Campfires fizzle at Sage Hen County urges Forest Service to reopen once popular campsite
For decades, families and tourists camped at Sage Hen, a San Juan National Forest campground that is one of a few areas suitable for camping on the shores of McPhee Reservoir.
But beginning in the 1990s, the area a few miles west of Dolores became overrun with partiers, many underage, leaving piles of garbage, firing up huge bonfires, and driving recklessly off-road.
The mess triggered a camping closure in 2007, and an earlier ban on off-road motorized use. Sage Hen is now regulated as picnic, day-use area only from dawn to dusk.
Six years later, Montezuma County is urging forest service officials to reconsider opening Sage Hen to overnight camping.
“McPhee has very little shoreline, and Sage Hen is one of the few places people could pull their boats up to and camp,” said Commissioner Steve Chappell.
The recent Boggy Draw Travel Management Plan continues the nighttime closure, but the plan could be amended.
“The area was very popular among locals. The impression when it was closed was that it would be revisited, but there has been no target date to re-engage with a plan to allow camping there again,” said James Dietrich, community-service director for the county.
District Forest Ranger Derek Padilla told the county that there was never an intent to re-open the campground. Efforts to control destructive activity at the site failed before it was shut down. Padilla said the county’s request would be considered, but he could not promise any immediate action.
“It could be something to look at in the future, but it is not going to happen right away. It is a little ways out at this point,” he said.
The county pressed for working out a solution.
“Economically, Sage Hen is a piece of the action at McPhee Reservoir,” Dietrich said. “People want a place to pull up their boats and camp, and that area is good for that because it has a more solid lake bottom.”
People from Farmington would drive to McPhee to escape the heat, park their vehicles at Sage Hen and then bring the boat around.
“A lot of local families used to camp there, stay the weekend and go boating and fishing,” added commissioner Larry Don Suckla.
“It is easier to control campers than all the hunters. I would like to see the issue revisited to see if there is a way to get camping there again for the public,” he said.
Chappell suggested using the Montezuma County Sheriff to increase patrols in the campground to keep order and quell over-the-top rowdiness.
“The sheriff can go out and control under-age drinking,” he said.
Ranger Padilla stated that the area would remain closed to off-road motorized travel. But he said allowing boat access for camping “could be a possibility.”
“We would need to see what level of review that would require.”
One issue is the numerous archeology sites in that area. Additional studies would be required, Padilla said, to identify sites and steer public access away from them. A comprehensive shoreline survey would also be needed to determine ideal docking areas for boats.
“As a county, we are investing in a breakwater at the McPhee boat dock, so we have some skin in the game,” Chappell said. “Recreation has dried up on the lake and we want to work with the Forest Service to get it back.”
These days the area appears to have recovered to a degree from overuse. Rabbits, deer, coyotes and an occasional bald eagle enjoy the after-hours peace and quiet and amazing sunsets at Sage Hen.
Lloyd Powers used to frequent Sage Hen for family camping trips. He remembers it as a fun community gathering spot.
“All the RVs would pull in and camp for the night, enjoy the evening. It was not all rowdy youth. Why close it off? It’s public land close to local towns. It was a favorite spot, and people miss it. A lot of us can’t understand why it has not been re-opened for camping.”
To access the Sage Hen area from Dolores, drive south on Highway 145 and west on Highway 184 for about 7 miles to County Road 25. Turn north into the McPhee Recreation Area complex, drive over the Dove Creek canal and take a right on Road X.