Bluegrass and a Hike

July 11 – 19

On Wednesday, July 11, I leave the Salida WMA to drive 50 miles to Westcliffe, CO. Thursday is the start of the High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival. I first attended this festival in 2009 and to me, it is the best bluegrass festival in Colorado. I look forward to it each year. The festival grounds are on a bluff overlooking the Wet Mountain Valley with stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rise up from the valley to 13,000 to 14,000 feet. It is a gorgeous location for a festival. 


Wet Mountain Valley & Sangre de Cristo Mountains

HMHF is run by a nonprofit association which donates proceeds to the High Mountain Hay Fever Children’s Health fund. The folks working the festival are volunteers from the local community; and there is a wonderful atmosphere of small town camaraderie. It is a small festival with roughly 1,000 attendees daily.


Festival grounds from Main Street

Custer County is very rural – according to its website, there are no traffic lights in the entire county! As is often the case in rural areas, health care access can be difficult. In 2017, the association donated a little over $41,000 to the Children’s Health fund and $5,000 to Custer County EMS, according to the festival website. So festival attendees are not only enjoying four days of wonderful music, but also contributing to the community.  I love that 🙂

The main stage is in a large tent, so the musicians and fans are in the shade and also protected from rain. The sides stay up when weather is good, providing nice views to the mountains.


Main tent and Sangres

The festival is co-hosted by Dry Branch Fire Squad, a nationally known band led by Ron Thomason on mandolin,


Dry Branch Fire Squad

and by Sons and Brothers, led by brothers Mike, Aaron, and Joe Wolking, who grew up here in the Wet Mountain Valley. Their music is a mix of country, bluegrass, and western music. There’s a drummer back there, but he was always blocked.


Sons and Brothers

Each year the festival has a good mixture of different types of bands, nationally recognized and newer groups. It is always good!

This was the first year the Ransom Notes have appeared. They are siblings Amanda, Michael, and Amelia Ransom. Michael plays the cello, giving them a unique sound.


Ransom Notes

There is usually a band that plays old time string band music. This year it was the Six Dollar String Band from Durango, Colorado. They were excellent!


Six Dollar String Band

One of the headliners and a band that has been around for a long time was the Kathy Kallick Band from California. Kathy Kallick is a pioneering female band leader, going back to 1975. The bluegrass music community at that time was not very open to females, particularly leading a band. So Kathy helped pave the way for the many women in bluegrass today. Also, her fiddle player, Annie Staninec, is great!


Kathy Kallick Band

During the festival, the kids get together to practice some songs and some play instruments. Then on Sunday afternoon, the High Mountain Hay Seeds take the stage to perform. Many of the kids return each year, so it has been fun seeing them grow up over the years. The kids have lots of fun; and of course the parents love it!


High Mountain Hay Seeds!!

It was another great festival, and I enjoyed catching up with friends I’ve met over the years.

There is dry camping at the festival from noon Thursday to noon Monday for $20 – great deal! I have a reservation at a nearby national forest campground for Monday night to Wednesday night. So about 11am Monday I head over to Alvarado Campground. The campground is on the edge of the mountains at about 8,600 ft. It’s a typical forest service campground, with maybe a little more separation of sites than usual. I was in Site 9 which was long enough to park my trailer and truck. (I forgot to get a photo, drat!.) It also had good sun exposure for the solar panels. There are several sites that will accommodate RVs, ranging from full shade to partial sun. The road into the campground is good for any rig. There are water spigots around the campground, but they don’t have hose bibs. There is no dump station. The campground is located near several trailheads.

The Sangres are pretty steep mountains that rise right up from the valley floor with no real foothills. The trails start at about 9,000 ft. and generally go up a drainage to a lake that is at about 12,000 ft. So there is a lot of elevation gain to reach the lake.

On Wednesday, I hiked the Venable Lakes trail. The trailhead is at 9,025ft. The trail is pretty rocky, particularly the first couple miles. It gets a little better higher up.


Rocky trail!

At 2.23 miles there is a spur leading down to Venable Falls. Considering how dry it has been there was a good amount of water flowing.


Venable Falls

Just a few days ago, I had been thinking about hearing a hermit thrush. The beautiful song of this thrush is my favorite. On many backpacks, a hermit thrush would sing me to sleep at night. It has been a long time since I have heard one. Not long after leaving the falls, I was amazed to hear a  hermit thrush singing up a storm! It was so beautiful, I sat down on a log and listened for a few minutes. It was a real treat! Click the link if you would like to listen.

There were lots of flowers along the trail. It seems most flowers are blooming a couple weeks earlier than usual.


Lots of wildflowers

There are remains of an old cabin at tree line.


Old Cabin

As you near tree line, the trail begins to climb the ridge towards the lakes.


Up the ridge


Looking towards head of the basin

The upper lake sits at 12,085ft and 4.5 miles from the trailhead.


Upper Lake

Looking east at the lower lake, the valley and Wet Mountains in the distance. Notice how brown the valley is. The severe drought has created a financial crisis for the local ranchers as they were not able to grow enough hay to feed their cattle through the winter. Many will have to sell them off.


Lower Lake

After having a snack and enjoying the view for a while, I head back down the trail.


Looking down at Venable Creek

This grouse, which I believe is a dusky grouse, was lying right next to the trail. And as grouse love to do, it exploded up into the air when I got close. That always gives me a fright! It flew up into a tree, but then flew back down on the trail. It kept walking in front of me before finally taking off down the hill side.


Dusky grouse

It wasn’t doing the broken wing act, so I don’t know if it had chicks nearby.


Much to my surprise when I got back down the trail, that hermit thrush was still singing! It must have been very happy about something.

It was a fun hike and a beautiful day to be on the trail. At 9 miles RT with total ascent of 3,365ft, I was tired!

July 19 – 23

On Thursday morning, I leave Alvarado to make the 300 mile drive to Colby, KS. Why would I go to Kansas in the middle of July you may ask!! I have a good reason – the Pickin’ on the Plains Bluegrass Festival. I attended this festival once before back in 2012 before I had an RV. I had forgotten how hot it gets out on the plains. I dry camped in a tent. That was not a wise thing to do. That year, the highs were around 115; and at night it cooled down to maybe 108. It was miserable, and I vowed never to do that again. The festival is held at the Thomas County Fairgrounds which has full hookup RV sites for $20/night. I have a reservation for a FHU site this year, so I’m set! It wasn’t nearly as hot this year – highs in 90s.

The reason I wanted to attend is my favorite band is appearing – The Gibson Brothers.  I just love these guys. They are great musicians and they write the most beautiful songs. This festival is about half the size of HMHF. They have lots of sponsors though, and this year they had four well known national bands performing. It would be unbearable to sit out in the sun all day, so thankfully the seating is under a tent.


main tent

And The Gibson Brothers…


The famous Gibson Brothers!!

They were missing their fiddle player, but didn’t make mention of why.

The festival closed out about 2pm Sunday. I didn’t want to start the drive back to Colorado that late in the day, so I stayed over Sunday night. After two festival weekends in a row, I’m ready for a few days to relax!

3 Comments on “Bluegrass and a Hike

  1. I use an adapter called a Water Thief or Water Bandit that makes it much easier to get water at campgrounds without threaded connections on the hydrants.

    I’ve camped at the Alvarado Campground several times. It’s possible to make a loop out of the hike up Venable, just continue up to the saddle and follow the well worn trail over to the Comanche Lake trail. The Comanche trail will bring you back down to the Rainbow Trail. The loop is about 13 miles. I saw a black bear while hiking on the Rainbow Trail.

    Wishing you safe travels and a great time in Colorado.


    • Hi Brian, thank you for your comment and well wishes, much appreciated! I’ve wanted to do the Phantom Terrace hike for awhile and had thought of doing it that day. But I got a late start. And by the time I finished the 9 miles I’m not sure I was up for another 3 miles or so and a few more hundred feet of elevation gain. 😀 After being out of CO for nearly a year I’m having to re-acclimate.

      Alvarado is a nice campground and lots of hiking opportunities. That’s cool you saw a bear.

      I’ve thought of putting together a water bandit but I haven’t really had much need for it. I usually fill my fresh water when I empty my waste tanks. I didn’t need water at Alvarado as my next camp had full hookups. I just mentioned it for others who may be interested in the campground. Actually I was surprised that the water was on as I thought I read somewhere it was off. Did you buy yours or make it yourself? If one of my hoses goes bad I may use the end to make one.


      • Hello, and your welcome.

        The Phantom Terrace is a really cool section of the Comanche Venable loop. I wasn’t used to the altitude the day I hiked the loop and had a touch of altitude sickness by the time I returned to the rv.

        I bought my Water Thief. A Google search of ‘Water Thief’ or ‘Water Bandit’ returns the same item I bought.

        I’m going to try a product called Altitude RX when I get to Colorado later this month. It can be found on Amazon and is supposed to help with the transition to living at high altitude.


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