Tag Archives: San Juan Mountains

Destructive Grazing in the Wilderness Hurts Everyone

30 Oct

Cattle Pic

Cattle living in the mountains where there is literally snow melting into streams in August. 

The summer of 2017 ushered in many new habitat changes in the San Juan Mountains – none more noticeable than a grazing uptick. This was most prevalent in the South San Juan Wilderness near Tobacco and Quartz Lakes – where sizable herds reside.

Cattle cause problems in numerous ways and when living in pristine places – the results are disturbing. They damage the ground by widespread trampling while also devouring flowers and grass. Lush green pastures perfect for taking a nap become a cesspool of ants, flies, mud, and loose rock. Flowers don’t automatically grow back yearly and the ground doesn’t magically reform either. It takes decades to fully recover.

In areas of competing public use these effects are worse. The herds sleep at obvious camp spots, making those inhabitable – littered with foul manure and swarming insects. This means looking elsewhere and finding new spots – putting more pressure on an over-stressed environment.

trail damage

Hiking to Tobacco Lake

The same applies for hiking trails. The trails become so disfigured and muddy – hikers have to step off and go around. However, the most significant damage is done to our water supply.

High altitude places in the Western US should be known clean water – a vital natural commodity.  In the South San Juans, these high-altitude watersheds flow into the Rio Grande River. Tobacco is the highest lake in the wilderness at nearly 12,400 feet. Yet, dozens of cattle graze just beneath the shoreline.

I’m all in favor of responsibly herding cattle but not between 8500 – 12,000 feet at beautiful mountain lakes. Can’t we find some place more appropriate? In most towns, chemically treated tap water tastes poor and bottles waste millions of tons of plastic each annually. If our highest and finest natural resources are tainted by bovine – we’ve all got issues.

In case you are wondering how much it ranchers pay for their grazing rights – it’s now 1.87 a month for a cattle and calf. That’s down from 2.11 during the Obama Administration. I think they do more damage than that in an hour. Let’s put politics aside and all agree this is not right.

If you are interested in more evidence please check out my video uploads here. I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic again in the future. Your thoughts, opinions, and input are always appreciated.

quartz lake

Noticeable damage to the banks of lovely Quartz Lake while the water color is a murky green it should be a silty blue. The forest service touts this lake as a hiking destination but a herd of 20 cattle live onsite making picnics here less than desirable. 

New Images from Colorado

1 Sep

Wildmoments Update:

I’m back from a three-week adventure to Colorado specifically for additions and updates to my book. The trip was a tremendous success for photography. It rained more this summer than my previous visits, which made for interesting conditions. I witnessed better sunrises, unique cloud formations and prolific waterfalls. However, my feet were constantly wet and I spent more time holed up in my tent, which also incurred some damage. Overall, it was a good year for wildflowers with some spots showing better than before while others not as prolific.

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Cunnigham Gulch was raging this year and a delight to photograph

I also was fortunate to visit some new places and meet some new friends. Currently, I am working on processing images as well as a new book design. My plan is to have the book in print by next spring. It will surely be the best version yet with even more spectacular pictures and places to visit! Stay tuned for more exciting news, updates, and I’ll explore other related topics too!

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It hailed four times on this particular day

Photographing Ice Lake

16 Jun

In addition to hiking, my book also includes a photography section for each lake. This provides useful information for both the serious shooter and the casual looking to improve his or her (smartphone) shots. While each chapter is unique, topics include instructional, technical and creative advice. Also discussed are nearby points of interest, strategies for finding the best composition and more.

You might learn something that isn’t obvious too. For instance, notice the distance from the water in the picture below. It’s about a half mile and 500 feet of elevation away. In many spacious basins, it is challenging to explore everywhere in one visit. That’s why tips on where to go help.

Below is partial excerpt for a popular location in the San Juan Mountains. July and August are the perfect times to visit. For an amazing experience, consider personal instruction and guidance by yours truly this year! Find more information about this here.

Exertion Point

Ice Lake Basin, Colorado, August

Capturing or witnessing Upper Ice Lake Basin’s signature alpenglow is an exclusive experience available to those willing to spend the night. Golden Horn is the most iconic peak and befittingly shows off the best display of crimson morning light, both before and immediately after sunrise.

During times of peak wildflowers, compositions are plentiful. The most iconic shots feature alpenglow reflections and successful ones accentuate form. Consider shooting at an intimate tarn as opposed to Upper Ice Lake. Sunrise images won’t display the lake’s vivid color, which needs direct midmorning light. Be sure to bracket shots or use a graduated neutral-density filter.

Another alternative is shooting Ice Lake’s hefty outlet stream. Several sections of rippling cascades offer excellent vantage points. These dynamic compositions usually do not include the lake. Use a wide-angle lens and try blending for depth of field.

Perhaps skip the water altogether and fill your foreground with a bouquet of splashy wildflowers. This works best on still mornings and emphasizes spectacle. Whatever you choose, the best plan is staying more than one night to ensure the greatest opportunity for success.

Sunrise is not the only time for mesmerizing photography. Midmornings on partly cloudy days also yield outstanding results. Remember to use a polarizer and shoot when the groundcover is in partial shadow. Even in harsh midday light, the lake photographs well with a smartphone.

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Hiking Hope Lake

10 Jun

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Below is an excerpt from my new book, Capturing Colorado: Hiking & Photographing Lakes of the San Juan Mountains. Celebrate summer with a definitive guide to Colorado’s finest range. Find out more about this exciting guide here.

Clouds play hide-and-seek amid unearthly red peaks and motley fields of flowers en route to Hope Lake. The price to pay for this special occasion is a paltry one – 2.5 miles and 1500 feet of altitude gain. A relative drop in the bucket compared with the taxing work necessary to reach other locations with similar scenery. Hiking is part of the allure, making this adventure an ideal choice when exploring near Rico and Telluride.
Begin on level dirt venturing through a shaded forest before reaching a hillside gulley. The streambed is wide and shallow but floods after heavy rains. An unobstructed presentation of a looming crest soon appears. Accentuated by the chattering sounds of water, these stately sights impress.
Effortless hiking continues for over a mile, including a brief downhill stint on a series of meandering switchbacks. Views progressively improve with shimmering Trout Lake and the unorthodox skyline of the Lizard Head Wilderness afar. Twenty-five minutes of walking brings the confluence of two major waterfalls and the trail traces them upwards. A wooden sign marks the beginning of this climb, which is a natural resting spot. Nearby, a tree-covered ravine makes an enchanting place to investigate.
The final push takes place on moderate switchbacks through a timber canopy and open understory. An occasional window offers compelling views of an imposing peak. Walk on soft ground while enjoying the roaring sounds of water splashing down the mountain.
Above the trees, enter a medium-sized meadow with unbelievable vantages of the burnt-orange slopes of 13,897-foot Vermillion Peak. Enjoy outstanding views of this mysterious mountain amid dizzying scenery. Wandering forward toward a notch in the hills, catch your first glimpse of soothing Hope Lake. You may find yourself wondering, “Is this place real?”

Back from Snowy Colorado Part 1

18 Oct

We returned safely from our adventure in Colorado last week and I wanted to share some pictures and conditions from our first couple of days on the road. We departed Phoenix around 4:30am PST and made it to Cortez by about 1pm MST. From Cortez, we headed up the 145 touring the picturesque Delores River Valley toward Lizard Head Pass, seeing the first signs of snow approximately five miles outside of the town of Delores and before Rico.

The first storm of season had hit the area the day before and blanketed the mountain slopes with up to a foot of snow. The weather was a mix of partly sunny conditions with fast-moving clouds with temperatures in the low 40’s.  The trees in that area were a mix of peak, past peak, and still green – a theme that became the dominant foliage conditions of the trip.

What’s interesting, is as we drove towards the Dallas Divide there were large areas of the mountains that didn’t appear to have any snow or that it had already melted. A few token stops along the way didn’t yield any keepers and we settled into our hotel in Ouray, stopping for happy hour at O’Brien’s Pub in the downtown area. By nightfall, the cloud cover was getting thicker and it was obvious another storm was moving in. The snow started a short time later…

We overslept a bit the next morning for sunrise as I set my alarm on my Blackberry for the right time, but the phone never changed time zones like the rest of us. Luckily, we still woke up in time. When I went outside to heat up my ride, it was still snowing and there was a fresh three inches of powder covering my SUV.  We made our way towards the Dallas Divide on snow-covered roads.  The snow did stop a short time later but the skies did not clear in the right place to catch any sunrise color. Still, it was a beautiful morning and I was able to capture this image about 45 minutes after sunrise.After spending the first part of the morning on County Road 7 we headed back towards Ridgway to check out Owl Creek Pass. It didn’t take long for that road to turn to snow too and we found ourselves four wheeling in what was easily six inches of fresh snow.  As we made our way up and over the 10,114 foot Owl Creek Pass towards Silver Jack Reservoir, I stopped to capture this image taken close to 11:00 am.  There was definitely a foot of snow on the ground where I was standing…The temperatures were in the mid 40’s by the time we stopped for lunch near the Silver Jack Reservoir. This was our first time in the area and I was quite impressed with the dispersed camping opportunities as well as the side roads and hikes to explore the area. The views were 360 degrees and the foliage was looking great, good, past peak, and not yet changed all at the same time again.  Here is an image of the main road between Owl Creek Pass and Silver Jack Reservoir. As you can probably tell by the previous two pictures the weather was partly sunny, but that didn’t last long as heavy clouds were moving in.  I captured this next image just a short way down the road….This was pretty much our turning around point as had about a 75 minute commute back to Ouray and the weather was threatening again. On the way back, much of the snow had melted on the road and there were many more people out and about.  This was our last stop of the day, one of the more iconic foliage view points in the area located just inside the Uncompahgre National Forest boundary. I have several more days of pictures and reports to share with you, and I hope you enjoyed this one as well as the pictures. If you have a particular favorite or favorites, I would love to know about it. Thanks so much for reading.

Leaving tomorrow for snowy Colorado

6 Oct

Tomorrow marks the start of my second annual visit to Colorado for autumn foliage. Last year, we visited the week earlier, stayed in lovely town of  Telluride,  and the timing was perfect for color. The weather was generally cooperative with a few minor afternoon storms and some overnight snows coating the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains.

This year appears a totally different story.  As I write this, a massive storm is pounding much of the state with up to a foot of snow.  It’s effects can be felt all the way to Phoenix, where temperatures have significantly dropped and the winds have picked up big time. Originally, the plan was to camp most nights and stay in a hotel to get a good night’s rest and get cleaned up before we return home, that’s now changed.

This year, we designated Ouray as our base camp. For those of you not familiar with the area, Ouray is the northern most town located on the San Juan Scenic Loop and is about an hour drive from Telluride and probably closer to two hours from Durango.  Getting there could be the biggest problem as the mountain passes are snowy, wet, and treacherous. By the time we reach the area tomorrow the worst of the storm should have passed, but forecasts are calling for lingering snow showers possibly as late as Sunday.

Driving the region’s back country roads can sometimes be a daunting task, but when wet and muddy obviously it can get extremely dangerous. There’s also the possibility the high winds would eradicate what’s left of the region’s foliage, which could significantly decrease photo opportunities.  The storm also brings plenty of promise as well. The mountains will look incredible and snow-covered foliage is a wonderous sight.  The weather should improve over our last couple of days in the region and conditions could be optimum for landscape photography.  It’s hard to tell what this trip will bring, my primary goal is to make it home safely, hopefully will a handful of really good photographs to share with you.

New Colorado Wildflower Images

14 Aug

I’ve safely and successfully returned from my journey to Colorado and the wildflowers and mountains were spectacular! It was a very productive trip and I am looking forward to sharing my new images with you soon.  My approach to editing has changed with this trip.  I am using a lot more manual focus blending as well as extra blending for dynamic range.

The first the part of the process is reviewing all my images and then selecting the ones that are the sharpest and that have the best light. Next I determine the white balance and tone of the image and then I manually stack them in Photoshop. Once the images are stacked, I hand blend them and then edit for contrast and color.  Lastly, I’ve been returning to the images over the course of several days to give me time to digest what I am seeing and to ensure that my editing is in synch with my final vision. The result is a slower process, but I want to make sure that I am 100% satisfied with the image before I post them publicly.

Currently, I am about 20% of the way through the editing and I am selecting the pictures as they come to me. Here’s the first image I’d like to share with you. It is an image from Clear Lake entitled “Modularity.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts. I hope to share more with you soon as well as tell you more about my trip!

Gearing Up For Colorado

26 Jul

Trip preparations are reaching a climax this week as the countdown to Colorado begins in earnest. In less than 48 hours, I will be on the road to Durango and I am keeping my fingers crossed for prolific wildflowers and spectacular weather.  Speaking of weather, now is the time when I begin to obsess over forecasts. So far, I’ve confirmed that afternoon thunderstorms occur reguarly and a couple of sites are actually predicting days of rain. Yikes! As it is, this  news caused me to rethink my itinerary and I have some tentative backup plans in mind – just in case.

Before I discuss those, I’d like to share with you my mostly flexible plans for this trip. Day one brings me to Durango where I’ll be exploring the La Plata  mountains in the far corner of the state with a short hike to a high alpine lake.  For the next couple of days, I’ll be near Creede to meet a friend where we’ll explore the Wheeler Geologic Area.  For those of you not familiar with this place, it was originally designated as Colorado’s first national monument, but later lost its status due to the remoteness of the area. From the looks of it, you might think Utah or even Arizona.

Departing from Creede, my primary destination will be areas around Silverton most notably the Weminuche Wilderness area (see previous blog).  Depending on my mental and physical state, I researched several areas that I could potentially explore. These include: Ruby Lakes, Highland Mary Lakes,  Hope Creek, and the West Fork Trail.  These trails are scattered throughout the wilderness so a lot will also depend on logistics and of course, the weather.

Another primary area of interest in Ice Lake Basin in the San Juan National Forest. This is a popular area known for its spectacular scenery, gorgeous wildflowers, and large crowds.  A couple of factors play into my visit. The primary variable is going to be….drum roll please…the weather and how comfortable I feel backpacking during potentially deadly summer monsoon storms.  My goal is to spend two nights in the upper basin,  which would give me enough time to scout out the most optimal sunrise compositions, which of course, I’ll be sharing with you.

San Juan Mountains near Telluride, July 2008

After that, it’s a couple more days in the Weminuche Wilderness exploring more lakes, peaks, and wildflower fields. That’s my trip in a nutshell and do I have some backup plans if rainy and gloomy days impede on my time in the mountains. My first trip alternative is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I have never been to this place and I love photographing and exploring sand dunes, so this is certainly a possibility. The weather forecast looks promising there and the high temperatures should be pleasant. The downside it is a few hours out of my way so requires plenty of extra driving.

My other options closer to home include: Coyote Buttes, Bisti Wilderness, and exploring the ruins around the four corners area. The biggest drawback to these possibilities is the heat. I’d prefer not to hike in temperatures in the low to mid 90’s so these are excursions for a different time of the year.  That being said, I plan on making the most of my time so I will do what I have to do to get the best images possible.

In conclusion, I am looking forward to sharing with you some of the images and experiences from this trip  in the upcoming few weeks. If you have any tips, suggestions or advice  I’d love to hear from you. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed this update on my travels.

Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado Upcoming Trip

16 Jul

Mid summer marks the time when a limited window of opportunity opens to explore some of our country’s most dramatic alpine landscapes.  This year marks my fourth annual pilgrimage into some of the most wild and remote places in the Western United States.  Some of the places I’ve been to in the past include: the Ruby Mountains, the Great Western Divide, the Bechler River Wilderness, and the Galatin Mountains.

Early July, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Early July, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Depending on the location, there is at most a three-month window to get to these places before the inclement weather settles in. This is the main reason why summer has a special place in my heart. For me, it is the most intrepid time of the year.  This year I am planning a visit to the Weminuche Wilderness.

To those of you not familiar with the area, the Weminuche occupies the far southwestern corner of Colorado to the immediate  east between  Durango and Silverton.  Its location is at nearly the epicenter of the San Juan Mountains and at just under 500,000 acres, it is Colorado’s largest wilderness area. This is a place that contains three 14,000 foot peaks as well as the headwaters for many major streams and rivers including the Rio Grande, San Juan, and Animas Rivers.  The Weminuche is also the state’s  deepest and most impenetrable wilderness. Many of its spectacular back country locations are accessible only by long hiking trails where days of backpacking travel are necessary.  Some years, the trails are snowed in until the middle of July and a snowstorm  is not uncommon in September.

To date, I’ve spent about a week in the state of Colorado on two different trips that both involved staying in my favorite place called Telluride, which also happens to be nearby.  During my travels, I’ve driven around the western periphery of the Weminuche, but I have never ventured into it.  The Weminuche proper is surrounded on almost all sides by other wilderness areas, generally consisting of the same mountains and rugged terrain, but technically of different names. Trying to familiarize yourself with a general wilderness area this large and complex is like trying to put together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

I am waiting on several more maps coming in the mail.

I am also waiting on several more maps coming in the mail.


The research is intensive.  For me, it started with a map followed by a guide-book and then more maps and books and finally Internet research. Moreover, this will be my first solo backpacking trip in several years and will also be my longest.  Some of the other major considerations I must take into account are: road conditions, weather, driving distances, supplies, hiking miles, wild animals, altitude acclimatization, and wilderness rules/regulations.

Mental preparation becomes as important as physical preparation.  One of the focal points of my preparation for this trip is what do in case of a lightning storm. Colorado is known for its mid summer monsoon storms and its high peaks and lakes are like lightning rods. What happens if an electrical storm rolls in when I am ten miles and 3,000 feet up from my vehicle? Noted below is the best information I have found on this subject to date.

NOLS Lightning Safety Guidelines.pdf (application/pdf Object)

My trip is coming up fast and I have some other ideas and information to share with you about it before I leave near the end of this month.  I am also going to post a detailed itinerary and try to make this trip more interactive than what I have done in the past.  If you have any suggestions for restaurants,  campgrounds, driving tips,  or anything at all I’d love to hear from you. I am looking forward to sharing more with you in the future. Have a wonderful day!

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