Tuesday, January 31, 2012

McPhee Reservoir Snowshoeing

The McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River is the second largest lake in Colorado. During the winter season when the water level is low, the north facing west end offers a broad slightly sloping area with an easy to access area for snowshoe hiking.

The access is about 4 miles west of Dolores, CO on Route 184, then north on the paved McPhee Recreation Area Road to the west end of the lake and the south side of the Great Cut Dike. There is room to park and a dirt road trail that leads to the shore line. This spot gets some use from bank fishermen during the summer months. On the west side of the Great Cut Dike is the pump house that sends irrigation water to the canals in the Montezuma Valley area.

The west end of the reservoir tends to freeze over sooner than the main channel area of the Dolores River. In the distance the San Miguel Mountains near Lizard Head Pass are visible. This area had a good snow layer for snowshoe hiking despite modest snow so far in 2012.

I spent part of my hike looking for animal tracks in the snow. I thought most of what I saw were coyote tracks in the area close to the vegetation near the high water mark. I didn’t see any water birds or any deer tracks, though deer are common in this area.

My total hike was for about 1:30 hours on a 44 F degree late January day. I hiked for about 1 mile east along the lake shore and returned. There is room to go much further than I did.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sage Hen Forest Road to McPhee Dam

The area on the west end of McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River in southwest Colorado is known as the Sage Hen area. Running straight north for 4.3 miles from Sage Hen is the very rutted and rough Forest Road 500, leading to the McPhee Dolores River Dam site. This Forest Road has been closed to motorized vehicles since 2008.

The trail climbs through a sagebrush plain area with scattered Pinon Pines and Junipers and gives good views of the McPhee Reservoir with Mesa Verde becoming visible the higher you go. The LaPlata Mountains with Mt. Hesperus are also visible to the east. This area gets some use from mountain bikers and horse riders in addition to hikers. There is also fishing and boating access in the side roads close to the McPhee Reservoir.

Descending into Lone Dome Canyon through a side canyon, the Dolores River discharging from the dam flows west. The Dolores River State Wildlife area protects the river through this area. The forest on the north facing canyon wall has Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs.

A service road bridge allows easy crossing into the developed Mataska Recreation Area below the dam. The posted historical information discusses how cattlemen were the first to settle this area and at the end of summer the cattle were driven through this area to the rail line in Dolores for shipment to Denver and Kansas City.
Near the Mataska picnic ground there is a service road that goes to the top of the dam. Interpretive information in the picnic area reports that the dam was built in 1984, is 270 feet above the river bed, and the water covers 4,470 acres. Irrigation water from McPhee Reservoir is distributed by canals through the area and keeps it greener than it would otherwise be.

It took me about 2:00 hours to get from Sage Hen to the river and I spent about an hour in the river area and up on top of the dam. The total time for about 10 miles was 5:10 hours.

For a shorter hike, there are some artifacts of the human history of the Sage Hen area to see but they take some searching away from the main trail. There are two side trails leading toward the east from Forest Road 500. The first side trail is about 1.5 miles north. A short distance along the side trail there is an old corral.

South of the side trail, but not on the trail there is some sort of old camp with a number of old metal artifacts. This camp is near an old constructed pond.

The second side trail is about 2.3 miles north along the main trail. In the Sage Hen area some of the hilltops  appear to be archaeology sites. With some careful looking, there are some pottery shards visible. I thought the pottery shards I saw were thinner and mostly plain compared to the Black on White styles that are found in nearby canyons.

There are also a number of rubble piles that could be ruins sites. These rubble piles aren’t as distinct as the ones in the nearby Canyons of the Ancients. In a couple of places there are lines of large stones that seem to be turned on edge.