Across the San Miguel Range

July 2020  |  San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Over the 4th of July weekend, Claudia and I headed out into the Lizard Head Wilderness near Telluride, Colorado, for an adventurous 3-day backpack trek across the San Miguel Range. A week ago I did a solo backpack trip there near Lizard Head Peak, which got me thinking about a longer one-way shuttle trek route directly across and over the bulk of the range, starting from Lizard Head Pass on the southeast end of the range and ending at Woods Lake on the northeast side.

Colorado, Lizard Head Pass, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, Sheep Mountain, photo

Morning mammatus clouds over Sheep Mountain and Lizard Head Pass.

We slept in the back of our truck at Lizard Head Pass the night before our hike, due to the logistics of shuttling cars and the need to get an early start for our first day's hike. In the morning we woke up at sunrise to ominous mammatus clouds and a drizzle of rain - not exactly encouraging weather ahead of an 8-mile hike mostly above treeline! We decided to just stick with our plan anyways, and fortunately the rain held off for most of our hike.

Black Face Mountain, Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, hiking, photo

Hiking along the Lizard Head Trail, with a panoramic vista of the mountains near Ophir behind.

I was excited to show Claudia this area where I had just been last week, including this awesome section of trail with expansive views of the San Miguel Range and the western San Juan Mountains.

Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, bee, wildflowers, photo

A bumblebee harvests pollen from an alpine wildflower.

Colorado, Gladstone Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, Mount Wilson, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, Wilson Peak, wildflowers, photo

Gladstone Peak (13,913 ft.) and alpine avens.

Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, photo

A small meandering stream in an alpine meadow.

After 8 scenic miles of high trails, we set up camp below treeline in a basin below Wilson Peak, just in time before a few short afternoon thunderstorms rolled through. In the evening I hiked up higher in the basin to try to check out a big waterfall we saw. I couldn't access the waterfall which was high above a snowfield, but instead I found an idyllic little basin where I had fun exploring around and photographing until sunset.

Colorado, San Juan Mountains, Wilson Peak, reflection, photo

The afternoon sun reflects in an alpine stream in an idyllic high basin below Wilson Peak (14,017 ft.).

Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, Sunshine Mountain, rainbow, wildflowers, photo

An evening rainbow over Sunshine Mountain (12,930 ft.).

Colorado, Lizard Head Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, photo

Sunset colors reflect in an alpine stream, with the spire of Lizard Head Peak (13,113 ft.) rising in the background.

Early in the morning we woke up at 4:00am, packed up the tent quickly, and hiked in the dark and dawn up to a little lake where I wanted to photograph sunrise.

Colorado, Gladstone Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, photo

Dawn light illuminates Gladstone Peak.

Colorado, Gladstone Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, photo

Bundled up in the morning at a high alpine lake.

Claudia's not a big fan of these pre-dawn starts, but the morning mug of coffee seems to kickstart her!

Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, hiking, photo

Hiking across a snowfield on our way up towards a high pass.

The plan for Day 2 was to hike over a 13,200-foot pass below Wilson Peak. This was the crux of our entire trip; if we couldn't make it over this high pass we'd have to abort our whole shuttle trek plan and backtrack to where we started! Having never been over this pass myself, I was unsure what to expect as far as snowfields or scrambling. To add to our worries, by 9:00 in the morning dark clouds were already building! Yikes. But I figured that surely it wouldn't actually get stormy until closer to noon, so we pushed onwards and upwards.

Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, hiking, photo

Claudia arrives at a 13,200-foot pass below Wilson Peak, just as hail starts to fall.

Fortunately the route was much easier than we feared, but unfortunately upon arriving at the pass we were greeted by sheets of hail from quickly approaching thunderstorms! Oh crap.

Colorado, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, hiking, photo

Descending quickly toward the Rock of Ages pass, as thunder rumbles and hail starts to fall.

As we hurried down from the pass while the hail and thunder intensified, we passed numerous hikers still heading up Wilson Peak! WTF!? For the next hour or so we got absolutely hammered by hail, as lightning flashed and thunder boomed around the mountains. Nowhere to hide and nothing to do but just keep moving down, down, down. I felt sorry (and worried) for all those people riding out the storm way up high. Hopefully nobody got zapped!

So, we got a 4th of July "fireworks" celebration after all! All natural this time.

Colorado, Gladstone Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, Navajo Lake, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, photo

Calm after a thunderstorm at Navajo Lake. Gladstone Peak looms in the distance.

By the time we reached Navajo Lake, the thunderstorm had passed over us and the sun actually came out again briefly, so we took a break there and spread out all our wet clothes and gear over the rocks to dry out before the next wave of storms came in.

Not wanting to camp at the crowded-as-usual Navajo Lake, we continued on - racing another incoming thunderstorm yet again - and found a remote camp further away with a big vista looking back at the basin and peaks we just passed through.

Colorado, El Diente, Gladstone Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, rainbow, photo

Sunlight on El Diente (14,159 ft.) as fleeting rainbow appears above the Navajo Lake basin, shortly after a thunderstorm passed over.

We played rummy in the tent during a few more waves of thunderstorms, then finally in the late afternoon the skies mostly cleared and we enjoyed a calm evening soaking in the views.

On the third morning before sunrise I was relieved when I looked out of the tent and saw clear skies - meaning that there probably wouldn't be a photogenic sunrise, so I could sleep in for a change! We snoozed for another 2 or 3 hours then returned to our viewpoint spot for coffee in the sun, like civilized lazy marmots. This mellow morning felt so fine after our long previous day!

Colorado, Little Cone, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, San Miguel Range, hiking, photo

Hiking down towards Woods Lake, with Little Cone in the background, on a classic Colorado summer day.

Eventually the clouds started building again and with no desire to hike through another thunderstorm we packed our packs and walked the final stretch down to Woods Lake where our car was waiting (sparkling clean after the thunderstorm car washes).



As a side note, on this trek just for the fun of it and to travel light, I only brought my Ricoh GRiii camera - a pocket sized 24mp APS-C camera with fixed-length 28mm f/2.8 lens (and a tripod, of course). I used to own the original Ricoh GR and loved that camera; the GRiii is a newer third-generation model with higher resolution and image stabilization. This is a sweet little gem of a camera, with excellent tack-sharp image quality and a fun macro focus capability. Its achilles heel, though, is its pitiful battery life which had me rationing my photo opps to make my three batteries last through the trip.

I was skeptical about doing an entire 3-day trek with only one focal length to work with, but on some occasions for wider scenes I cheated and shot multi-frame panos to stitch together. Although there were several times when I could have used a longer lens, for the most part I think it worked out alright. It was a fun experiment but for sure I will continue to haul my larger and more versatile Sony kit for most of my treks this summer!

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