Monday, August 8, 2011

San Juan Mountain Wildflowers

I recently returned from my annual pilgrimmage to the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado to hike, photograph, and just generally enjoy this year's wildflower spectacle. This year I was accompanied by friend, and fellow photographer, Steve Flowers from the Phoenix area. Steve and I have hooked up on a few adventures now and I couldn't have asked for a better companion on this trip. We both ticked off a couple of entries from our photographic "bucket list" when we decided we'd do a couple of short backpacking trips...the first in the Sneffels Wilderness to take in the incredibly scenic Blue Lakes area and the second to the renowned wildflower hotbed that is Ice Lake Basin near Silverton. Both of these trips were to be done as two night base camps incorporating hikes to the surrounding scenic locations for our morning and evening shoots.

Of course, one can't talk about hiking and photographing in these mountains during monsoon season without bringing up the weather. In short, it was cool, wet and altogether unpredictable...exactly what we were expecting! It rained every day on the trip with the exception of the day we drove in. I guess it was nice that we were able to ease into the trip with a nice dry camp near the Blue Lakes trailhead that first night. The clear sky, calm winds and rushing waters of the East Fork of Dallas Creek created a sense of calm that we wouldn't often get to experience for the remainder of the trip.

East Fork of Dallas Creek about 10 feet from my tent...sweet!
The first morning started just about the same way as any other backpacking trip has for me. I get everything ready, pack my gear into the backpack and hoist it on my shoulders to see how it feels. Hmmm....kinda heavy!! Damn that camera gear! Then I get on the trail and start up the first of many steep uphill sections...holy crap! I'm huffing and puffing and the air I'm breathing seems like it has to be every bit as thin as what Everest climbers experience near the summit. Through all my heavy breathing I'm trying to think of how to tell Steve what a stupid idea this was and that I was heading back to Ridgway in search of a good, stiff Bloody Mary!

Fortunately, before those words ever came to fruition, I started to catch my breath and get into a rhythm. I was still sucking wind, but it was getting more and more manageable. Before I knew it, we'd crossed into the wilderness boundary and the worst of the climbs were behind us. When we caught the first glimpse of Lower Blue Lake, I knew I'd made the right choice in eschewing that Bloody Mary. The appropriately named lake was an incredible turquoise blue, similar to lakes I'd seen in Canada's Banff National Park years ago. After a short period of oohing and ahhing over the lake we set up camp, had some lunch and relaxed a bit before heading out to investigate our surroundings.

Our goal that evening was to day hike to the rest of the lakes above us (Middle and Upper Blue Lake) and figure out which would work best for a sunset shoot. At first, it didn't look like we would be going anywhere as mid-afternoon thunderstorms rolled in and threatened to foil our plans. Fortunately, they petered out as quickly as they developed and after an early dinner we headed up the mountain. Neither of us were at all acclimated yet so it was a slow trudge upwards, even though all we were carrying was water and camera gear. However, the drop-dead gorgeous scenery helped to keep our minds off our physical woes a bit until we reached Middle Blue Lake and, shortly thereafter, Upper Blue Lake. The tundra setting surrounding these lakes was nothing short of astonishing, particularly all the wildflowers enveloping Upper Blue Lake. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't all that cooperative as it was somewhat windy and mostly cloudy. So for the next couple of hours Steve and I scouted out the area and enjoyed the company of the inquisitive marmots (which kept approaching within feet of us whenever we stood still or sat down for long periods of time).

Finally, about a half hour before sunset the winds subsided for a brief period and the sun magically lit the landscape allowing us an opportunity to photograph the upper lake. It didn't last long, but I was grateful for the chance to come away with a few decent images up there. It was the perfect end to a long first day in the backcountry.

Upper Blue Lake in the Sneffels Wilderness
The next morning our plan was to return to Middle Blue Lake with the hopes of shooting the sunrise with one one of the dominant peaks in the area reflected in the lake. We had scouted this scene the night before and both agreed it could make for a killer image. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans...when I came out of my tent for our 4:30am wake-up call, it was clear and windy. Hardly worth the effort to hike back up to the lake. Instead, we crashed back into our tents for a quick catnap and tried our hand at shooting the lower lake at sunrise. While nothing great photographically came from it, I did encounter a composition that I hoped to revisit with (hopefully) better conditions the next morning.

After a leisurely breakfast and other assorted camp duties were complete, we decided to hike back up to the ridge close to the middle lake. There were several excellent overlooks down to the lower lake along the way with many wildflower fields spicing up the scene. With the lower lake in full sunshine, its turquoise color really popped and made for many stellar mid morning photographs.

Lower Blue Lake From Above
On the way back to camp, Steve took an alternative route and found an exquisite waterfall hidden in the trees. Since it was sunny at the time, we made a mental note to return later and continued on. By the time we returned and had some lunch, it was starting to cloud up in preparation for more afternoon storms. We took advantage of the cloudy period by shooting some of the nearby creek scenery (the East Fork of Dallas Creek passed right by our camp) and some more intimate wildflower scenes in the meadow between out tents and the lower lake. There was certainly no shortage of subjects, which was really nice. I even returned to waterfall Steve had found earlier to shoot it (Steve was too tired to trudge back up the hill...understandably). All in all, it was very productive afternoon of shooting.

Waterfall Along The East Fork of Dallas Creek
Unfortunately, that would be the end of our shooting for the day. Once the storms rolled in, they hung on right until sunset. Such is life in the mountains. All you can do is wait it out and hope for something better the next day.

And, boy oh boy, did mother nature ever throw us a bone the following morning! When I peaked out of my tent about 45 minutes before sunrise to see a fairly clear sky to the east with tons of cool clouds hanging over the surrounding mountains, I began to salivate! I hopped out of the tent, informed Steve of our luck, and quickly gathered up the camera gear and made my way over to the location I had scouted out the previous morning. The wait was excruciating, but when the sky lit up I was like a kid in a candy store shooting that scene and many others until the light finally became too harsh. It was an exhilirating morning and a perfect end to this segment of the trip. We leisurely packed up our rather soggy camp and headed back down to the trailhead...grinning all the way!

Sunrise in the Sneffels Wilderness
We actually decided to forgo camping the following night in order to both clean up and dry out our gear after the previous nights' thunderstorms. We found a hotel in Silverton and rejuvenated our bodies with restaurant food and a few beers....ahhh! We were ready for round two at Ice Lakes Basin in the morning.

When I awoke the next morning and poked my head out of the hotel window, I was stunned by what I saw. It had rained for a good part of the night (neither of us heard it through our deep slumber) and now there were low hanging clouds and fog all over the mountains. It was an incredible view to see and had we stuck to our plan to camp out, we would've undoubtably come away with some spectacular images. After a brief period of kicking myself, we packed up and headed out to the Ice Lake Basin trailhead. Steve was trying to be the voice of reason, explaining that we would've had to trudge heavy, wet gear up the trail had we camped overnight. He had a good point, but it still hurt leaving such good photographic opportunities by the wayside. I continued to grumble to myself all the way to the trailhead, until the task at hand finally diverted my attention.

Ice Lake Basin is actually a beautiful two-tiered basin found in the Silverton West subrange of the San Juan Mountains. The lower basin is below treeline at ~11,500', while the upper basin resides in the tundra at ~12,300' and is peppered with three lakes and a number of small tarns. A huge escarpment separates the two with many waterfalls raining down from the upper basin. It is quite a sight to behold! Both basins are covered in wildflowers from late July through early August.

For me, it was this area that lured me back to the San Juans this summer. Yes, the Blue Lakes were beautiful and a worthy destination in and of themselves. However, I'd been dying to see Ice Lake Basin ever since I moved to Colorado 4 years ago and, due to either injuries or conflicting activities, I'd yet to make it there. As I hoisted my backpack on my shoulders at the trailhead, a real sense of anticipation came over me. Of course, that anticipation waned a bit when we hit the first set of switchbacks! As steep as the Blue Lake hike was...this was worse. Fortunately, the former trip served as a good warmup, and while it was still a struggle to make our way skywards, I didn't feel as bad as I did the first time around. We arrived all sweaty and out of breath at the lower basin only to find that all the campsites we were interested in were already in use. By this time we at the base of the escarpment leading to the upper basin. It was at this point that Steve pulled a Cliff bar out of his pack and proclaimed that we should split it (for the energy) and continue on to the upper basin and camp. It was an iffy proposition as the sky was already graying up and the thought of being exposed to thunderstorms on the tundra was not very inviting at all. However, the thought of climbing up the steep and rocky escarpment in the wee hours of the morning (for each of the two mornings we'd want to shoot sunrise) didn't appeal to me either. I simply nodded and we continued on.

Upon arriving to the upper basin, two feelings swept over me. The first was a feeling of elation that I'd finally made it and am now seeing it with my own eyes. The second was a feeling of mild panic upon seeing all the gray clouds heading our way and realizing that we'd need to find a place to set up our camp in a hurry. Fortunately, the weather was able to hold until we did so. As soon as I stowed the last of my gear in the tent, the rain started. The remainder of the day was to consist of gray skies with on and off rain showers...heavy at times. But at least we were able to get out of our tents for periods of time and there was no lightning. We accomplished next to nothing photographically on this day and just resigned ourselves to wait until morning. We tried to do a bit of scouting, but felt we couldn't venture too far from the tents as the next wave of weather was never too far away.

When morning came, I held my breath as I first peaked outside the tent. I looked up and saw clouds everywhere. Then I looked to the east and saw a bit of clearing on the horizon where the sun would be rising. Woo hoo! We popped out of our tents and made our way a very short distance to a tarn that offered the best chance of a reflection of the jagged peaks surrounding the basin. It was the classic shot that most photographers take when they come here, but that was fine with us given our lack of time to scout for anything better (or different anyway). It was truly a magnificent sight when the first light turned those peaks blood red. We were in heaven and clicking away!

Upper Ice Lake Basin
After shooting around the tarn and our camp for a while, we regrouped with breakfast and plotted out our strategy for the rest of the day. The weather kept improving so I suggested to Steve that we hike out to Island Lake for a mid morning shoot. We were both very keen on shooting this turquoise colored lake (similar to Lower Blue Lake) and mid morning seemed the best time to get it done as the sun would be lighting the entire neighboring basin it resided in. It turned out to be a fantastic outing as the scenery didn't disappoint and we were treated to a beautiful sky filled with interesting high clouds all morning. I could've stayed all day, but the writing was on the wall when we looked back towards camp and saw rather large thunderheads starting to blossom to the south. It was time to go!

Island Lake and Ulysses S. Grant Peak
The rest of the day the weather pretty much deteriorated. Heavy rains with on and off thunder ruled the day. On the few occasions we were able to get out of our tents, we felt like drowned rats. Often the fog and low clouds were so thick that we couldn't see the mountains above us or the lower basin below. The boredom factor was very high! Finally, about a hour before sunset, the rains finally let up for the evening. Wearing every bit of clothing we brought with us, Steve and I took a walk in the gray, cold, and damp basin. We both eluded to how nice it would be to get back to civilization the next morning. Another day like this and we'd both be ready for the nut farm! Just as we finished with that thought I noticed a bit of lightness forming behind Pilot Knob, a prominent peak just to our west. A few minutes later we began to see some faint light on the hillsides to our east. We quickly made our way back to camp to dig out our stowed camera gear and made a beeline toward the edge of the escarpment looking down on the lower basin and the peaks toward Silverton. What ensued was a fantastic few moments of light just before and after sunset. It was difficult light to do photographic justice with on such short notice, but we didn't care. We were just glad to see it after the doom and gloom of the day.

Sunset Over Lower Ice Lake Basin
The next day was actually rather uneventful shooting wise. The morning greeted us clear and cold (with a bit of frost on the tents), and we did our best to make something of it. Upon returning to camp we started the long process of drying everything out before packing it away for the trip down. The clear and now warmer mid morning conditions made for a very relaxing and enjoyable hike back down to the trailhead. Upon returning to civilization, we checked in with the forecast and found that the monsoonal pattern was expected to intensify over the next couple of days. Intensify?? Really?? We had given ourselves an extra day or two for additional shooting at this point, but the pull of the warm desert was quickly winning us over. It was time to go home!

Ice Lake Reflection
To see additional images from this trip, click on the link below...

Summer in the San Juan Mountains


  1. Guy, looks like you were able to get some really nice flower-age! Love the Sneffels sunrise shot in particular. Sure beats being in a Phoenix haboob.

  2. Guy, your photography is magnificient! Thanks for the imagery.

  3. you guys are fucking awesome, great footage and unique places. Been to many places myself growing up in Vail and Moving to Durango. positive vibes to you. keep it up