Home | Getting Started | Gift Center | Gear Store | Topo Maps | My Wildernet | Newsletter Signup

Hiking & Walking: Colorado > San Juan National Forest > Mancos-Dolores Ranger District

Quick Facts

McPhee Reservoir Documentary Site

Outfitters and Guides

Satellite and Topo Map

General Description

Even if you do not actually see individual animals, you will find the type of natural habitat where they can be found. Most species are best seen during very early morning hours or late afternoon and evening. To have the most success at getting a closer view, you should approach slowly and quietly. When you leave, please leave quietly to refrain from alarming any wildlife so that others may have the opportunity to enjoy them.

Binoculars are very helpful in identifying the animals from shore or from your boat. Also, pick up a brochure, for this self-guided tour of McPhee Reservoir, from the Mancos-Dolores Ranger District in Dolores, Colorado.

Protecting the future of our fish and wildlife is everyone's responsibility. Please keep only the fish you can use and release the rest. You do not have to keep your legal limit. The largemouth and smallmouth bass are not currently being restocked; therefore, releasing spawning bass, whether they are 15 inches in length or not, will help maintain the quality and quantity of bass fishing. The practice of "catch and release" of these bass is extremely important during peak spawning periods in May and June.

The shores of McPhee now offer winter range for deer and elk because their original winter range is now under water. The "mitigation area" was purchased by the Bureau of Reclamation solely for this purpose. Numerous projects have improved the forage-producing capacity of this winter range. The planting of dryland alfalfa and perennial grasses on previously cultivated fields, prescribed burning of oakbrush in the browse feeding area, control of noxious weeds such as Musk thistle and Canadian thistle, and watershed restoration to decrease soil erosion and increase water supplies have all helped.


The largest and the most common of mergansers reaches a length of 21-27 inches. A male has a fairly long body which appears dark on top and light on bottom. He has a green-black head and a long pointed bill with serrated edges. Males are sometimes mistaken as mallards because of their green heads.

The female is gray with a cinnamon-brown neck and crested head. She is white underneath, with a white patch on each wing. In flight, mergansers hold their long necks and heads horizontally with their bodies. They dive underwater and swim considerable distances before surfacing. This species breeds regularly along swift rivers and reservoirs in southwestern Colorado. McPhee Reservoir boasts a year-round population.

This rattlesnake common to southwestern Colorado is gray to brown in color with black splotches on the back. This reptile can reach lengths of 30-40 inches. The rattle is evident on the tail. The snake will usually coil before striking. Ordinarily, this rattlesnake is found on the plains but also ventures into open, rocky areas and sunny spots in piñon-juniper and brush. Be conscious of snakes when walking in this kind of habitat and always wear protective footwear.

The grebe is a large, long-necked diver and in recent years has become more plentiful in eastern Colorado. This grebe stands 22-29 inches tall. The crown, hindneck, and back are black. The throat, foreneck, and under parts are usually pure white. The Western grebe has an extremely long light-yellow bill. The grebe's shrill whistle resembles that of the osprey.

Courtship performances are unique: with necks arched and crests raised, the grebes dance, often rubbing against one another. Studies show that boating and waterskiing disturb nesting grebes, so please respect the habitat of these waterbirds.

The American coot is a marsh dweller. The coot is found throughout the United States and stands only 13-16 inches. The only slate gray, duck-like bird with a white pointed bill, the coot appears black from a distance. Coots swim while pumping their heads and necks back and forth. This sociable bird is usually found in large flocks floating on the reservoir.

In Colorado, coots are often seen with yellow-headed blackbirds, although they may be belligerent toward unrelated waterfowl. Coots feed by diving for submerged vegetation. In takeoff, the coot skitters across the surface with wings flapping as it awkwardly climbs into the air.

Mallards are the most popular waterfowl hunted in North America. Mallards are also the most abundant type of duck in Colorado. Their prolific success comes from being among the most clever of all waterfowl. These yearlong residents of McPhee Reservoir are 21-27 inches in height. The male has a glossy green head and neck, a narrow white collar, gray body, chestnut colored breast, and a purplish-blue wing patch.

The female is mottled brown with a whitish tail. Mallards are subject to heavy predation. Their eggs are favorites of magpies, crows, badgers, skunks, and other carnivorous animals. Another predator is man, who puts heavy hunting pressure on mallards, especially in eastern Colorado.

Since the disappearance of the wolf from nearly all of the United States, coyotes have expanded their territory and are found almost anywhere. A coyote looks like a small, slender wolf but with a more pointed yellowish muzzle. Coyotes also have larger, sharper, more erect ears than wolves. Their fur is fairly long and heavy with a buff-gray and black color. The bushy tail, whitish underneath with a black tip, is pointed downward when the coyote runs as opposed to the wolf which carries its tail straight out.

Coyotes are known to breed with dogs but not with wolves. Coyotes are excellent mouse catchers and can be observed pouncing on mice in tall grass or sagebrush. When hunting in packs like their larger cousins, coyotes can bring down a deer, but usually coyotes eat rabbit, carrion, and rodents.

Mule deer are named for their enormous ears. Their summer coat is a rusty yellow or "buckskin." But in the fall, winter, and spring, mule deer turn deep gray with white rumps and white tails tipped in black. The antlers on the bucks have two equal "Y" branches, each forking into two points. In contrast, white-tailed deer and elk have one main branch curving forward with points. The antlers of mule deer are shed yearly from mid-January to mid-April. Small herds find safety in numbers, with a doe, her fawns, and a yearling often traveling together. Bucks travel alone.

Ospreys welcome erected platforms to house their bulky nests. The San Juan National Forest is trying to keep these federally protected raptors year-round in this area. To find the manmade nest, look for the tallest Ponderosa pine. The top 12-15 feet of the tree has been cut off. You should be able to see the bulky nest on the stump. The four-foot plywood square is wired with sticks at about 60 feet up. The nest is placed high for the osprey's visibility in search of fish, which is the main source of food for osprey.

Since the days of fur trapping, beaver have been reintroduced in almost every state. These shy, furry rodents can weigh up to 80 pounds, but usually top out at 40 pounds. They have large webbed hind feet, a flat, leathery tail, waterproof underfur, and chisel-like front teeth to gnaw trees and shrubs (using the bark and twigs for food). Their incisors grow continuously, so beaver grind and grit their teeth to control length.

Though mostly active at night, their presence is detectable by stick dams and lodges. Beavers communicate a warning to each other by a slap of the tail, when trespassers stray too close by. This tail slapping resembles the sound of a rifle shot. By the age of two, young beaver are forced to leave home to build new lodges and find mates.

In a clump of old cottonwood trees, you will find a manmade Bald Eagle nest in the tallest tree. About 40-50 feet up, braced in the Y of the tree, is an inverted four-foot cone camouflaged with sticks. The nest, built in 1989, is placed high for the eagle's visibility in search of fish and fowl.

A pair of mature bald eagles have been sighted nearby. Bald eagles are on the Federal Endangered Species List. McPhee Reservoir is involved in an annual national eagle count each January conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

At 11-14 inches, the kingfisher is larger than a robin and appears even larger still because of its big head and ragged crest. Kingfishers' color is blue-gray with the female showing a rust-band on her belly. The kingfisher has a white collar and a bill that is thick and swordlike.

This fish eater perches above the water, diving headfirst for its catch. Kingfishers' fight seems jerky because of uneven wing beats. You will find these birds on the prairies, lower mountain streams and lakes of Colorado. See if you can spot a pair flying rapidly up and down the reservoir, rattling at a high-toned pitch. Kingfishers dig tunnels on the sides of banks 3-10 feet deep for their nests.

This impressive bird of prey has been called "the tiger of the woods." The great horned owl stands 18-25 inches. "Horned" with prominent ear tufts, generally brown with heavy barring across the chest, this owl flies soundlessly with a wingspan of 48-55 inches. This owl is known as the "five hooter" with his soft, hollow, eerie-sounding "hoos."

The Ponderosa pine forest bordering McPhee offer an ideal hunting ground for these nocturnal predators. Far from a picky feeder, the great horned owl preys upon birds as large as the red-tailed hawk and mammals that actually outweigh the owl. Nesting mother owls have been known to use their talons and attack humans who come too close by. Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls often share the same perches and nesting sites in hollow trees.

The osprey is a hawk smaller than an eagle. Osprey have white heads with a dark stripe through the eye. Osprey have strong, hooked bills and white legs with large talons. The osprey is dark with a white underside. Both sexes look alike.

In flight, wing spans reach four to six feet, and the undersides are white with dark patches. Commonly called a "fish hawk," this predator hovers while flying and plunges feet first for the catch. These predatory birds are strictly protected.

The Bailey (plateau) bobcat is found in southwestern Colorado. The bobcat weighs up to 30 pounds and is a close relative of the lynx. The cats are gray with dark blotches scattered on the upper body. The short tail is black on the top only and the cat has slightly tufted ears. Their mottled fur blends well into the land, making them east to overlook.

The rocky ledges and extremely rugged terrain around McPhee provide good hunting for this predator. Bobcats favor resting deer when the hare population is low. Stalking for prey at night, a bobcat averages more than five miles of travel per night.

These geese are generally gray-brown in color, with black heads and necks, with an outstanding white "chin strap." They have been known to outsmart hunters, with one goose recorded as living 25 years. Nesting spots vary according to species. Nests are made in muskrat houses, marshes, inlets, or nests abandoned by birds of prey. These geese mate for life and return to their ancestral grounds to breed each season. Rangers urge you not to disturb geese near their nest, because they may move away for good.

The largest of the North American cats, the cougar (puma) can attain a length of 8.5 feet (including a black-tipped tail that can reach three feet in length). The fur is a dull, pale, yellowish-brown. The underside (chin, throat, and belly) is whitish.

McPhee offers excellent habitat with rocky ledges, brush, and piñon-juniper canyons. This habitat provides plenty of cover and food, not only for the cougar, but for its principal prey, the mule deer. These lions eliminate diseased and weakened deer, thereby improving the health of the herd as a whole.

The cougar is rarely seen, because it is nocturnal in habit. Known for its curiosity, this cat has been known to follow trail horsemen or hikers for long distances although staying well behind and hidden from view. There is evidence that cougars mate for life, but the male does not live with the female from the time the cubs are born until after they are weaned.

This aquatic rat reaches 20-23 inches in length and weighs about two pounds. Resembling a rat, the muskrat's naked and scaly tail is flattened on the sides. Colors range from light to chestnut brown or almost black. Muskrats' lower body is buff to pale gray and hind feet are partially webbed. The forepaws are used as hands.

You may see these rodents scurrying along the shoreline at peak activity time between sunset and dusk. Their homes resemble beaver lodges but are smaller, rounded lodges and burrows constructed in the bank. Males have been known to fight for females in the spring, when muskrats often display bites and slash marks. A muskrat can submerge under water for as long as 15 minutes at a time!

This small blue songbird (only 6-7 inches long), can be seen flying from bush to bush. This bluebird's mild manner and penchant for posing make it easy to photograph. The male is a brilliant blue, though paler below with a white belly. The female is rather gray-brown above, with a touch of blue on the wings, tail, and rump, and a white belly.

Bluebirds migrate to Colorado in mid-March, staying in the lower elevations until early May and then ascending as high as 12,000 feet in elevation before leaving the area in October. These songbirds seek out cavity nests already made by other birds and animals, such as woodpeckers, chipmunks, or cliff swallows.

Nicknamed "crawdad," the crayfish is a small lobster-like crustacean. Like insects, crustaceans are arthropods--animals with jointed legs and an exoskeleton (a skeleton on the outside of the body). The crayfish skeleton contains four layers. One layer is pigmented and all but the innermost are hardened by calcium salts. In order to grow, the crayfish must shed its skeleton.

Crayfish spend most of their time in shallow water, one to five feet deep where they scavenge for food. They reproduce at a very rapid rate and so become an important part of the food chain to many other animals around the lake. Crayfish were planted here by wildlife officials as food for the fish, but muskrats, raccoons, and aquatic birds feed on them as well.

Directions from Dolores, Colorado: Travel south on Highway 145 and west on Highway 184 for about 7 miles to County Road 25. Turn north off this road and into the McPhee Recreation area complex on Forest Road 271.

Seasonal Information:
Normal Services Available: Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend (NOTE: Open.) .

Current Conditions & Trip Reports

Add your own trip Report! Newly re-released feature. One of the most popular features on Wildernet, trip reports allow you to share your experiences with others. This is an invaluable resource for determining what to expect on your outdoor adventure, so please participate! To prevent spamming, you must be a registered user of Wildernet in order to submit a trip report

No trip reports filed to date. Please be the first one to do so!

Recreation Opportunities
Activity Remarks On Site
ICON Viewing Interpretive Signs McPhee Reservoir Documentary Site
ICON Viewing Scenery McPhee Reservoir

Related Activities
Mcphee Boat Launch - Six-lane concrete boat ramp, fish cleaning station, two courtesy boat docks, flush toilets, drinking water, Marina.

Mcphee Campground - McPhee Recreation Complex, on the south side of McPhee Reservoir, has the most modern camping facilities on the forest. There are showers, flush toilets, a sanitary dumping station, and 16 sites with electric hookups.

Mcphee Group Picnic Ground - McPhee Group Area has camping and picnicking sites, which are next to McPhee Campground. Volleyball posts, a ball field, and horseshoe pits are provided.

Mcphee Group Site - McPhee Group Area has camping and picnicking sites, which are next to McPhee Campground. Volleyball posts, a ball field, and horseshoe pits are provided.

McPhee Reservior Recreation Area - McPhee Reservoir is the largest reservoir in the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests.

McPhee Trail - McPhee Trail runs from Piñon and Juniper Loops before reaching McPhee Overlook (0.5 mile). Splendid views of the lake and local sandstone cliff formations can be enjoyed all along its route.

McPhee/House Creek Bike Route - This mountain bike route follows paved and gravel roads with views of House Creek drainage.

More Information
Frequently Asked Questions
Email the Local Ranger

Visitor Information:

Dolores Public Lands Office, 29211 Hwy 184 , Dolores, CO, 81323, Phone: 970-882-7296, Fax: 970-882-6841, TTY: 970-882-6842


About Wildernet |  Email to a Friend  |  Disclaimer |  Privacy |  Contact Us  | Comments & Suggestions
Advertisers & Sponsors |  Owners & Operators |  Tourism Promotors
©1995-2019 Interactive Outdoors Inc. All rights reserved.