Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hiking the Comanche-Venable Loop

The past month has been quite hectic.  On June 13th Puma and I made our move from Maine to Colorado.  The weeks leading up to our move were busy planning the logistics, packing, and deciding which of our belongings moved with us.  After 52 hours of driving cross-country with our belongings, four dogs, four cats, and a pregnant goat; we arrived in Colorado.  After a couple weeks of settling in, things settled down a little bit and I finally had the time to head to the mountains.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I decided to do my first serious hike since I have been in Colorado.  I have done a couple of easy hikes and short mountain bike rides close to home but nothing too serious.  It has been nearly 15 years since I have hiked in Colorado and was eager to play in the Rockies again.  From our house, we have outstanding views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  After staring at these glorious peaks for several weeks, I decided my first destination should be somewhere within the Sangre de Cristos. 

View of the Sangre de Cristo Range from my house.

I headed to Westcliffe, Colorado early Saturday morning to hike the Comanche-Venable Loop.  I heard good things about this hike and figured it was a good place for my first trip.  The drive to the trailhead was a good start to the trip.  Along the way, the local wildlife was out and about.  Just on the drive I saw two coyotes, turkeys, numerous mule deer, a large herd of elk, and a pronghorn antelope. 

Shortly before 7AM I was on the trail.  My hike started around 9000 feet in elevation on the Venable Lake Trail.  The trail traveled through the woods in the beginning, staying relatively close to Venable Creek.  There were occasional peeks at the surrounding mountains but not much to see in the first couple miles in the forest.  The highlight of this section was a short spur trail that led to Venable Falls.  Not too long after the falls, the trail made its way to the lower reaches of timberline. 

Venable Falls

Not too long after leaving the woods

Venable Lake Trail travels through the drainage of Venable Lakes and is nestled between Spring Mountain and an unnamed peak.  The trail travels close to the stream in an open grassy meadow with fine views of the peaks that surround the drainage.  The trail passes through gentle terrain as it rises toward the Venable Lakes, which sits above treeline.

Higher up on the Venable Lakes Trail

Venable Peak is the rocky peak in the middle

One of the Venable Lakes

After the trail passed the first lake, it became rockier as it approached Venable Peak.  The trail passes below the nearly vertical face of Venable Peak across Phantom Terrace.  Phantom Terrace is a ledge that is not visible until you reach it.  The ledge is probably only 3 or 4 feet wide at its narrowest with a nearly sheer drop below.  In slippery conditions Phantom Terrace could be a dicey section but with beautiful blue skies and dry trail, the passage of this section was pretty simple.  Crossing Phantom Terrace was probably the most interesting section of trail on the hike.

Spring Mountain

Phantom Terrace crosses this face of Venable Peak

The trail across Phantom Terrace

After crossing the Phantom Terrace, the trail reaches the pass between Spring Mountain and Venable Peak.  There is no trail to either summit.  I first climbed 13334-foot Venable Peak, the high point of my outing.  Along the way, a marmot played hide and seek with me.  As I approached, it climbed out of sight, just to peek its head out at me as I approached.  From the summit I was rewarded with fine 360-degree views.  I didn’t linger long too long at the summit before descending.  Small wildflowers covered the grassy alpine tundra beyond the pass.  Much of the hike at the upper elevations smelled like a florists.

Looking down the Venable Basin

Views to the south near the pass between Spring and Venable

View to the north from Venable

Another look to the south

Looking south from the shoulder of Venable

Nearing the summit of Venable

Spring Mountain is the closer peak with Comanche 
above the snow patch 

From the pass between Spring and Venable, the trail traverses below Spring Mountain before reaching Comanche Pass.  I skipped the trail and headed up Spring Mountain’s ridge to its 13244-foot summit.  The summit register was not signed since last October.  I ate a quick snack at the summit while enjoying the grand views.  I headed down the southern ridge of Spring before rejoining the trail near Comanche Gap. Spring Mountain had the rockiest ascent of the three peaks I climbed on the trip.

A closer look at Spring with Comanche to its right

Approaching Spring Mtns summit

The Venable Lakes from Spring's summit

Looking down the ridge from Spring toward Comanche

The Comanche Lakes from Spring's ridge

Before heading into the Comanche Lakes drainage, I headed for the summit of Comanche Peak’s trailess13277-foot summit.  It is a fairly short and straightforward jaunt to the peak however up its grassy slopes.  Comanche probably had the best view of the three summits with its fairly close look at the rugged higher peaks nearby to the south.  There was a couple on Comanche’s summit as well as another larger group that I passed on my decent.  This was the only one of the three peaks that had anyone else on it.  As I searched through my pack on Comanche’s summit for a snack, I discovered something very useful inside for a hike to a Colorado peak, a bag of Canadian coins.  It was left in my pack from when we moved.

Comanche Peak from Comanche Pass

Looking south from Comanche's summit

Me on Comanche

Looking back at Spring Mountain and Venable Peak from 
the summit of Comanche Peak

My return to the valley followed the Comanche Lakes Trail.  Unlike the Venable Lakes Trail where I only briefly saw the lakes, the Comanche Lakes were in view most of the descent.  I stopped several times to take in the views looking back toward Comanche Peak as I descended.  Several groups were camped near the lakes.  I was also scolded by several groups of marmots as I descended.  Shortly after 1PM I was back at the trailhead.

Comanche Lakes from the pass

Looking back at Comanche as I descended

Comanche Lake with the summit in the background

A pair of marmots

Up close and personal with a marmot

This hike is fairly popular.  It is one of the few hikes in the Sangre de Cristos that can be hiked in a manageable one-day loop.  The trailhead was quite full when I arrived and even fuller by the time I returned.  Despite the busy parking lot, I didn't see too many people on the hike.  I passed only a handful of groups the entire trip.

The Comanche-Venable Loop is a beautiful hike that is well worth the effort.  The loop is about 13 miles long and I added a little over a mile with my side trips to the nearby summits.  With the side-trips to the three summits, I climbed just over 5000 vertical feet.  For a more leisurely pace, this hike could easily be made into an overnight trip with numerous places to camp along both trails and plenty of water.  I passed a few people with fishing rods, as the lakes are apparently productive for trout as well.

The parting shot of Comanche Peak before I entered the trees

The scenery along the hike is magnificent.  More than half the trip is above treeline.  Looking at the rugged peaks of the Sangre de Cristos helps the mileage pass by quickly. The trails are fairly easy as well.  The trails climb gradually with several switchbacks.  After hiking Maine and New Hampshire’s steep and rocky trails for the past eight years, the well-graded trails were a nice change of pace.  The gradually climbing trail helps with the effects of altitude as well.  This hike was a great reintroduction to the mountains of Colorado.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Kayaking and Camping on Moosehead Lake

One of my favorite places in Maine and all of New England is Moosehead Lake.  With an area of more than 75,000 acres and 280 miles of shoreline, Moosehead Lake is the largest in Maine and the largest mountain lake in the eastern United States.  The lake is 40 miles long and more than 10 miles wide at it widest point.  The  Moosehead Lake region is largely wilderness with fine scenery in all directions.  A large chunk of the lake is undeveloped giving much of it a wild feel.
Moosehead Lake.  Sugar Island which I will talk about
shortly is easy to see.  Lily Bay State Park is across a narrow channel
from the lower point of Sugar Island.

The region is also a great place for outdoor recreation.  I probably spent more days playing in the outdoors in the Moosehead Lake region than anywhere else since I lived in Maine. The region mountains offer miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and cross country skiing. Others enjoy the regions lakes and streams for fishing.   And with a huge lake, the options for kayaking are nearly endless. 

Moosehead Lake was one of the first place Puma and I visited together in Maine nearly ten years ago and perhaps our inspiration to move to Maine in the first place.  Each year we try to visit the region to camp and relax by the lakeside.  For those that have read my blog before know I spend most of time camping in the backcountry.  Moosehead Lake is one of the places I like to unwind with Puma camping at an established campground.  We typically stay at Lily Bay State Park.  The park is located right on the lake and offers campsites along the shore.  We still keep it relatively simple.  We sleep in a tent and cook on a campfire. We enjoy the sound of the loons calling and the waves lapping on the shore.
Our campsite was just a few feet from the water

With only a couple of week remaining before we leave Maine to move to Colorado, we wanted to visit this beautiful place one last time and relax before the stress of a cross country move.  Last week the forecast was looking promising for a few days at the lake.  To sweeten the deal, it was my birthday.  A few days of relaxation camping on the lake sounded like a nice way to spend my birthday.  

Even though it was still raining when we left our house, it had cleared by the time we got to Lily Bay State Park.  In fact it remained clear the full three days we were camping.  The first day, after setting up our campsite, we took it easy sitting by the lake enjoying the views of the Squaw (Moose) Range and hearing the loons laugh. 
Big Squaw (Moose) from our campsite

The next morning was my birthday and I wanted to enjoy some time on the water kayaking.  Like I mentioned before, Moosehead Lake is big.  Because of its size, the lake can be very choppy.  The water is not calm too often.  More than once I have paddled on Moosehead Lake with large waves or stiff winds.  On this morning, the lake and the wind were very calm.  To make the day even better, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and the visibility was nearly endless.

My goal was to paddle around Sugar Island.  That may not sound too impressive but Sugar Island is a fairly big island.  At more than 4200 acres, it is the largest island in Moosehead Lake.  It is nearly 5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide.  The total trip is about 14 miles from our campsite.  Because of the lakes size, the currents and wind can be completely different depending on the side of the island you're on.  With cold water (ice out was just a couple weeks earlier), and little traffic on the lake, it's very possible to get into trouble if conditions change suddenly.  I was fortunate to have almost perfect conditions my entire outing. 
Unusually calm water for Moosehead Lake

Looking at Sugar Island

Rocky shoreline on Sugar Island

This trip turned out to be quite a scenic paddle.  During every section there is beautiful scenery and mountains to see.  The trip started out heading toward the Squaw (Moose) Mountain Range.  Just as the Squaw Mountains ridge line gets out of sight, the stunning 700 foot cliffs of Kineo come into view.  At the north end of Sugar Island, Lobster Mountain comes into view just before the 3000 foot masses of Little and Big Spencer Mountains rise above the lake.  Finally the Lily Bay Range serves as the lakes backdrop on the final stretch of the trip standing 2500 feet above the lake.  Looking over your shoulder, Katahdin can be seen with snow still visible some 40 or miles away.  At most times several of these mountains were visible at once.  To add to nature's show, the loons were quite active diving nearby before popping up again in a totally different area.
Heading toward Squaw Mountain near our campsite

Getting closer to Squaw Mountain.  Small Island is 5 Acre Birch Island and the land
on the right is part of Deer Island

Boundary Bald Mountain in the distance just a few miles to the south
of the Canadian border above Jackman, Maine


Kineo, Shaw Mountain, and Little Kineo 
from left to right over the calm waters

Left to Right: Lobster Mountain, Little Spencer, and Big Spencer

The Spencers

Lily Bay Range on east side of the lake

Not entirely sure what to expect on the outing, I paddled with a strong and consistent pace.  I didn't stop too long at any time.  I took several breaks to take photos of the scenery or watch the pairs of loons frolic and dive.  My 14 miles of paddling took just 3 hours.  I would recommend experience paddling large lakes before attempting the same route solo.  Another variation of this trip would be to camp on Sugar Island.  There are at least five free, primitive campsites on the island each with a fire ring and picnic table all accessible only by boat.  Most of the campsites had  views of the surrounding mountains.
A Sugar Island campsite on the west side of the island

One of the Sugar Island campsites on the
opposite side of the island

The view of the Lily Bay Range from one of the campsites
on Sugar Island


Pair of loons

After returning to my campsite at Lily Bay State Park, I continued to get some rest and relaxation.  Puma and I spent our day relaxing by the lake during the day and sitting around the campfire by night.  Occasionally we would break our routine by taking a walk along the lake or the nearby woods.  Throughout our time at the campsite we were visited by wild ducks scavenging for food.  One duck was so bold that she tried to jump up and grab our food from our hands.
Relaxing and enjoying the scenery from our campsite

Our fire on the second night

A trio loons entertaining us
while we relax

A pair of mallards scavenging for anything edible
we may have dropped

 A particularly pesky duck waiting for a handout

She grew impatient and leaped toward Puma's food

We headed out the following morning after two nights at the lake.  On the ride home we even saw a couple of moose.  For me it was a great way to spend my birthday, surrounded by nature and spending time with Puma.  It was a peaceful and relaxing few days.  Since it was early in the season for the North Woods, the campground was pretty empty and we had our section of the park to ourselves.  I think only 9 of the 45 sites were occupied.  Our personal recommendation from years of visiting Lily Bay State Park is campsite 222 on the Dunn Point side of the park for a nice lakeside campsite.  I know peace and relaxation will be hard to come by the next few weeks as Puma and I head into the next chapter of our lives.  With several beautiful days, I could not have asked for a better farewell to one of my favorite places in New England.  Although I am looking forward to many new adventures in Colorado, Moosehead Lake will be one of the places I will miss in the east.