As summer fades to autumn, I thought I'd share some new photos and stories from the last three months of backpacking in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Including and continuing from my last blog post ("Monsoon Explorations in the Weminuche"), my backpacking adventures this summer have been mainly focused on exploring hidden nooks and crannies of these mountains and finding unique perspectives to photograph. Even though by now I feel like I know these mountains like family, they still hold surprises and secrets to uncover!
Summer Stories from the San Juans
In mid-July I headed out into the Uncompahgre Wilderness near Wetterhorn Peak to enjoy the wildflowers in a classic basin while exploring around some lesser-visited corners along the way. I started from a remote and seldom-used trailhead way down in Cow Creek just to check out a different route for a change.
Wetterhorn Peak rises 5,000 vertical feet above Cow Creek, which is one of the most rugged, wild, and inaccessible valleys in all of the San Juans. Incredibly, Ouray County and various water associations want to build a 260 ft. high dam at the mouth of Cow Creek, creating a reservoir holding 25,000 acre feet of water. Read more about the proposed dam & reservoir here. You can also see more photos of Cow Creek here and read about a misadventure I once had bushwhacking all the way up and down Cow Creek. Maybe someday we'll go up Cow Creek by boat instead! But really, are we still seriously considering damming up wild rivers in this day and age? Is this some weird 1950s time warp?
On my way back after two nights below Wetterhorn, I discovered a little pond up high on the tundra that offered a unique "vanishing pool" perspective looking towards Wetterhorn Peak. Being the reflection hound that I am, I knew immediately that I had to return for my next backpack trip to try to catch a proper photo here. I was so excited about returning as soon as possible that I even had the brilliant idea of stashing half my gear up in a tree near treeline! After all, I'd be back in a few days anyways, so why haul all that gear down then back up again?
Little did I know that we were just about to enter an historic monsoon weather pattern with some of the most violent and relentless thunderstorms in memory! Day after day we watched down-pouring rain and ground-shaking thunderstorms rolling through the town of Ridgway, with lightning strikes pounding the peaks and valleys alike, often throughout the evening and into nighttime. For two weeks the weather was too nasty to even consider backpacking up high, and for two weeks I gazed up at the mountains wondering if all my gear was getting soaked and ruined up there!
Finally in early August the weather forecast showed the storms ending, so the first chance I got I high tailed it back up there to retrieve my cached gear.
Much to my relief, my gear was just as I left it; and better yet, everything was still dry for the most part! Lesson learned, though... caching gear probably isn't a great idea, especially in the heart of monsoon season!
With my cached gear safely retrieved and the thunderstorms abated, I was finally able to go for my Wetterhorn reflection pond photo that I had been waiting so eagerly for. Though all the poofy clouds cleared before sunset, I was still pleased with the extraordinary peachy colored sky from the hazy atmosphere.
After July's remarkably intense monsoon weather, August shifted to drier weather with lots of haze and smoke drifting over from the enormous wildfires burning in California and the Northwest.
For my next backpack trip I bushwhacked up to this beautiful meadow with a striking jagged peak towering above. This particular pointy peak doesn't have a name as far as I know, so I named it Red Fang, for obvious reasons.
A strange thing happened during the night up there - while I was sleeping (or at least trying to) some animal was barking at my tent for half the night! I couldn't figure out what it was, and it started to freak me out. It sounded sort of like the yipping of a coyote but it also had a bit of that strange resonating didgeridoo throat sound that elk have. But coyotes don't bark, and elk don't bark either, right? I've heard plenty of elk bugling but never barking. Slightly deranged by lack of sleep I started wondering if it was Sasquatch's battle cry. Finally I couldn't take it any more and got out of the tent with my flashlight to scare it off. Never did see what it was. Back home a quick google search revealed that yes, elk do bark, and that's exactly what it was. Huh. That elk was probably pissed at me for taking the prime flat spot for my tent!
Later in August with a clear weather forecast I ventured up for a high camp up on Hayden Mountain above Ouray. The California wildfire haze was still problematic but at least made for some interesting sun beams shining down over Potosi Peak.
That night I had yet another odd wildlife encounter! I was camped up high on the tundra at 12,000+ feet and at 3am I was woken up by what sounded like a pig snorting right outside my tent. Of course my first thought was, oh crap is it a bear? Slightly panicked I shouted “HEY! GET OUTTA HERE!”, grabbed my headlamp and unzipped my tent for a look outside. Well I was pretty relieved (and surprised) to see a fat little porcupine waddling around instead of a bear.
In the morning the porcupine was still hanging around so I followed it for a while, having fun photographing it with its quills backlit by morning sunlight. He (or she) was slightly annoyed by my paparazzi behavior, but generally speaking I don't think porcupines give a damn about anybody or anything. You could even say they have a prickly attitude... ha.
Between the hazy/smoky weather, computer work, and other life obligations, two more weeks passed in late August and early September without me getting out into the mountains hardly at all. Strung out with nature withdrawal, finally in early September I snapped out of my funk and went hiking up high into the San Miguel Range near Telluride, where I witnessed a fantastic sunset from about 13,500 feet.
Being up high for a glorious sunset amongst the big peaks was a massive breath of fresh air for me - I felt totally recharged again! Amazing how that works.
Then for what might be the final summer adventure before the onset of autumn, in mid-September Claudia and I hiked up Lone Cone for a sunset on the summit.
The aptly-named Lone Cone is one of the most unique peaks of the San Juans - it rises alone to the west of the San Miguel Range with a distinctive symmetrical volcano shape. From the summit you have an incredible panoramic view of the entire Dolores River shed from its start flowing southwest from Lizard Head Pass in the San Juans, then wrapping around to the north through the Dolores Canyon, Paradox Valley, and finally past La Sal Mountains into the far distance where it will eventually meet the Colorado River on its way towards Moab. On this clear evening Cedar Mesa and the Bears Ears were visible 90 miles distant on the horizon, making me yearn for some desert time out there.
Hiking Lone Cone has been lingering on my to-do list for many years, so it was nice to finally do it and enjoy a pleasant sunset up there too! On the way down in the soft dusk light, thousands of moths flew around in the rocks, while dozens of bats zoomed around feasting on them. All with a backdrop of that rich red/orange/blue dusk gradient filling the western horizon.
As I write this, the leaves are starting to turn yellow out my window and I'm filled with anticipation for autumn!