Thursday, June 19, 2014

SW Colorado - June 2014 - Part 1

I'm breaking my trip around Southwestern Colorado from June 2nd to June 7th into two parts for easier reading.

Remember you can click on a photo to bring up larger versions of all photos.

SW Colorado Loop (Parts 1 and 2) - Kindly proceed in the counter-clockwise direction.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fortified with Little Anita's huevos rancheros, I headed north up I-25, took the bypass around Santa Fe, gassed up in Española and headed north on US-84, left turn at Chama and on to Pagosa Springs.

San Juan River

The San Juan River flows through town and, wow, it was a snow swollen torrent. I stopped at the Forest Service office for maps, brochures, and info. On their recommendation I was going to look for dispersed camping along East Fork Road, which is east of town on US-160.

Through the windshield: San Juan River Valley above Pagosa Springs.

I evidently missed the sign, perhaps distracted by the scene above, as the first place I noticed was the turn for West Fork Road, which I'd noted on the map was farther up the highway than East Fork. I pulled over to check the map and realized I was close to Treasure Falls. The fellow at the ranger station said the trail was steep, but only a quarter mile long. I'd go there first, then decide what to do for camping. Very nice little falls and the trail was as described. You can get right up close to the bottom of the falls if you want to get drenched (which I did not as I didn't think my camera would like that at all.)

Treasure Falls as seen from the highway pull-out.

Closer view of the upper falls.

West Fork of the San Juan River

I turned in on West Fork Road and looked over the official campground. It was nice enough, but I thought I'd check up the road for dispersed opportunities. I found a cool spot right beside the West Fork of the San Juan which was roaring!

My campsite along the West Fork of the San Juan.
Photo taken from the one-lane bridge I crossed to get there.

There were a few mosquitoes, which had me concerned at first, but they turned out not be much of a problem as they were not hungry enough to try and poke through my shirt or pants. There were several other spots for camping past the bridge, FYI, and nice wildflowers in the woods.

Shooting Star Columbine. This species was prevelant almost everywhere I camped this trip.


After leaving my camp and heading back up US-160, I stopped at the scenic overlook.

Looking back (south) toward the West Fork.
The dirt road at the bottom of the photo was the one taken to my campsite.
You may also recognized the rock formation of the first photo above.

I then proceeded up through Wolf Creek Pass and down again. I turned north on CO-149 toward Gunnison at the town of Halfway. The highway along here runs beside the Rio Grande. It is a beautiful area and many folks have built here.

Upper Rio Grande Valley

Looking downstream toward Wagon Wheel Gap

I spotted an interesting forest road climbing a hill, FS 600, so drove up to get a flavor of the land. There were interesting canyon walls and the great views of the valley. I stopped part way up and walked along the ridge.

Looking upstream (westerly) - the Upper Rio Grande Valley.

The highway continues to follow the Rio Grande for quite a ways, then climbs away. This highway is part of the Silver Thread Byway. After crossing a few small passes, I thought I recognized the east side of Red Mountain, between Silverton and Ouray. Sure enough, when I pulled up to the scenic overlook, the signage did in fact identify it as such.

Panorama from the overlook above Lake City

The highway drops down and passes through Lake City which has a "resort" and tourist feel to it. Lake City is also the terminus for two 4WD trails of note, Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass. Both connect to the Ouray/Silverton area and are rated "easy" on their east ends and "moderate" to the west.

Following the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River brought me to the long reservoir which is part of the Curecanti NRA. I turned east on US-50 toward Gunnison.

Gunnison Basin

I stopped at the National Forest office and bought a map of the Gunnison Basin area which includes the National Forest and BLM lands there about. The gentleman there didn't have much to add, so I headed over to the BLM office and the young woman there was extremely helpful. She was happy to spend as much time as I needed to explain places to camp, things to see, etc. One of the places I wanted to find was an idyllic campsite up an undeveloped road that I'd found back around 1973 - a gorgeous area with beaver dams and glorious scenery. From my ancient description of the road I thought I'd taken, she gave me her best guess on where I should look, so I headed north on CO-135 to Crested Butte.

Through the windshield: Crested Butte
I passed through the town, which is known for its ski resort, and headed up the road she suggested, 734. It was quickly apparent this was not the area I'd been in before, but the scenery was spectacular and I drove on.

View from Slate River Road

There were a few dispersed campsites way up the road, once you get past the private land. There was also a BLM campground, "Oh Be Joyful". There were a couple of undeveloped roads that turned west, but you needed to ford the Slate River to get to those - not advisable with the river roaring from snow melt. I decided not to camp up there, both as it was still early in the day and at that high elevation, well over 10,000 feet, I bet it would get very cold at night.

Alpine wildflowers

So, I reversed course, passed back through Crested Butte, then took Jack's Cabin Cutoff road to the Taylor River and drove up CO-742 toward Taylor Park. This is a beautiful highway with many campgrounds along the river, but no dispersed camping until you are past the lake.

Taylor Park

Once I was at the Taylor Reservoir I took 55, then 752 to look for dispersed camping. These backroads were slow going and I couldn't find a spot that pleased me. Seems to be an area popular with hunters and the ATV crowd. By the time I wound my way back down and out to the highway I was tired and frustrated and it was getting to be late in the day.

I saw from the map there was a campground at the north end of the lake. I told myself if I didn't find a dispersed spot before I got there I would pay for the campground. I didn't, so I pulled into the USFS River's End Campground. There were only a few people there, so was able to find a spot off to myself and tired as I was, it was nice to have a level spot with no prep needed. It turned out to be a beautiful evening and I took a number of photos.

My campsite with Taylor Reservoir in the background.

My campsite looking at the view in the other direction.
Taylor Reservoir later in the evening.

And again at sunset.

One of the things I'd wanted to try this trip was star photography, so even though I was close to exhaustion, I got out my tripod once it got good and dark. It was windy and very cold. I had some issues with the camera that only another photographer would understand, so won't go into those. Let's say I gave it my best shot and crossed my fingers that when I got home and put the images on the computer, something would turn out. I took a series of 30 second exposures in the hope to stack them to create star trails.

Starry night above the Sawatch Range. One exposure.

My photo sequence didn't come out as well as I hoped, so used Photoshop
and one exposure to create this fun star trails image.
It is post processed, but based upon the actual stars photographed that night.


It felt like it got cold overnight, but when I went to check my wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer I discovered the outdoor transponder's battery had died during the night. When the campground host came around in the morning (the fee deposit slot had been taped shut when I came in) she said it had gotten down to 20 degrees overnight. That explained the ice in my grey water bucket!

Taylor River Valley

After breaking camp I continued north up 742, the Taylor River Road. There are a few residences within the first half mile of the campground, then the road is within the Gunnison National Forest, and in another half mile there is a side road leading toward the river where there is dispersed camping. And then another side road and another. Lots and lots of beautiful campsites, not right on the river as the regulations are that there is no camping within 100' of the river, though at some sites those feet are pretty small.

I started to feel foolish for staying in the campground the night before, but then I realized that I'd gotten my $7 worth (discounted fee) simply in my conversation with the campground host who gave me the weather report, told me about the four moose that had been seen a couple of times in the willows near the junction to Cottonwood Pass, about the herds of elk frequently seen in the valley, and confirmation of road conditions (Spring Creek Rd was closed due to rock slides in two places, so I would not be able to loop back toward Gunnison via that route, but backtrack instead). Plus, I now realize I got lots of photos that I like from that spot, too. A bargain.

Taylor River Valley

The Taylor River Valley is quite lovely and certainly scenic. There is grass and willows along the river, but the valley floor is mostly brush. The conifers march down from the shoulders of the mountains, but stay along the valley margins for the most part. The mountain peaks were still snow covered and provided a grand background to the scene. Those peaks are of the Sawatch Mountain Range and the Continental Divide runs along their crests.

More alpine wildflowers.

As I drove up the valley I was surprised I didn't see anyone fishing in the river. Perhaps it is just too early what with the river swollen with snow melt. There were a couple of "pot hole" lakes up the valley and I spotted one fisherman there.

There are a couple of official campgrounds along the route, for those who want those amenities. I continued up the road until I reached the old Dorchester Cabin - all that's left of the town of Dorchester.

Dorchester Cabin.

I returned the way I came, stopping at the scenic overlook at the lake.

The Sawatch Range reflected in Taylor Reservoir.

I returned to Gunnison. While getting gas I asked a fellow patron where a good place for lunch could be found. She said the Gunny Sack on N. Main Street was her favorite, but you couldn't really go wrong at any of the places in the first two blocks north of Tomichi (US-50.) I tried her favorite and ordered one of their specialty burgers and was very pleased and very full.

After lunch I headed west on US-50 with a destination of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. A photographer friend of mine said the Black Canyon was a spectacular place, but he'd never found a way to photograph it to do it justice.

Crazy drive that afternoon. Lots of freeze damage to the highway and some trucks carrying humongous tanks that took up two lanes. I thought I'd missed the turn-off to the park, but it is just much closer to Montrose than I'd thought.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I checked out the campground at Black Canyon, though it was still too early to camp. It was pretty nice. There is vegetation screening many of the sites from one another, especially in the non-reservation, Loop C. Not a bad place to camp if your itinerary places you there late in the day.

Black Canyon was indeed amazing and these photos don't do it justice.

Looking upstream from near the Visitor Center

Look carefully - you can see the river along the canyon bottom.
The light didn't provide enough contrast to make it easy to understand you're looking
down the canyon, and not simply at the canyon wall on the other side.

Looking downstream toward the end of the canyon and Montrose.

The rock at the bottom of the photo is at my feet.
The rest are way, way down.

Obligatory wildflower photo from along the canyon rim.

End of Part 1 of 2


  1. You are raising the bar with the animated map...

    Beautiful photos as usual. I enjoyed reading about your trip.

    1. Thanks, though that animated map is getting on my nerves :-)

  2. Great story and pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Nice to see that area again, this time through your eyes. We always enjoy your narrative and photography! Looking forward to the coming part two.

    1. Thanks, Ski. Some cool stuff in part 2 soon at an Internet near you.

  4. Really nice travel site! Excellent writing and photography. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Scott. Sorry it took me so long to express my appreciation for your nice comment.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!