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!|
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|
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|
|Waterfall Along The East Fork of Dallas Creek|
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|
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|
|Island Lake and Ulysses S. Grant Peak|
|Sunset Over Lower Ice Lake Basin|
|Ice Lake Reflection|
Summer in the San Juan Mountains