”