Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dolores River Canyon at Dove Creek

The Dolores River Canyon can be accessed near Dove Creek, Colorado. There is a marked turn off from Highway 491 on the south end of town. After about 1 mile there is a north turn near a radio facility that leads down into the very deep canyon.

Just past a pump station, there is raft launching site with a pit toilet and a couple of picnic tables. The Dolores River canyon here is BLM managed land on the west edge of the San Juan National Forest.

From the raft launch site, a rough dirt road leads north for about 12 miles, with a rougher trail continuing toward the Slick Rock launch site. The Dove Creek access is 19 river miles below the Bradfield Bridge access. All of these access points are on the lower Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir. I began my hike at the raft launch site. Most vehicles can drive the first 0.5 miles to the Box Elder Campground and high clearance vehicles can continue.

The habitat along the Dolores Canyon bottom includes small groves of Ponderosa Pines and Gambel Oaks. Close to the river there are willows and Box Elders. I didn’t notice many Cottonwoods. The canyon sides had Pinon Pines and Junipers with some Douglas Firs in the high shady spots.

The geology appears to be the sandstone layers that are familiar in the Canyonlands and Arches area. The steep cliffs of the Wingate Sandstone support the Kayenta, Navajo, and Entrada Sandstones. The trail appears to be carved out of the softer Chinle layer and the sandstones rise higher as the trail proceeds north.

Along the trail there are frequent parallel side trails to river side campsites. After about 0:45 minutes I followed one of these side trails and had a Black Bear sighting. The bear had already turned and made a short jog away when I saw it from about a 100 feet distance. I had a good view for about 5 seconds and then it dashed away into the oak brush.

 Near where it had been was a large patch of these Sumac Berries. Along the trail I saw deer tracks but no deer. There were ATV tracks on the trail but I didn’t see hiker or mountain bike tracks.

There are a couple of boulder strewn riffles along the segment that I walked. The lower Dolores River flow is controlled at the McPhee Dam. On the day I hiked the flow was recorded from below the dam as 69 cfs. This is well below the historic average of about 220 cfs. The water in this area appeared to be clear flowing. When I've viewed the Dolores River downstream at Big Gypsum and Bedrock it appears to have much more silt.

The side canyons in this area are steep gaps in the rocks without any flowing creek water. It looks like this section of canyon could only be accessed at very limited locations.

I turned around after 2:10 hours and about 4.5 miles at one of the riverside campsites. My return hike took 1:50 hours for a total hike of 4:00 hours for about 9 miles.
It was 77 F degrees at my 9:40 AM start and a warm 88 F degrees at the 1:40 PM finish. I carried and drank 3 liters of water. I didn't see anyone else on the trail during my hike but there were several campers in the Box Elder Campground.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Priest Gulch Trail-Dolores River

The Priest Gulch Trail travels parallel to the south end of the Calico National Recreation Trail in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado. The trailhead for both trails is on the west side of Highway 145 about 26 miles north of the town of Dolores. Priest Creek contributes to the flow of the Dolores River.

The Priest Gulch Trail is open to mountain bikes, horses, and motorcycles as well as hikers. It follows along Priest Creek while the Calico Trail climbs steeply to the east side mesa top. I saw many hiker and horse tracks but no tire tracks. The forest is mostly Fir and Spruce with Aspens. There are a few Ponderosa Pines near meadow areas. The trailhead elevation is 8050 feet and both trails climb as they head north.

After about 1.25 miles, there is a trail junction with a faint trail that connects with the Calico Trail to make a loop. In June 2012, the trail sign was missing but the pole was in place.

I looked at the crossing of Priest Creek and it would have been easy, but in heavy snow years early June might not be the best time to cross here. From here, the connection trail climbs steeply toward the Calico Trail.

Continuing on the Priest Gulch Trail, there are only a few places with any views. Most of the lower part of the trail is in deep but beautiful forest. The trail is well maintained and is easy walking as it climbs gradually. There is another connection with the Calico Trail after about 8 miles for a 16 mile loop. I went up trail for 1:50 hours, about 3.5 miles before returning the way I came. My total hike took 3:20 hours.

There were some minor wildflowers along the trail. The best were patches of Irises and there were many butterflies including large Tiger Swallowtails. I didn't see any large wildlife. My hike was on a 75 F degree early June day and I carried 3 liters of water. I saw two other hikers during my hike.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sage Hen Trail to McPhee Reservoir Overlooks

The northwest side of the McPhee reservoir area of the Dolores River in southwest Colorado is known as the Sage Hen area.

There is the rough Forest Road 500 that runs straight north for 4.3 miles to the McPhee Dam and a single track trail that takes a more wandering route in the same direction, and then connects with the forest road. These trails are closed to vehicles and are used by horses and mountain bikes in addition to hikers.

Both trails start at the normally closed gate, with the single track veering off to the right after about 60 feet. The first mile or so of the single-track cuts through a sage plain area.

The trail then passes through islands of Pinon Pine and Juniper forest with open areas of sage giving some views over the lake and to Mesa Verde and the LaPlata mountains. There are also thickets of Gambel Oak in this area. After about 2 miles there is an intersection with the segment of rough forest road 500A that leads down to the reservoir edge. The trail continues on but the lake can make a good turn around point for a 2 hour hike, or there is a loop option using road 500A.

From the shore here both of the McPhee Reservoir developed recreation areas are visible across the water. To the left is the House Creek recreation area and to the right is the McPhee area, both offering campgrounds and launch ramps for boating and fishing.

Continuing on, the Sage Hen Trail heads north and west toward the McPhee Dam area, skirting around a side canyon of the Dolores River. There are some high points where there are good views east toward the LaPlata Mountains and north toward the San Miguel Mountains and south towards Mesa Verde..

I got off the trail and searched some of the hilltops for archaeological sites. Some of the hills in this area have pottery shards and rubble piles to find. I saw a few pottery shards in this area but the archaeological sites here are subtle and elusive. I did find some good overlook points for the McPhee Reservoir. The Beaver Creek arm is to the right with Trimble Point in the center. Dry Canyon is to the left.

Further west there is a partial view of the McPhee Dam. The trail that is visible across the canyon is the McPhee Stock Trail. The Mataska Recreation Area and the beginning of the lower Dolores River are visible below the dam.

The return leg of trail follows along to the power line that is close to Forest Road 500 and the single-track trail makes a vague junction with Forest Road 500 close to the junction of Forest Road 500 and Forest Road 500C. Hikes from the trailhead area to the overlooks of the McPhee Reservoir are about 10 miles and have taken me 4:30 or 5:00 hours.

(There is another post on the segment of Forest Road 500 that goes directly to the McPhee Dam. Use the Sage Hen label to find.)

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

LaPlata City and Boren Creek Trail in LaPlata Canyon

LaPlata Canyon is between Durango in the east and Mancos on the west in the San Juan National Forest area in southwest Colorado. The north leading turnoff of Highway 160 is near the Hesperus Ski Area.

About 8 miles north along LaPlata Canyon Road is the historic LaPlata City site. There are two interpretive signs here describing the history of this mining community along the banks of the LaPlata River in the 1870s and 1880s. 

I started hiking from the LaPlata City site and walked about 0:15 minutes north along LaPlata Canyon Road to the west leading Forest Road marked 061 on the north side of Boren Creek. The walk along the canyon road passes several private property sites. There isn't any special trailhead parking here. The Boren Creek Trail leads about 2 miles and climbs steeply from 9200 feet to about 11,200 feet.

About 0:20 minutes of walking up the gravelly road there is a small side creek crossing and a small waterfall visible on the left. The forest here is thick Douglas Fir and Engelmann Spruce with Aspens. There are creek views along most of the trail. 

As the trail climbs three of the peaks of the LaPlata Mountains come into view. To the left or south is Burwell Peak at 12,664 feet.

To the right of Burwell Peak is Spiller Peak at 13,123 feet. In early June there is a good flow of water sliding down between Burwell and Spiller feeding the Boren Creek. Following a light snow year and warm spring, there were only a few patches of snow visible in shady parts of the forest and no snow on the trail.

I think the peak furthest north is Babcock Peak at 13,149 feet. There are four switchbacks on the Boren Creek Trail. I made it past the last one but not quite to the end of the trail. Near the top, there was more wind and the temperature was cool enough that I had to add a layer.

There were only a few wildflowers along the trail and I didn’t see any large wildlife. My upward hike took 2:30 hours and the return took 1:30 hours for a total hike of 4:00 hours for about 5.5 miles. It was 75 F degrees at the bottom of LaPlata Canyon and felt at least 10 degrees cooler higher up. I carried and drank 3 liters of water.

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