At Home in the San Juans

September 2020  |  San Juan Mountains, Colorado

In mid-September just a few days after getting back home to Ridgway, Colorado after my big trek around Glacier Peak in the Washington Cascades, I packed my backpack once more and headed up into the Sneffels Range for a quick overnight backpack trip. I ventured up to a high basin far above the popular Blue Lakes and set up my tent on the tundra at about 12,600 feet elevation. This was a great trip for me to do right after having experienced such a spectacular trip in the Cascades, as it reminded me just how spectacular my home mountains are too!

Camped in a high basin below Dallas Peak in the Sneffels Range - September.

Camped in a high basin below Dallas Peak in the Sneffels Range - September.

One side effect of traveling to other mountain ranges is that when I come back home to the San Juans I often have a refreshed perspective, as if I can see these mountains with fresh eyes again without the jadedness or dare I say boredom that can seep in sometimes after so many years spent hiking here.

Anybody who has hiked up to the famous Blue Lakes will probably remember that moment after miles of hiking through the forest when you pop out at the lower lake and the scene is just BAM! - almost shocking in its immediate grandeur, with a wall of jagged peaks towering over the turquoise lake (and caked with autumn snow this time). Despite the fact that I've been here probably dozens of times before, that scene did not fail to inspire me as always. In fact, my first thought was along the lines of "Jeez, this is more spectacular than anything I just saw in the Cascades!!!"

But it's not more spectacular, it's just a different kind of spectacular. I thought about this while I continued hiking up past the lake. In the Cascades I had just spent those nine days basking in immense broad vistas of huge glaciated mountains dominating the skyline across vast forested valleys. But here in Colorado while the mountains and valleys aren't generally as massive as in the Cascades, the spectacular often happens on a more close-up landscape scale with these alpine lakes ringed by imposing rocky cirques like Blue Lakes and many other similarly dramatic basins.

It just goes to show that every mountain range has its own unique personality with its own characteristics that make it special, and the more I visit and experience other mountain ranges of the world, the more I am able to objectively appreciate the character of my home mountains.

The last light of sunset pops through under the clouds, illuminating the summit of Mount Sneffels (14,150 ft).
Last Light on Sneffels

The last light of sunset pops through under the clouds, illuminating the summit of Mount Sneffels (14,150 ft).

As I was roaming around on the high rocky tundra it also struck me how at home I actually feel here in the Sneffels Range. Like a bighorn sheep grazing its home turf, I feel an indescribable connection to these mountains that I simply don't feel in other mountain ranges. The way the snow lingers on the rocky striations of the mountains, the way my boots feel on the dry grass, the way the ancient purple volcanic rocks feel when I sit on them, the faint smell of autumn, the crisp dry air, even the thin bright white quality of the light - all these things are so familiar to me that they almost feel like part of myself.

In retrospect, during my entire time in the Cascades I always had an unconscious, underlying feeling of being a visitor, seeing and interpreting everything through the eyes of an outsider. Here in the San Juans, everything I see and feel is rooted in my core being - I'm not just a transient observer, but a part of the landscape.

It's fairly obvious but this feeling largely comes from time and experience. For instance in this basin alone I could look around and reminisce about a half dozen snowboard descents I've done with friends, proposing to my wife at the lake shore, scrambling up the southwest ridge with her family from Germany, the terrifying all-night-long thunderstorm I endured once at the lower lake, winter camping during a snowstorm, the many times I've stood on the summit of Sneffels at sunrise, sunset, in the moonlight or starlight, and on and on. This wealth of experience inevitably breeds a deep connection to this place and these mountains - a connection that I feel in my bones. And again, this is the type of thing that normally I just take for granted and don't think about, until I'm freshly back from a long trip in a totally different mountain range - then it becomes strikingly apparent.

To add further delight on top of all these warm fuzzy feelings, I discovered another new vantage point to photograph Sneffels and was elated that the breeze calmed down for a reflection just as this brilliant sunset light popped from under the clouds on this cloudy September evening.

Suffice it say, I'm happy to be home in the San Juans and hopeful for a wonderful autumn season! Do any of you reading this have these types of feelings about the place you live or used to live or perhaps places you frequently vacation to? Tell me about it in the comments.