Trip Reports: The Wild Heart Of The San Juans, Colorado - August 2012

Last week we went on another 7-day trek through the high peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. During our backpacking trip we were treated not only to spectacular mountain vistas, but to some pretty cool wildlife encounters too!

hiking, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, Needle Mountains, photo

The daily question on this trek: can we make it over the next pass before it starts storming? On this day – no.

tent, camping, Weminuche, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, stormy, photo

Our tent at our high camp in stormy weather.

Here’s our camp on the second afternoon at the beginning of a bout of stormy weather. It rained buckets this evening, but the lightning and thunder wasn’t so bad, which was fortunate given our slightly exposed above-treeline camp spot. What was more scary, in fact, was the constant rockfalls crashing down from the peaks across the meadow.

Needle Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, photo

Dark Sunrise in the Needles

A single beam of sunrise light illuminates the Needle Mountains on a stormy morning deep in the Weminuche Wilderness.

The next morning we woke up at 4am to pack the tent and hike up to a high lake to shoot sunrise. In the darkness we sensed lots of clouds swirling around overhead, but since I could see patches of stars now and then, I had a hunch that it was more of a low misty cloud layer rather than a brewing thunderstorm. Still, we couldn’t tell, and the last thing we wanted to do was to hike right up into a thundercloud (a terrifying experience which has happened to me before on a pre-sunrise hike in the same range). So we waited a while in the dark, until finally time ran out and I made the call to go for it. We hiked as fast as possible and I made it to the high lake just in time to catch a few beams of sunrise light filtering onto the rugged peaks.

Needle Mountains, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, Weminuche Wilderness, clouds, reflection, photo

Misty Mountain Morning

Storm clouds break up and lift off of the Needle Mountains, deep within the San Juan Mountains - August.

I turned out to be right – the high clouds quickly burned off into clear blue skies, while far below our high 12,600 ft. vantage point, we could see a sea of clouds filling up the lower valleys. For the next couple hours those clouds really put on a show, as they’d rise up the valley and crash over the peaks like breaking waves!

Needle Mountains, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, clouds, misty, abstract, rugged, photo

Rugged Clouds Abstract

Misty mountain clouds reflected in a high alpine tarn in the Needle Mountains.

Needle Mountains, clouds, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

Misty Needle Mountains

A breaking storm leaves misty clouds swirling around the Needle Mountains.

After shooting this awesome cloud spectacle, calamity struck when I absentmindedly left my tripod unbalanced for a moment, and it crashed down lens-first onto a rock. My vintage 35-70mm Contax-Zeiss lens instantly became a vintage paperweight. Fortunately my camera was ok, and that was the best lens to destroy on this trip – I still had my two wideangle lenses which are the workhorses in the big, up-close mountain terrain on this trek.

San Juan Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado, sunset, photo

Animas Sunset #2

A fiery sunset over a remote valley in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Another sunset in paradise!

Needle Mountains, hiking, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, August, Weminuche Wilderness, photo

Hiking deep in the Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Now that I know these remote routes so well, trekking through these mountains has lost a bit of the adventurous feel that they used to have for me back when I was exploring them on my own for the first times, when I was “feeling” my way through them on instinct rather than knowledge. Nevertheless, these rugged peaks never fail to inspire me, and the more I go in there, the more I gain an even deeper appreciation and connection with them.

Vestal Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, reflection, photo

Grenadier Pond

Reflection of Vestal Peak and the Grenadier Range in a small alpine pond in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Vestal Peak, Grenadier Range, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, hiking, backpacking, photo

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness, with a dramatic backdrop of the Grenadier Range - Vestal Peak (13844 ft.) is most prominent.

Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, reflection, photo

Weminuche Reflection

Evening light and monsoon clouds reflected in a remote lake in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Mountain goats, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

Mother and Child

Mountain goat mom and kid in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Mountain goat, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

Father Goat #2

Mountain goat in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Trinity Peaks, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

Trinity Pond

Trinity Peaks reflect in a grass-filled pond in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, reflection, photo

Grenadier Sunrise Reflection

Reflection of Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak of the Grenadier Range during a fiery sunrise.

During our last trek here, while descending from a mountain-top sunrise shoot, I stumbled across these small ponds which offer a reflection of Vestal and Arrow Peaks. For the two years since then, I’ve been longing to shoot a sunrise from those ponds, so I was elated to score a fiery sunrise on the one morning we were there on this trip!

Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, reflection, photo

Grenadier Sunrise Reflection #2

Sunrise light on Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak of the Grenadier Range during a fiery sunrise.

Mountain goat, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, grenadier range, photo

Curious Goat

A mountain goat inspects my camera in the Weminuche Wilderness, with the Grenadier Range behind.

Mountain goat, Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado, photo

Grenadier Goat

A mountain goat poses in front of Vestal and Arrow Peaks in the Grenadier Range, Weminuche Wilderness.

Moose, Elk Creek, Beaver Ponds, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

Moose in Beaver Ponds

A moose wades in the beaver ponds of Elk Creek, with a backdrop of Arrow Peak (13,803 ft.) and the Grenadier Range.

Moose, Elk Creek, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

Moose in the Green

A moose wading in the beaver ponds of Elk Creek in the Weminuche Wilderness, eating the green algae in the water.

moose, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, photo

A moose shakes off a spray of water after eating green algae from the lake bottom with its head underwater.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, train, Elk Park, railroad, train, photo

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train

The scenic narrow guage railroad coal-fired train from Durango to Silverton picks us up at Elk Park.

And one final note: If you email me asking for route descriptions, please forgive me if I’m unresponsive, or vague at best. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I’m not a guide and it’s far too difficult to describe these challenging routes, most of which are unmarked, trailless, and tricky. Secondly, and most importantly, I believe that half the fun of these off-trail journeys is the research, the adventure, and the sense of exploration; publishing detailed route descriptions ruins all of this.