San Juan Mountains, Colorado   Leave a comment

The Rocky Mountains in southwest Colorado are mantled in the year’s first snowfall.

As I entered this beautiful mountainous region of the American Rockies, I had to go pretty far back to recall the last time I had been this way.  I hitchhiked through here in 1987.  Believe it or not this road trip I’m currently on started off as a shortish foray into the Canadian Rockies.  Because of factors out of my control, it’s become entirely a domestic trip – a quest to visit corners of the West in which I’ve either not been in a long time, or have missed entirely up to now.

Three aspen trees keep their leaves longer than the rest of this stand in the mountains of southwest Colorado.

 

The San Juan Mountains had just seen their first snowfall of autumn a few days previously.  To my disappointment, if not my surprise, I was a bit too late for the golden glory of the quaking aspen.  Still, the valley floors were showing plenty of color in the form of cottonwoods and late aspens.  It’s a reason to return to this area sometime in late September.

Dawn finds the camper at the base of Mount Sneffels in southwest Colorado.

In the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness of SW Colorado, the terrain is rugged and unforgiving.

On the way over Colorado Hwy. 62, cutting west over the beautiful Dallas Divide, darkness made me turn up gravel West Dallas Road.  I camped where I thought dawn might reveal a pretty view of the San Juans.  Later I learned I had camped on the sprawling ranch lands owned by Ralph Lauren, the clothing magnate.  No harm no foul.  After sunrise, I parked just up into the National Forest and took off hiking.

I know this mood, the attitude that has gotten me into more than one pickle.  I was not into following a trail.  There were hunters in the area, and I met one while following the trace of an old road.  The guy, who was from Minnesota, must have been 70.  He was alone, and I chatted with him for awhile.  I love elderly gentlemen like him.  I hope I have the same quiet confidence, the same even temper and kind manner when (if?) I am that old.  I passed a trail and soon was following animal trails.

 

I think it was because I wanted to see the elusive prey that the hunters were tracking.  Most hunters, I’ve found, spend way too much time in their vehicles, wasting gas driving up and down forest roads.  Are they hoping a bull elk hops into the back of their pickups and says “take me”?  The old guy was a marked exception.  At any rate, I played the hunter, cradling my weapon (Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens).  I moved quietly through the woods, up and up.

I topped out just above treeline, having followed a set of bear tracks through the snow.  What a gorgeous view, even if it was a bit too early for golden light.  I was short on oxygen, as I realized (belatedly as usual) that I had precious little daylight to find my way back, with no trail in an unfamiliar patch of mountains.  I had a lighter, but no warm clothes.  It was already dipping toward the subfreezing night as the sun appeared to speed towards the western horizon.

I ran down the critter trails and as dusk descended wound up in a huge area of fallen logs, strewn like giant matchsticks across the forest floor.  I had to use all the skills I originally learned doing fieldwork  in SE Alaska, walking 3 or 4 feet above the forest floor as much as I walked upon it.  I finally saw my quarry in the failing light.  The big white rumps and heavy-footed crashing of elk being flushed from a marshy, grassy hollow caused me to pause, but just for a moment.  I also walked right up on a porcupine, who climbed a small tree and looked at me with an indifferent expression.

I reached the old road just as dusk made walking difficult.  Darkness fell completely as I finally saw the van.  I wonder how it is that so often in these circumstances, I have arrived back at the vehicle right at dark.  Of course there have been the occasional miscalculations, but given my penchant for pushing things too far, I can’t think of any other explanation for my good fortune other than dumb luck.

That night I got little sleep, as I battled a trio of mice who had moved into my van while I was hiking.  After listening too long to their munching away on my oatmeal, I set a makeshift trap and, one by one, gave them the boot.

Aspen leaves float in a Rocky Mountain stream after their brief and colorful glory.

I went on to Telluride, which lies on the other side of the mountains from where I had been hiking.  It is quite a charming town, I think much prettier than Crested Butte.  The canyon that extends steeply into the mountains from Telluride is somewhat marred by the remains of an underground mine.  They are supposedly reclaiming the area, but in my opinion there is way too much detritus lying about.  Why wouldn’t they start by cleaning up some garbage?  And this from someone who is generally friendly towards mining.  The waterfall, called Bridal Veil, is tucked into a corner where the sun does not shine often.  It’s an icy spectacle as a result (see image below).

Just outside Telluride, Colorado lies a steep canyon and icy Bridal Veil Falls.

I really enjoyed shooting that late afternoon.  Although there were no clouds, the light through the bare trunks of aspen, and reflected off the San Miguel River was just fine for this photographer.  I traveled south on Hwy. 145, which is the western half of a very scenic loop (the eastern half travels through Ouray and Silverton).  I took a gravel detour, which loops north from the paved road and allows easy access to the Lizard Head Wilderness.

In the first snowfall of winter in the Colorado Rockies, bear tracks mark the animal trail.

 

After sleeping along this route at about 10,000 feet (Brrrr!), I hiked up to Navajo Lake, this time on a real trail.  This is a classic alpine mountain basin that just says you’re high in the Colorado Rockies (image below).  The lyrics of John Denver, bless his soul, were ringing in my head.  The light was really too harsh for good photos, but I had a fine time.  Later, towards sunset, I took Charl along on a short hike to Dunton Hot Springs.  The late light through the mostly-bare aspens was pretty.  I had not had a shower in a week, so the mineral-rich pool, sitting in a draw among beautiful Colorado blue spruce, was a sweet reward.  For my little buddy, it was a tough hike.

The high San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.

The entire area around the town of Dolores and north is very beautiful.  There are excellent mountain-biking trails that cut through the forest that borders McPhee Reservoir.  The whole area is a parkland, with pines and abundant open meadows, creeks and wetlands.  It was empty of people when I was there.  As you head south to Cortez, the land dries and opens up.  Next stop, the cliff dwellings of the ancient ones, the ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi).

Quaking aspens after the fall of their golden leaves, in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado.

 

Alpenglow illuminates the San Juan Mountains and San Miguel River near the town of Telluride, Colorado.

 

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