Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Camping at Mueller State Park, Colorado - Peak View Pond Hike

From August 18, 2014

After finishing my job interview in Colorado Springs, I rolled out of town and up into the Front Range to Mueller State Park for three more nights of state park camping. Mueller is located on the northwestern side of Pikes Peak. Most of the park is above 9,000 ft. above sea level so it's a fairly high, cool place to hang out. The park features pine and fir forest as well as some prairie with numerous ponds, mostly left over from old ranches that were acquired to form the park, and spectacular views of Pikes Peak. The facilities of the park are lined up along a ridge so that when you drive into the park you drive up, and most of the trails descend away from the ridge requiring a downhill outbound trip followed by an uphill return.

Pikes Peak from the "back side." Normally Pikes is seen from Colorado Springs, which is at a lower elevation, and consequently the mountain looks much larger. Mueller State Park is mostly above 9,000 ft. above sea level, so the vantage point is much closer to the treeline.

Pikes looks a bit different from the western side, so I didn't entirely recognize what I was seeing at first. Consulting with the maps clarified things and when I put on my glasses I was able to see bits of the road and traffic that ascend to the top of the mountain. The bald, rocky top of the mountain looked deceptively close due to the high elevation of the park compared to the view of Pikes from Colorado Springs, which is more of what I'm accustomed to.
Campsite at Mueller. It's a pretty nice campground but the very open forest made me wary that a large predator might sneak up me while I was reading a book by the campfire. Note the "bear box" on the left. Even though it latches, I was too nervous to store food in it for fear it would draw a bear.

Despite it being my third day in Colorado, I still found myself losing my breath while packing in my gear to my campsite and setting up. I have usually found that I do not acclimatize until at least the fourth day and the unusually high elevation of the campsite around 9,200 ft. probably did not help. The air was palpably thin. It's a peculiar sensation if you are not used to it. I got things setup in time to go find a short introductory hike to the park.

I chose to drive over and park my truck at the Elk Meadow trailhead and hike to the Peak View Pond. As promised by the layout of the park, this required a descent away from the parking lot through fir forest with a sparse understory. I started on a gravelly double track trail surrounded by sparse ponderosa pines and shortly took a side single track trail that was well marked downhill into the fir forest. The trail descended somewhat quickly with a series of switchbacks. It was a steep downhill hike that had me wondering how difficult the climb back out would be.

The view from the trailhead at Elk Meadow. It's a fairly promising start.

I recently read some sections of a book I picked up a decade or so back that discussed how biodiversity is related to precipitation. Although Mueller is on the western side of the Front Range and gets more rainfall than much of Colorado, it still receives much less than the mountain forests of the Southeast that I am used to, and the contrast in biodiversity could not have been more obvious. There were far fewer species of plants visible, with the trees being fairly uniform and consisting of only about three species that I could see and the forest floor dominated by just a handful of plants, mostly sparse grasses. It was still beautiful and provided superior visibility when compared to eastern forest.

Another view slightly further down the trail.

The short hike turned out to be a perfect choice because it is a beautiful little pond. I was wowed by the pond but did not realize just how beautiful it truly was until I continued past the pond on the trail and looked back to see how it got its name "Peak View Pond." From uphill of the pond, Pikes Peak could be seen looming over the pond and the forest. It was an amazing place! The difficulty of the hike out turned out to not be that bad due to the short length of the hike and the fact that I stopped to take several pictures. It might be the best short hike in Mueller and I recommend it.

The payoff. Peak View Pond, with a view of the peak, of course. Amazing scenery. I could sit in a lawn chair all day and look at this.
Bonus Photos:
This little dude acted suspiciously like he had been fed all summer by tourists. I did not give anything. There was another chipmunk there that was the fattest chipmunk I've ever seen but I didn't get a photo. It looked like a miniature ground hog. I guess they were prepping for winter.

I was amused by this sign in Woodland Park, where I stopped for lunch after my job interview on the way to Mueller. I guess this is now a double entendre since Colorado's liberalization of drug laws. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Flatwater Paddling the Lower Ocoee

From a trip Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Ocoee River in Tennessee is mostly known as one of the most frequently rafted whitewater rivers in the United States, but it's a long river, and there are multiple sections. Downstream of the whitewater there is a class I flatwater section from below Ocoee Dam #1 (Parksville Dam) to the confluence with the Hiwassee. There are good public access points at the dam and downstream next to the Nancy Ward grave site on old US Highway 411 just outside Benton, Tennessee. Locals know this as a section for floating on tubes or even swimming in a PFD, but usually look for an intermediate takeout. I was interested in paddling all the way from the dam to 411.

The view upstream from the launch below Ocoee Dam #1, a.k.a. Parksville Dam, right at the chokepoint where the Ocoee flows out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Ridge and Valley region. The flow here is 2 units.

I had proposed a flatwater run of this section with my friends-that-tolerate-flatwater in the past several times but usually if there was any whitewater at all running they would not do it. I got in a short but amusing run from the dam to OAR outfitters last year with some friends on stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and pool floats with beer coolers but had not actually completed the section all the way to 411. Finally the stars aligned and a small group came together consisting of my canoeist friend Lois, and Mark and Carolyn Rand. Lois and Mark were to paddle a tandem canoe, owing somewhat to the availability of watercraft. I no longer own a long boat suitable for flatwater so I took one of my whitewater kayaks that was the most comfortable option for a long day. Unfortunately the use of the boat pretty much guaranteed that it would, in fact, be a long day, but I decided comfort was more important than hull speed.

Sugarloaf Mountain from a short distance downstream of the put-in. It doesn't look much like a sugar loaf from this angle.

The first time I ran the Lower Ocoee, the release seemed swift, but it must have been a bit lower, because there were a couple of riffle type class I rapids. Some of the places I remember there being rapids were completely washed out on this trip though the current was quite obviously even swifter. On the other hand, the increased flow meant that there were long sections with class I wave trains. There were no discernible features that made these sections technical in any way, but it was a sign of lively current. Mark had a GPS along and determined after about an hour that we were actually making better than 4 miles per hour, which is ridiculous in my opinion. That said, my arms, shoulders, and back were tiring trying to keep up in the short kayak. I'm almost never in that much of a hurry unless I'm on my way to work. I eventually pushed back a bit on the pace and the crew allowed me to take the lead since I was in the slowest boat and could not keep up with the group. This worked out much better. I admit I threw a small tantrum to achieve that but we really were moving way too fast, as I knew the distance was easily runnable within 4 hours and could see no reason to be in that much of a hurry.

Lois Newton and Mark Rand in the tandem canoe, Carolyn Rand in the kayak.

After a while, we passed some large rock formations and small cliffs and I was reminded of my recent trip down South Chickamauga Creek in Catoosa County, Georgia. There were occasional views over cleared river banks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, mostly 2800 foot Chilhowee Mountain, and there were cows, cabins, and rope swings. We stopped for lunch on a nice rock formation and spied some medium sized fish in the water. The whitewater sections of the Ocoee are nearly dead due to extreme pollution from past mining and industrial activities and are just beginning to recover. The headwaters are still pristine and this lower section below Dam #1 is teaming with fish and waterfowl. I'm amazed that people whine about pollution controls and the Clean Water Act. Would you rather have a dead river or a live one? I for one, am grateful for the laws that have preserved the headwaters and helped to revive the Lower Ocoee, and are slowly reviving the Upper and Middle Ocoee. I do not understand people who are against that. May they all be forced to drink polluted water. It's basic law and order and basic common sense.

Moo. A stretch in the middle of the run is, uh, pastoral.
There are some nice cliffs and rock outcroppings on the run. Sorry about the bad lighting. It was not a good day for lousy photographers.

Eventually we reached a really long pool and I wondered if we were going to be pushing against true slackwater but eventually we reached the end of the pool and things picked up again in the form of a long section of waves to the right of a very long island. Finally we passed an important landmark bridge and knew we were within a mile or two of highway 411. I regretted our rapid descent but it was still a good day on the water with plenty of photo ops and good conversation.

Glassy water in one of the few long pools. For the most part, the river is pretty swift at 2 generators.

The takeout featured the best rapid up to that point. Carolyn had run the section before and had experienced difficulties making the eddy but when we got there it was apparent that the high flows had created a very large eddy in front of the boat ramp. Nonetheless Lois and Mark made their move a little too early, bounced the bow off a boulder, and missed the main eddy. They pulled into a flushy eddy on the downstream side of the boat ramp and paddled against the current. I scrambled and grabbed their bow line and pulled them back upstream. It was a pretty funny end to the day.

We recovered the vehicle from the launch and reconvened at Huddle House in Ocoee where everyone ordered breakfast for supper. I have paddled several sections of this river, almost everything runnable above Blue Ridge Lake (where it is called the Toccoa), the Upper Ocoee, the Middle Ocoee, and sections of Ocoee Lake #1 (Parksville Lake). I'm glad to have finally checked off this nice pastoral section. I think my remaining goals are to paddle the section from below Blue Ridge Dam to McCaysville, Georgia, explore Lake #3 above the Upper Ocoee, and the section from Old Highway 411 down to the Hiwassee on the Lower.