My friend, Jimmy Gekas, from the San Diego area, came out a couple days prior to our departure, then we headed to the San Juan Mountains for the next nine days, where the Colorado Mecca of wildflowers is located. We had planned the trip's itinerary off and on since the previous fall. We had three main backpacking goals in mind: Ice Lake Basin, Blue Lakes, and Wetterhorn Basin. While we didn't make it to Wetterhorn, the trip was no less productive. I made my first backpacking adventure the weekend prior, this would be Jimmy's first time backpacking.
The first day we hiked up the Middle Fork of the Cimarron for the first time. It was just a day hike, and we didn't get any cloud cover, but it is definitely a spot worthy of a longer stay at a later date. The major highlights here are Precipice Peak (one of the finest in the Cimarrons, and one of my favorite mountains) and the striking view of Coxcomb Peak, which takes on a pointy profile, and one eerily similar to Golden Horn from Ice Lake Basin, in the open basin below, about four miles up from the trailhead. The Cimarron mountains are one of my favorite areas in the state, and I thoroughly enjoyed this warm-up hike and the views it presented.
After our hike, we headed down into Ridgway where we met Kalin Wilson and Mel Ladewig. The next step was to do a one-night shuttle backpack trip to the Blue Lakes. We drove down County Road 7 and left my truck at the Blue Lakes trailhead. Kalin drove us back around through Ouray and up to Yankee Boy Basin. As we drove past the area of the twin falls, we had a major surprise—SNOW! And lots of it in the form of drifts three to four feet high. There is never any snow at this spot this late in July! While we knew the San Jauns had received a near record amount of snowfall during the previous winter, we were in no way prepared for the amount of snow we saw on this trip. It was beyond crazy! We headed further up the road and set up our tents, then headed up to the upper basin to shoot sunset. We were blown away the higher we went in the basin with all the remaining snow, and even the last stretch of road was blocked that gains access to the upper trailhead. We had no idea what to expect for the hike up and over Blue Lakes Pass, but we did know that it was going to be a touch longer since we couldn't drive to the end of the road. Well, sunset came and we were treated to an amazing cloud show, which was one of the finest that I've been able to photograph in Colorado.
Unfortunately, Kalin wasn't feeling too well, so he elected to not do the trip. Jimmy, Mel and I started the hike up after we shot sunrise on Mt. Emma. We traversed a few snowfields en route to the pass. We enjoyed the view from the top for awhile, then we headed down the multitude of tiring switchbacks. Jimmy and I took a lunch break at the upper lake while Mel had moved ahead a bit further to filter some water. After re-joining, we headed to the great perch after the middle lake that overlooks the lower lake. We took pictures here for quite awhile before setting up camp in the immediate area, which would provide quick and easy access for the sunrise shot of the same scene. A thunderstorm came through in the afternoon, but thankfully there wasn't any lightning that accompanied it.
We had a really nice colorful sunrise for our shots of the lower Blue Lake, which is always welcome, especially on a one-nighter when you only get one chance. Mel and Kalin had to return home on this day, so Mel hiked out and met Kalin at the Blue Lakes Trailhead. Jimmy and I enjoyed the classically beautiful Colorado green summer morning in the mountains, and eventually made our way down to the lower lake, a place which I had not been to prior. I had a severe thunderstorm pass through here on my first trip through here in 2007 which forced me to hunker down in the forest near the lake; the immediate threat of lighting kept me from walking the short distance to the shore, so it was great to now see it at eye level. But while it is a great spot to take in from the shore, the best view is certainly from where we camped. After taking some snapshots from the lake, we headed down the trail, meeting an onslaught of day hikers seemingly around every turn. We arrived back at the trailhead, and stopped in Ridgway for a bit before heading south to Silverton.
Our afternoon was open, and we had heard Stony Pass was looking nice yet again, so we headed there for sunset. We had overcast skies and a bit of rain at the top, but we shot the flowers for a couple hours. Just prior to sunset, the clouds somehow let the sun in and lit up the clouds. The light show was amazing, but driving winds that blew raindrops on our lenses made it difficult and next to impossible to shoot. We tried anyway. After the color faded, we headed down the mountain and up the road to Clear Lake on the other side of Silverton. We camped just above the upper trailhead for Ice Lake Basin.
We slept in until around 9:00, which always feels great! We did position ourselves to where we could make it up to Clear Lake for sunrise, but we didn't miss anything as the skies were cloudless. We departed the trailhead a little after 10:00, for what would be our first two-night backpacking trip. We ascended up the trail in a warm sun, but it was overcast by the time we leveled out and arrived into the lower basin a little less than two hours after we started. After shooting for awhile below the headwall that separates Lower Ice Lake Basin from Upper Ice Lake Basin, we made our way to the first batch of trees below the headwall only to find that the optimal campsite (and the only one in these trees) was taken. We headed to the next section of trees when it began to storm. There aren't all that many trees in this section of the basin, so we felt pretty exposed. We set up our tents when the rain slowed, then the storm went back at it. We had three lightning strikes within a mile of us during the four-hour storm. We then both stayed in our tents and napped, or at least tried to nap between the loud thunder claps. When the storm finally passed, we headed out into the open basin searching for more flowers to shoot. We then went over to shoot the falls that make their way down the headwall before heading back to camp for the night.
The next morning, we headed up the trail to the upper basin with our headlamps lighting the way well before sunrise. After huffing and puffing our way up, we were treated to another wonderful sunrise with nice clouds and great alpenglow. After sunrise, we headed up the Island Lake trail, another place that had been very high on my list to visit for some time. After spending about two and a half hours enjoying the lake, we started the way down. We knew we couldn't spend too much time up here as the clouds were building fairly quickly. After arriving back at camp, the storm came in like clockwork. This time for five and a half hours. There was more lightning, with one strike being within a mile, but thankfully the rest weren't quite as close as yesterday. Spending that long in a tent in an afternoon and into the evening was pretty tough, but we made it through.
Our second sunrise in the upper basin saw an uneventful clear sky. After the good light passed, we headed back down to camp and packed. We slowly headed down the trail as Jimmy had fatigue setting in from all the hiking on the trip and we decided at this point that Wetterhorn Basin will have to wait for another time. While I was looking forward to Wetterhorn, there is always plenty to see and do in the San Juans. Plus, Jimmy got to see some other cool places he had not been to previously. We finally made it back to the trailhead, and boy, did it feel good to sit down and know that we wouldn't have to deal with anymore thunderstorms away from shelter for the remainder of the trip!
We made a beeline down the hill and into Silverton where we went to the Brown Bear Cafe and enjoyed a meal that really hit the spot after two nights on the trail. After lunch, we walked around town, watched the narrow gauge train come in, then headed up Hurricane, California, Engineer, and Cinnamon passes before arriving in American Basin.
We shot sunrise in American basin, headed back into Silverton, then up Kendall Mountain. By the time we came down from Kendall, memories of yesterday's lunch crept into our heads, so back to the Brown Bear Cafe we went, and I just had to order another bacon cheeseburger! Whenever I'm out on the road alone I never eat out, so these meals were a nice tasty treat. After lunch, we headed up to Porphyry Basin. A thunderstorm rolled through and it was beautiful when it cleared. We camped at the end of the road.
We didn't get any light at sunrise in Porphyry Basin, but we still got a number of great shots throughout the morning. Before we headed out, I tried my hand at shooting the inside of a snow tunnel for the first time, though I passed on the thought a couple times earlier. The one here was easily accessible, so I had to give it a shot. After coming down from Porphyry, we went right back up Black Bear Pass and into Telluride, then over Imogene Pass in thick clouds. From here, we went back up to Stony Pass again for sunset. While we didn't have great light, the clearing clouds after the short but intense afternoon thunderstorm were spectacular. From here, we drove to Gray Copper Gulch in the steady rain that had started up again.
I slept in a little bit after sunrise. The sun danced in and out of the clouds a few quick times leaving traces of light on Red Mountain #1. After it appeared the sun would be clouded over for awhile, we headed up to Corkscrew Pass for a quick look, then on back down, then making the drive back to Denver.
Precipice Peak from along the West Fork of the Cimarron trail
Precipice Peak from along the West Fork of the Cimarron trail
Me below Coxcomb Peak, courtesy of Jimmy Gekas
Looking back down the valley
Coxcomb Peak and Redcliff on the right
Coxcomb takes on Golden Horn's striking profile a little further up
Jimmy heading back down the trail with Coxcomb serving as an amazing backdrop
At the fork for the Coxcomb Trail, #132
Through the forest
Precipice and Dunsinane
A nice meadow at the beginning of the trail
Potosi Peak from upper Yankee Boy Basin
Yankee Boy sunset
Yankee Boy sunset
Yankee Boy sunset
Mt. Sneffels (lower summit on left)
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