Friday, October 8, 2021

San Juan Mountains, CO - Sept 2021: Part 3

Continued from Part 2. To begin this post, jump to Part 1.

Saturday, September 25th (continued)

Telluride, Placerville, Ridgway

The landscape was beautiful as I drove north back on the highway toward Telluride. I should have stopped the photograph the mountainsides around the town, but there wasn't a safe place with a view to pull off with the truck traffic. I bypassed Telluride and headed down the San Miguel River valley. Just past Placerville I turned northeast on CO-62 toward Ridgway.

Though there were few aspen along this highway, the oaks and other vegetation were showing their autumn colors. I stopped at the scenic overlook to photograph the foothills of range of mountains north of Telluride and west of Ouray, Mount Sneffels Wilderness. The light was very poor, with the camera pointing into the sun, but I did the best I could and took a 3 image panorama, but the left-most exposure was almost directly into the sun, so I only processed two of the shots.

At the scenic overlook west of Ridgway. Click to see a larger version.

Ouray and South on the "Million Dollar Highway"

Fall had not yet come to the village of Ouray. As the highway climbed up and south very few trees showed color. It wasn't until the switchbacks about 5 miles south of town that the aspen began to change, and dramatically, too!  Once up on Ironton Park the color was brilliant.

A grove on the west side of the highway at the south end of the park

I was dazzled by the bright yellows and oranges, especially as I had not expected them this early in the season. There were large groves that had not begun to change, but it was still fantastic.

Hayden Trail

From here, until the highway climbed above the aspen zone at Red Mountain Pass, the color was amazing and the photographers were out in force! I stopped a couple of times, including at Crystal Lake at the Hayden Trailhead to take photos. 

Looking north across Crystal Lake at Red Mountain

The southwest corner of Crystal Lake

I also sent the drone up for a spherical panorama and stills.

An aerial look south. US-550 pointed toward Red Mountain Pass. Crystal Lake on the right.

I strongly recommend clicking the full-screen icon in the upper right corner!

I stopped at the Red Mountain Mining District scenic overlook hoping I could point my camera back down the valley with the sun at my back. The overlook is very overgrown these days and most of the view is of the trees right in front of your face. I walked around gave it a try best I could.

I managed to find a small window of a view from the overlook.

This is one of the old mining buildings adjacent to the overlook.

Silverton and Environs

I didn't turn off on South Mineral Road this time. I'd read where the campground and much of the road had been closed due to the 2020 Ice Fire. As I'm writing this post I have now found the area had been partially opened beginning September 15, 2021. Usage of the area has grown so much the last 5 or 10 years that it is very difficult to find camping spots and the traffic on the road kicks up lots of dust. Perhaps I should have tried it; perhaps the crowds would have thought it still closed as I had. Oh, well, my recollection is the aspen up the road generally were a week or two behind the rest of the region anyway.

I drove through Silverton. It was slow going with all the vehicles (maybe South Mineral would have been crowded, after all.) I turned up the road toward the ski lift and the Gladstone mine site. There were fantastic views of the town of Silverton amidst the aspen.

Silverton as seen from CO-110 just north of town.

I had hoped to find a dispersed campsite up the road, but it was surprisingly wide and very, very dusty. Maybe I should have remembered about the Gold King Mine spillage of 2015 and that the EPA had established a remediation facility at Gladstone. The only campsite I found featured a prominent view of that facility and was, therefore, less than desirable.

About the only thing left of Gladstone mine. I believe this is the mill foundation.

On the way back to Silverton, this great perspective of Kendall Peak

I'm often dazzled by the sun shining through the aspen, but usually disappointed by the resulting photograph - this time turned out better than most attempts.

I drove up one of the steep, rocky alpine roads for a ways until I realized it would likely never lead to a suitable campsite. Only thing to do was turn around. I thought I'd check out the forest road that goes south from Silverton, FS-33,   as it had possibilities looking at the map. When I got there, however, it seemed to be way too popular with trail bikes and ATVs, plus it seemed to cling to the side of the mountain and was not likely to have campsites.

A view of Silverton and surrounding hills from near the Animas River.

If anyone knows of good places for dispersed camping in the Silverton area I'd appreciate hearing from you. Thanks.

My Plan B was to proceed on down US-550 toward Durango while the light was still good for autumn color (though heavy clouds were moving in) and drive on into New Mexico and camp at Angel Peak Scenic Area south of Bloomfield. If the BLM primitive campground was full, there were a number of picnic areas along the road where camping was allowed.

Highway to Durango

The views from the highway were wonderful. I stopped a number of times to take photos.

The increasingly heavy clouds were becoming a problem for photography. However, in looking at this shot after the fact, I thought the dark cloud shadow was quite striking.

Kendall Peak from near Molas Pass.
I think the road I see across the way is the aforementioned FS-33 from Silverton - looks steep!

As I was driving south I came around and down a horseshoe curve and saw a lone photographer with her tripod precariously set up between the highway and a steep drop-off. The view she'd found was amazing, so I stopped as soon as was safe. I ran across to her and asked if I could poach her perspective. She acquiesced and offered to move her tripod. I replied "No, thanks. That's not necessary." ( For the web, handheld photos are perfectly fine.) I was able to return her favor - she asked if I knew the time for sunset, as her phone had died. I was able to look this up for her. This may be my favorite image from the day.

West Needle Mountain from along US-550

I stopped a little farther down the highway to get a closer shot of just this grove.

The hillsides around Durango were bronze with oaks. It was quite pretty, but it didn't present a photo opportunity.

New Mexico

When I crossed the state line someone turned the wind velocity knob all the way up. There were also a number of rain storms off across the landscape. I guess the storms the forecast had predicted had hit. I started having second (and third) thoughts about my plan to camp at Angel Peak. It's right on the edge of a drop-off and exposed to the weather. Somehow lying in bed, trying to sleep with the wind rattling the soft sides of the pop-up and the whole camper rocking in the gusts, didn't sound particularly enticing. It was, after all, only a few more hours drive to get home.

Time to implement Plan C - C as in Cuba, NM. I'd stop at my favorite restaurant in Cuba, El Bruno's, and order one of their delicious green chile cheeseburgers. I'd sit in my truck while it was being prepared and do my evening meditation to recharge body and soul. I would eat dinner in the parking lot, then drive the rest of the way home. This worked out very well. As expected the burger was so big I was only able to eat half (but the second half was almost as good the next day.)

I drove through stretches of highway that had been rained on, but they were not slick and I didn't experience any rain directly. It was well past dark by the time I got home. I unloaded only the essentials and collapsed thankfully into my bed.

What an enjoyable trip with the beautiful surprise of autumn color! Glad you could come along via my blog.

San Juan Mountains, CO - Sept 2021: Part 2

Part 2 - continued from Part 1

Wednesday, September 22nd (continued)

Alta Lakes

Continuing north past the junction to Ophir and the scenic overlook, I found the right-hand turn-off to Alta Lakes. The signage makes it clear the road in not suitable for trailers and large vehicles. In fact the very first section is a narrow ascent along the face of a drop-off. Shortly thereafter one is cautioned that the first couple of miles pass through private land. After that I noticed most of the side roads were blocked off with No Camping signs to allow vegetation to recover.

When the road passed though the old minding town of Alta I stopped for a few photos and to let the vehicles that had been behind to go around. The road from there to the lakes was uneven and full of pot holes. About a quarter mile farther up is the turn-off for Gold King Basin (more on that later.)

I didn't know what to expect for camping and was a little apprehensive - Would there be space? Would it be too crowded? Would it be a pleasant spot or a dry lakebed? Google Maps said "campground (dispersed)" and for some reason I hadn't thought to check the USFS website.  (Note: the icon for the campground is in the wrong location. It's placed where Alta township is located instead of along the south side of the larger of the lakes.)

It turned out to be what I would call a "primitive campground" and not dispersed camping, at all. There are approximately 20 campsites; about half of those are walk-in tent sites. There are portable toilets at each end of the rocky road. There is no fee; first-come, first-serve. I got there about 3pm and was able to find a nice spot, though it had no view of the pretty lake. (Note: at the fork in the road the sign shows camping to the left and no camping to the right. Actually sites #1 and #2 are to the right.)

If you take the right fork you cross a little causeway to the day-use area on the north side of the larger lake. The road continues on for a short ways to the other lakes, but I did not go up that way this time.

Tonight's campsite at the top of a slight rise with a bit of a view of the mountains.

After setting up camp I made the acquaintance of Joe & Melinda tent-camping across the road. They had come here many times and pointed out that you could camp right at the lakeshore years ago. The old campground road and those sites were closed off to protect the lake from the pollution humans bring with themselves. A new "road" was put in and new sites created. These new sites are not the large, level, gravel sites one finds in the newer campgrounds, rather cleared areas squeezed in where they could, though there are a few suitable for small groups with multiple vehicles. Most give one a little space to one's neighbor. Joe is also a Canon photographer and we had a nice discussion of landscape and wildlife photography.

As soon as I set up camp I walked down to the lake to admire this view.

Joe had mentioned how great the sunset was the night before so I walked down to the lake with my camera. There were no clouds so I didn't know what kind of sunset there would be, but the golden colors on the mountain across the lake was magical.

Golden Hour when the sun is close to the horizon casting golden light across the land.

The last little flare of sunlight is crimson on Palmyra Peak.

Thursday, September 23rd

Alta Lakes (continued)

On one of my trips down to the lake the evening before I'd talked to a young couple that were camped in a spot with an amazing view of the lake. They said they were leaving in the morning if I wanted their spot. I saw them leave, but by the time I lowered my roof and drove over, someone else was already there. Rats! He said he'd been waiting days for that particular spot as it was the best in the campground. Good for him, I guess. He also said he had to leave the next morning, so maybe tomorrow.

Joe and Melinda were packing up and suggested I take their site as it had sun for my solar panels and was closer to the lake. This is what I did. They said the sun was only good until early afternoon, so I deployed my auxiliary solar panel to take full advantage.

It may look like this site has more trees than yesterday's, but this site is more open to the south.
You can't see from this angle, but the lake is beyond the trees and can be seen from my chair.

I was very lazy this day mostly sitting in my Strongback camp chair looking at that part of the lake I could see, listening to the songbirds, and reading my novel. It was great! Oh, I did walk down to the lake a time or two and tried to photograph dragonflies with no success. As the day progressed clouds began moving in, but I was able to fully charge my batteries, nonetheless.

Come evening I went down to the lakeshore to see what kind of sunset we'd have with clouds. As the sun went below the horizon it threw pink light upon the mountains, which was gorgeous - the photo hardly does it justice. There was also a bit of traditional sunset to the west through the silhouets of the trees.

The mountains were colorfully lit by reflections from the clouds.

An actual sunset tonight.

Friday, September 24th

Alta Lakes (continued)

Finally I was able to claim the excellent campsite with a full view of the lake and mountains, plus lots of sun for my solar panels. I moved, set up, and enjoyed the view. I took a walk around the lake and took some photos.

My new perfectly located campsite.

View of my campsite from across the lake.

A Mountain Chickadee

A gorgeous view of Bald Mountain and a tiny island.

I enjoyed my view much of the day, occasionally walking down the the lakeshore. I was finally able to get photos of one of the dragonflies, and a damselfly, that had been flying around. I also was able to photograph a butterfly and a Killdeer that had been hanging around at lakeside.

The Blue Dashers are almost always in motion and impossible to photograph. I kept watching this one until he perched then crept up and took lots of shots with my telephoto lens. I'm extremely happy to have such a clear image of this dynamic creature!

There were several Bluet damselflies all along the lakeshore.

There were a number of butterflies active this afternoon.

This Killdeer hung around the lakeshore below my campsite all day.

Another perspective of my campsite with the lake and mountains in the background.

I took the drone up for a panorama of the area and a few stills. I discovered later, when once I was able to expand the photo that there was another lake just north of the one where I camped. Something to explore next time.

An aerial view of Bald Mountain with Telluride just behind the ridge.
If you look closely at the larger version you might see the airport on the mesa on the left.

An aerial photo of Sunshine Mountain with the Alta townsite in the foreground.

A 180º aerial panorama of the lake, Palmyra Peak, and Silver Mountain.
Be sure to click on the photo to see a larger version.

I strongly recomment you click the Full Screen icon in the upper right corner!

My campsite neighbor, Derrick from Phoenix, was tent camping out of a classic Jeep Wagoneer and had been taking day-trips. He told me he'd just driven over Ophir Pass, looping back via Ouray. He said the aspen along US-550 were at peak color. I was surprised. I'd seen them beginning to turn, but was adamant they were at peak. He also told me the weather forecast was for rain on Sunday. Hmmm, maybe I should move my departure up by a day so I could drive down US-550 in good weather?

There is one downside to this campground - traffic comprised of people looking for a campsite. I'd noticed a number of vehicles Thursday afternoon/evening. Most of those seemed to find some sort of campsite. Friday afternoon, however, was a parade of trucks and jeeps and cars. And most had to turn around and drive back out, doubling the number that passed my camp. Can't really blame the people for wanting to camp there, but as it's an un-hosted, no-fee campground there is no one to put up a "campground full" sign at the entrance.

A last look at the lake. Click to get a larger view of this merger of two separate photos.

It was another gorgeous evening. No sunset, per se', but lovely light reflecting on the mountains. Refer to the photos, above, if you wish.

Saturday, September 25th

Alta Lakes (continued)

A beautiful morning greeted me upon rising. The lake was calm and there were a few folk fishing, though I never saw anyone actually catch a fish the entire time I was there. Once I was up I broke my fast and had my coffee sitting outside in the sun. I sent a weather forecast request via my inReach satellite communicator. When it came in, it confirmed Derrick's news - rain was expected on Sunday. In fact, according to the new forecast, there was a good chance moderate rain would move in as early as 5pm this very afternoon. OK, that settled it. As wonderful as this site was, I'd break camp and head for the aspen on the other side of the mountain. I wouldn't pass up a chance for peak color especially as I'd not expected it at all this trip.

Despite my resolve, I was slow packing up and getting gone. I also took a detour. Looking at the map I'd noticed a 4WD road running south to Gold King Basin. I'd asked Derrick the day before if it was worth checking out and he'd replied that it was. Coming up I'd noticed the sign pointing toward Gold King Basin. The road is about 300 yards from the campground.

Gold King Basin

The first short leg is through dense evergreens. There is a fancy, summer home where it dog-legs up the un-forested basin. The road from here is steep, rocky, and high-clearance is needed. There are a number of spots for dispersed camping and the views are spectacular. I suspect a few folks who were unable to find spots in the campground were able to camp along here. There is a small clear pond. I didn't drive to the end of the trail, but stopped for photos above the lake and turned around.

A three exposure panorama of Gold King Basin. Click for larger version.

Alta Lakes Road

I also stopped several times on my way down the road for photos of the amazing views of Sunshine Mountain, Lizard Head, and the colorful aspen. The light was not ideal for photos, so they cannot quite convey what my eyes saw that morning.

A grove of aspen rapidly changing into their autumn colors.
Just to the left of the peak of Sunshine Mountain you can see Lizard Head Peak.

A bit farther down the road the view opened up exposing more of the mountainside, but the perspective is such that Lizard Head Peak has dropped below the horizon.
If you look below the cliffs you can see the cut of the highway across the middle of the photo.

Now on to see the autumn colors down US-550, the "Million Dollar Highway" as it's called.

Continued in Part 3

San Juan Mountains, CO - Sept 2021: Part 1

September 20 - 25, 2021

My goal after my last trip was to install a second 100W solar panel on the camper roof, then test it out on a trip after Labor Day - in the hopes there would be fewer folks competing for camping when the kids were back in school. Weather pushed it a week further along. I wasn't going to worry about it being early for autumn color, either. I thought I'd go up into the western portions of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to both familiar and new locations.

Part 1 of 3

Monday, September 20th

I got a good start in the morning. And headed up NM-528 to US-550 north. I was delighted to discover the Chamisa (aka Rabbitbrush) along the highway, all across the Colorado Plateau, was in full bloom. I remembered it blooming the first weeks of October, so it seemed early to me this year. I took my usual "bypass" on the BIA routes to avoid the Bloomfield-Farmington-Shiprock traffic and then up US-491 to Cortez where I re-fueled. 

Scotch Creek

I drove north on CO-145 hoping to find a favorite campsite on Scotch Creek available. I first stumbled upon the site the first year I had my camper (post) and stayed there again a couple years later (post).

It is just under a quarter-mile off the highway, up a narrow rocky trail. It is far enough up the canyon, though, that you rarely hear traffic along the state highway. With an ATV, or such, you theoretically can drive all the way over the mountain to US-550 near Purgatory Ski Area. Usually only a few vehicles pass along the road which is so rocky and bumpy that they go slowly and kick up no dust.

Campsite in the late afternoon sun. You can see the stump of the tree that used to precariously lean over the campsite.

Last time I camped there I was slightly concerned about a couple tall evergreens that leaned over the site somewhat precariously. Since then they were removed making the site a little sunnier (good for the solar panels) and a bit safer. The wildflowers were not blooming this time of year and only a few aspen had the slightest tinge of yellow. The wild rose hips were brilliant red and shiny. It may not be the most beautiful spot ever, but the creek keeps up its end of the conversation and the narrow canyon walls are interesting.

Tuesday, September 21st

Scotch Creek (continued)

I decided to stay another night in this tranquil site. It was 27º in the morning so I didn't rush outside, but sat in the warm camper drinking coffee and reading an interesting novel I was mid-way through. Once it warmed up a bit, I walked along the road enjoying the scenery. A downside for longterm camping is that there are no trails to explore, so you're confined to the rocky road. But I was able to keep myself entertained.

Here are two photos showing the signs at the entrance off the highway.

My campsite in better light.

An aerial view looking up the canyon (east.)

An aerial view of my campsite.

Rocky road.

Up the canyon a short ways.

Wednesday, September 22nd - Autumnal Equinox

Scotch Creek (continued)

A repeat of the previous cold morning. I packed up and drove out late morning. I headed up the highway toward Rico and Telluride. I stopped along the highway before Rico, though, as I saw a marshy area next to the Dolores River that looked like it might have dragonflies. I did find Black Meadowhowks and Northern (or perhaps Boreal) Bluet damselflies.

Looking across the marsh next to the Dolores River south of Rico.

Black Meadowhawk dragonfly

Bolam Pass Road

When I'd done my "research" for this trip, I'd noticed a road north of Rico that went up a canyon toward Bolam Pass, CR-578. I'd never been that way, so thought I'd check it out for scenery and dispersed campsites. The road ran along (mostly above) Barlow Creek. 

There were nice views and the road was good gravel for the first 2-3/4 miles. Once it crossed the creek, however, it became one of those narrow San Juan Mountains rocky trails that are uncomfortable to drive in a highway vehicle. I turned around once I determined it unlikely to unveil any campsites anytime soon.

This is as far up the canyon as I drove. The road was extremely rocky and no fun to drive.

I returned to the creek crossing (a culvert) and parked at a nice spot for lunch. This was the one good-looking dispersed site on the road. The lower part next to the creek was not at all level, but there was a somewhat level place to park your camper or pitch your tent back in the trees. As it was on the north slope it wouldn't get enough sun for my solar panels, but might be very pleasant for others or as a single night stop-over. I should have taken a photo, but it didn't occur to me at the time.

I found this butterfly after I had lunch.

Some of the small aspen groves were beginning to turn, so I took a few photos on my way back to the highway. I'll only show you one, as they all turned out to be only a slightly different perspective of the same view.

On my way back to the highway I stopped for this photo.

I turned north, again, with my mind's eye on Alta Lakes. I'd seen the Alta Lakes turn-off south of Telluride, near the Sunshine Campground, but never had heard anything about it or explored there. It wasn't until after I did my mining town video tour a couple years ago that I was researching for that post that I discovered there a ghost town there. The map also showed there was a "dispersed campground" at the lakes. This was my destination. 

I stopped briefly at Trout Lake as a few groves were starting to turn and the mountains always make for a dramatic background.

Make sure you click the photo to see a larger version. I stitched together multiple exposures to create this panorama of the lake and mountains. Taken from the shoulder of the highway.

A gorgeous morning to be out on the lake - what a beautiful scene.

Back on the highway. Next stop is Alta Lakes and whatever that my bring!

Continued in Part 2