Trip Reports: Quick Tour Through The San Juans, Colorado - August 2017

In mid August we found ourselves drawn back to the San Juans like moths to a flame. We spent a few nights car camping up above Red Mountain Pass, drove eastward over four old mining road passes, then did a backpack trip intp Cataract Gulch near the 14er Sunshine Peak.

Colorado, Gray Copper Gulch, Red Mountain, San Juan Mountains, photo

Red Mountain #1 reflects in an alpine tarn at sunrise.

Colorado, Red Mountain, San Juan Mountains, solar eclipse, photo

In August of 2017 a solar eclipse was visible over most of the United States; in southern Colorado it wasn't a total eclipse but was still quite interesting to witness, especially from about 13,000 feet up in the San Juans! I poked a bunch of pinholes in a sheet of paper and the eclipse was clearly visible in the light/shadows cast through the holes.

Brown Mountain, Colorado, Red Mountain, San Juan Mountains, photo

The view from 13,339-foot Brown Mountain looking south towards Red Mountain and the endless San Juans beyond.

After enjoying the solar eclipse we continued up to the 13,339-foot summit of Brown Mountain which offered a great view looking back south towards Red Mountain. If you look closely at the bottom left corner of the above photo you can see the road where we camped in our truck for a couple nights.

Animas Forks, Colorado, San Juan Mountains, mine, wildflowers, California Gulch, photo

A dilapidated mine ruin in California Gulch above the mining ghost town of Animas Forks (up valley from Silverton).

Following rough high elevation old mining roads, we drove eastward through the San Juans over Corkscrew Pass, Hurricane Pass, California Pass, and Cinnamon Pass, then did a one night backpack trip into Cataract Gulch near the 14er Sunshine Peak.

Cataract Gulch, Colorado, San Juan Mountains, beetle kill, pine beetle, forest, photo

In the last decade the forests of the eastern San Juans have been devasted by pine beetle kill. Pine beetles burrow under the tree bark and introduce a blue stain fungus that blocks water and nutrient transport within the tree, thus killing it. The beetles are a natural part of the forest, normally playing an important role of attacking old and weak trees, thus aiding development of younger trees. 

However, what's not natural is this kind of widespread annihilation of entire forests that's happening these days. This is yet another alarming sign of the effects of climate change. As average temperatures rise, the forests experience less and less prolonged deep freezes during the winters which are necessary to kill the beetles and keep their population in check. Milder winters, hotter drier summers, and a century of forest fire suppression have all combined to weaken the forests, allowing the pine beetles to continue to spread until the forest is almost totally wiped out. The unprecedented outbreak of beetle kill in the last decade is happening throughout not only Colorado but across much of the West, in what might be the largest forest insect blight ever seen in North America.

It is sobering seeing the vast dead forests on the entire eastern side of the San Juans. I wonder if it's just a matter of time before all of Colorado's pine forests are dead, leaving us with only our memories of what healthy green forests once looked like.

Cataract Gulch, Colorado, San Juan Mountains, waterfall, photo

A cataract in Cataract Gulch.

Colorado, San Juan Mountains, Sunshine Peak, 14er, photo

Sunshine Peak (14,001 ft.) and the Lake Fork Gunnison River valley.

After hiking up Cataract Gulch we found this amazing overlook with a front and center view of Sunshine Peak and the Lake Fork Gunnison River valley. What a great spot to chill out and soak in the view all afternoon and evening!

Colorado, San Juan Mountains, Sunshine Peak, 14er, photo

Evening light on Sunshine Peak, just barely a fourteener at 14,001 feet high.

Colorado, San Juan Mountains, sunset, clouds, photo

Fiery sunset-lit clouds over the eastern San Juans.

Colorado, San Juan Mountains, Sunshine Peak, 14er, photo

Sunrise light briefly shines on Sunshine Peak through a gap in the clouds.

It was sprinkling rain in the morning, but the rising sun poked through the clouds for a brief but glorious moment of light. With ominous-looking rainclouds rolling in, we packed up the tent in a hurry and high-tailed it off the high tundra before we even had a chance to make coffee!

Posted in Colorado and tagged San Juan Mountains, Colorado.