Archive for the ‘San Juan Mountains’ Tag

Single-image Sunday: Autumn in the Rockies   17 comments

It’s funny how the shortening days have played havoc with my good intentions to do a Friday Foto Talk this week.  But by next Friday it will be different, promise.  This is the area I’ve been hanging around lately.  Because it’s so darn beautiful!  It is an arm of the San Juan Mtns., themselves a part of the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Colorado.  Telluride is just the other side of those mountains.

 I was hoping the aspens would still be going here but I didn’t have very high hopes.  What a great surprise: they were in their spectacular peak!  I’m not one to be on the hotline as far as these things go; I’m sure there’s an app for it.  I’d rather be surprised.  And I don’t want to avoid going to a place I know is lovely, fall colors or not, based only on some narrow-focused recommendation off the internet.

This was captured atop a ridge when the sun finally cleared the storm clouds lingering over the higher part of this range, which is out of view to the left.  I climbed atop this rock and used it and the nice pinyon pine as foreground.  I think this image has everything the Rockies are: rugged mountains, golden aspens, pinyon pines and lichen-encrusted metamorphic rock.

I’ve been exploring this area more completely than I have in the past.  In fact, I’m right now burning daylight!  Since this is my last full day here, I am going to finish this post, stop watching football, and drink the beer I ordered faster than I want to.  Hello golden hour!  Have a great week everyone.


A beautiful morning and fall colors go together well in the mountains of SW Colorado.

A beautiful morning and fall colors go together well in the mountains of SW Colorado.

The San Juan Mountains   11 comments

An alpine lake high in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

An alpine lake high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

The San Juan Mountains are my favorite mountain range in Colorado.  They are not the highest mountains in the state, though with six peaks surpassing 14,000 feet (4270 meters) in elevation they’re close.  It is the largest range in Colorado by area.  They slice spectacularly through the southwestern part of the state, forming a stunning Rocky Mountain landscape.

The major towns bordering the San Juans are Durango, Montrose and Alamosa.  Telluride, Creede and Silverton are smaller towns with historic, touristic and recreational personalities.  Hiking, mountain climbing & biking, horse-riding and white-water rafting are very popular, as are 4WD jeep rides.  There are four ski areas in the range, with Telluride being by far the biggest and most famous.  There are a plethora of summer homes and ranches, many owned by wealthy people.  Some are even famous (Tom Cruise is one).

The rugged San Juans in SW Colorado.

The rugged San Juans in SW Colorado.

William Henry Jackson, a photographer’s photographer

An intrepid photographer named William Henry Jackson, whom many of you might already know about, trekked through this range on his mission to document the best of the rugged American West in the late 1800s.  As part of the Hayden Expedition, he used pack animals and his own strong back to lug his large-format camera (complete with huge glass plates) up and down these steep mountains.

He set up make-shift tents that served as darkrooms, developing his prints often on the very summits of the mountains.  All in all he made about 300,000 black and white pictures.  These images, reproduced in newspapers in cities worldwide, played a large part in forming an idyllic image of the American West in the minds of those looking for new opportunity.  The call of “Go West young man!” now had superb pictures to go with it, and the mass migration soon followed!

Ranch land at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.

Ranch land at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.



The San Juans are a large western branch the Rocky Mountains.  Like the rest of the chain, they formed by the uplift and buckling of a large pile of older sedimentary and volcanic rocks during the late Cretaceous (the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago).  This massive crustal “squish” happened because of a collision between two huge chunks of Earth’s crust: the Pacific and North American Plates.

Some of the highest and most rugged peaks in the San Juans are made of very hard igneous intrusions (granite is an example) that resist erosion.  These so-called plutons were intruded as the mountain building process got going.  Many of the flat-lying layers of sedimentary rocks forming the canyon walls of the adjacent Colorado Plateau lap up onto the San Juans.  There they take on a different look, being strongly deformed by folding and faulting.

Ouray, Colorado is a small town situated in a spectacular spot.

Ouray, Colorado is a small town situated in a spectacular spot.

Hard sedimentary rocks like quartzite, which is metamorphosed (heated and changed) sandstone, form prominent peaks and cliffs because quartzite is hard like the plutonic intrusions.  Other sedimentary rocks, such as the mudstones and sandstones of the dinosaur fossil-bearing Morrison Formation, typically form the rubbly slopes bordering the peaks.  Many valleys and canyons follow faults.  Ouray, Colorado lies at the base of a steep grade because of the E-W trending Ouray Fault.

Volcanism is one other important force that helped to form the San Juan Mountains.  Large and explosive volcanoes erupted in middle Tertiary times (about 30 million years ago).  Many calderas, including the Silverton Caldera, make up what’s called the San Juan Volcanic Field.  Calderas are bigger than craters and are formed when the volcano violently explodes and collapses back into its emptied magma chamber.

You can see these volcanics (tuffs – rock from volcanic ash and lavas) by driving up and over spectacular Red Mountain Pass.  In the San Juans, the colorful volcanic rock forms high but more rounded peaks that are less rugged than those formed by earlier igneous intrusions of the main mountain-building event.

Aspens take on a very different look after they lose their leaves in late autumn.

Aspens take on a very different look after they lose their leaves in late autumn.

Thar’s Gold in them thar hills!

In the late Tertiary, from about 20 to 10 million years ago, the slowly cooling granitic intrusions that were the sources for those explosive volcanoes sent forth gold and silver-bearing fluids into the faults and fractures of the calderas.  So like so many mountainous regions of the world, the events that formed valuable mineral deposits were the penultimate phases of the mountain-building process, the last gasp of the big granite bodies solidifying deep underground.

In southwest Colorado as in similar places throughout the world, these events dictated the much later human history of the area.  The mining history of this area, while interesting, also has a dark side.  The Summitville Mine in the eastern San Juans was worked by the old-timers in the late 1800s, well before modern environmental regulations.

The pollution from acid drainage resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declaring the area a Superfund site.  They have been trying to clean it up since the 1990s.  The EPA wanted to list an area near Silverton for Superfund status, but local opposition forced them to drop the idea and rely on the mining company to help control acid drainage.  The local economy relies heavily on tourism, and residents did not want that reputation tainted.

Silverton sits in a high valley between Molas and Red Mountain Passes.

Silverton sits in a high valley between Molas and Red Mountain Passes.

Silverton's mining-driven boomtime was in the late 1800s, as the architecture suggests.

Silverton’s mining-driven boom-time was in the late 1800s, as the architecture suggests.


The San Juan Mountains, a real Rocky Mountain wonderland, make for outstanding landscape photography.  In early summer there are spectacular wildflower displays. In autumn the aspens turn gold beneath the snow-dusted peaks.  If you have never been to this part of Colorado, I recommend making every effort to visit sometime soon.  And don’t forget your camera!

Click on any of the images to go to my image galleries.  They are all copyrighted, so aren’t available for free download without my permission.  If you’re interested in purchase of fine-art prints or high-resolution downloads please contact me.  Thanks for reading and have a great day!

The setting sun's light brightens the peaks of the San Juan Mountains,  Colorado.

The setting sun’s light brightens the peaks of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Mountain Monday: The San Juan Mtns., Colorado   8 comments

Since I missed Single-image Sunday again I will post a single shot from yesterday evening.  The sunset promised to be a pretty one, and I was racing to catch it from Dallas Divide, where Hwy. 62 in SW Colorado offers a grand view of the San Juan Mountains.  But on the way to this place from which I’ve been skunked repeatedly by weather socking in, I spied a dirt road to the left.

I took the road, went through a cattle gate, and it wasn’t long before things got too rough for my (2WD) vehicle.  The view was of a different part of the San Juans here, an eastern arm that is lower in elevation but with a lot of cliffs and knife-edge ridges.

I had no time to spare as I hiked as fast as I could up a nearby ridge to get a decent view of it.  The high altitude here always hits me hard whenever I exert myself, and so I had to stop a couple times to catch my breath.  Though I caught the direct orange light on the range (barely), it is this purplish light just after sunset that I think I like best.  The colors are more subtle but I like the way they match the overall atmosphere of the place: high and pristine.  The air was crisp and clean as it should be in late autumn in the Rockies.  And the view so grand and beautiful!

If you are interested in this image just click on it for purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry.  If you have any questions or a special request for this or any other image, just contact me.  Thanks for checking it out, and have a great week everyone!

An eastern arm of Colorado's spectacular San Juan Mountains.

An eastern arm of Colorado’s spectacular San Juan Mountains.

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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