“Jerry’s Journeys” Blog — 2015

My passion is to explore and discover the beauty of this great country of ours, to capture it, and to share it with you.  Often, there’s an interesting story to go along with the photos. On these pages, I share not just beautiful images and video clips, but “the stories behind the pictures.”

November 15, 2015

Exploring Montana’s Bridger Mountains

At the time I wrote this blog entry, I was in the process of moving back home to central Florida after spending much of 2015 in Colorado and exhibiting my photos at art shows around the state. Although it was great to live within driving distance of the Continental Divide and its amazing Rocky Mountain scenery, I think I was even luckier to have lived in the Montana Rockies in 2009 and 2010.

#08857 - Scarlet paintbrush and a twisted fir tree near the Truman Gulch trailhead, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Near the Truman Gulch trailhead

#08867 - The setting sun backlights red paintbrush on the west side of the Bridger Mountains, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Sunset near Truman Gulch — Click / tap image to view full size

In Montana, the western slope of the Bridger Range was nearly in the back yard of the place I was renting; it only took 15 minutes to drive to the nearest Forest Service trailhead. That’s an experience I have never taken for granted, having seen that real estate in the mountains is just as coveted as beachfront property in Florida. In the course of my journeys, I’ve discovered that every place is beautiful, and every place is perfect. It’s good for me to remember this, even if I still prefer the mountains.

It would be great if I owned a parcel of land in the most sought-after areas of mountain real estate. But at present, I’m grateful to have seen so much of this great country of ours, and I’ve been privileged to share my experiences with many people via the Internet. For some of you, perhaps, the Web provides the only available opportunity to explore the paths I have walked.

There are things one can experience alone to appreciate—such as looking upward on a clear Rocky Mountain night, when there are so many stars in the sky that one can see nearby rocks and trees by the starlight alone. But for me, the larger share of my joy follows naturally from sharing the experience—either on the scene, with a loved one—or later, on these pages.

In that spirit—to return to the theme of the Bridger Mountains—I am sharing a few of the things I saw during many evening hikes to Truman Gulch, as well as trips I made along Gallatin County roads and Forest Service access roads.

#09484 - A grass skipper visits mountain asters on a ridge above Truman Gulch, Bridger Mountains, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Closeup shot of a grass skipper—
Click / tap image to view full size

The open space west of the Truman Gulch trailhead is mainly hay fields and cattle ranches, but there is also a large, hilly open meadow just inside the National Forest boundary. This meadow abounds in wildflowers until late summer, and the thick patches of red paintbrush are the first thing to catch one’s eye from the access road. One evening, when the paintbrush was in “peak season”, I hiked up and down the meadow, shooting the colorful flowers from every angle. The image I considered to be the “keeper” is the one above, where the setting sun backlights the foliage—almost like a field of miniature poinsettias.

Although the Truman Gulch trail lies but a few miles south of Ross Peak, the view to the peak is blocked by a long ridge which rises about 800 feet on the north side of the trail. One weekend, I decided to follow a steep, lightly-used side trail leading northward to the top of the ridge, just to see how the scenery compared to the lower elevations. As I climbed, the trail eventually disappeared, but by that time the trees had thinned out, and the top of the ridge was in clear sight. As I approached the top of the ridge from the south, a young wolf about the size of a German shepherd approached the same spot from the north. We ended up surprising one another at the top. By the time I thought to reach for my camera, the wolf darted away and ran back down the other side of the ridge. I could hear it running long after it disappeared beneath the trees; it was a quiet morning in the forest, and the ground was covered with dry twigs and pine needles.

#09914 - Telephoto shot of “the end of the rainbow” at the base of Ross Peak, in Montana’s Bridger Mountains

Rainbow at Ross Peak — Click / tap image to view full size

For a while, I was disappointed about the missed photo op. It’s rare to have a one-on-one encounter with a wolf so far north of Yellowstone National Park. But I did get a consolation prize for the effort I put into climbing the ridge; I soon spotted a double-winged grass skipper visiting a patch of colorful mountain asters, and managed to get a couple of good high-magnification shots before the grass skipper flitted away.

#09891 - A fawn grazes in a wildflower-filled meadow in Montana’s Gallatin Valley

A fawn grazing near the mountains — Click / tap image to view full size

Later in the summer, I drove toward the Bridgers, intending to hike, and found a storm cell rolling over the Bridger Range... so I ended up chasing rainbows instead. The one I pursued the hardest was beyond the end of Springhill Community Road. Realizing the futility of getting myself to the end of the rainbow for a closeup shot, I parked my car a couple of miles away from Ross Peak, aimed my telephoto zoom toward the mountain, and managed to squeeze off a few good shots.

I eventually found that the Bridgers, despite their closeness to Bozeman and Interstate 90, have an abundance of wildlife. One good example is the fawn pictured here, which I found grazing near Springhill Community Road.

I often saw deer and elk after an evening’s hike, as they sauntered down from the cover of the Custer Gallatin National Forest to feast in hayfields surrounding the foothills. During one hike, early in the springtime, I spotted a black bear uphill from me, a couple of hundred yards away. I quickly decided to retrace my steps and cut that afternoon’s hike short! Fortunately, black bears are less aggressive than grizzlies, and this one lost interest in me once I was out of sight. At least, I think so...

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October 27, 2015

Frazier Lake, Bridger Mountains, Montana
Fairy Lake Road map, with nearby trails

The east slopes of the Bridger Mountains, which roughly parallel Montana Hwy. 86 north of Bozeman, are easily accessible and offer many recreational activities. Due to their geology, they only contain a few lakes big enough to be named in a Custer Gallatin National Forest map, and all are located a two-square-mile area near the eastern slopes of Sacagawea and Hardscrabble Peaks.

#00753 - Sunset at Hardscrabble Peak, viewed from the shore of Elf Lake in Montana’s Bridger Mountains

Elf Lake — Click / tap image to view full size

The Fairy Lake Road has become more popular with Gallatin Valley residents over the past several years, as recreational spots south of Bozeman have become more crowded. During the time I was fortunate enough to live in the Valley, the Bridger Mountains were certainly popular with me!

To get to Fairy Lake Road, which provides access to Frazier Lake, (assuming you are traveling north from Interstate 90), follow MT 86 20.5 miles north over Battle Ridge Pass. The exit for Fairy Lake Road 74 is on the west side of the highway, 0.8 miles past mile marker 21. Follow this road about seven miles. The majority of the route is “minimum maintenance”, but is fine for an SUV if driven with care.

The road curves around a pond called Elf Lake, at the foot of nearby Hardscrabble Peak, and ends at the Fairy Lake campground. If you’re looking for a quiet place to camp, you’ll probably find it here. From the campground, a short downhill walk leads to the clear waters of Fairy Lake. This lake is on the small side and has no boat access, but it is stocked with Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Few lakes in Montana that are accessible by road offer such a combination of beautiful scenery in a peaceful, quiet setting.

#09451 - An amazing subalpine wildflower garden covers the slopes east of Hardscrabble Peak in Montana’s Bridger Range - photo by Jerry Blank

An amazing wildflower garden covers the slopes on the way up

Frazier Lake is a midsummer treat for visitors to Hardscrabble Peak. It is a small, high lake (8100' elevation), which generally drains out when the previous winter’s snowpack melts away. Because of this, early July is the best time to hike this trail, though the view in general is top-notch all season. Wildflowers cover the slopes along the route in abundance during the month of July.

#09471 - Frazier Lake, in Montanas’ Bridger Mountains. Vertical geologic strata can be seen in the ridge northwest of the lake.  - photo by Jerry Blank

Frazier Lake, as viewed from the ridge to the south

The most popular route to Frazier Lake is near Shafthouse Trail #540, which begins at the Fairy Lake Road, about a mile short of the campground. If you drive slowly, you will have no trouble seeing the Shafthouse Trail sign on the north side of the road.

From the Shafthouse trailhead sign, one can see the “saddle” that overlooks Frazier Lake, about 1¼ miles northwest of the trailhead. The Shafthouse Trail leads hikers north, away from the saddle, so to reach the saddle it is necessary to pick a route through the meadow, starting at a line of bushes just behind (west of) the sign. The general route is marked by the dashed red line on the map. The gentle slope and decent soil conditions make for an easy hike.

#05453 - Lupines and other subalpine wildflowers near the shore of Frazier Lake, Bridger Mountains, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

A summer evening at Frazier Lake — Click / tap image to view full size

If you choose a route straight up the middle of the meadow, you will have no trouble finding your way to the saddle above; it is in plain view most of the way. After the first half mile, you will have a fine view of Sacagawea and Hardscrabble Peaks, and Fairy Lake will seem to be a small blue pond in the distance.

At the saddle itself, the views just keep getting better. Looking down the north side, you will see Frazier Lake, provided there is still enough snowpack to keep it fed. Reaching the lake is a fairly easy scramble down the slope from the ridge of the saddle. A hiking stick is helpful here, since the soil is loose and rocky.

In the early summer, one will find the shoreline of Frazier Lake carpeted with lupines and other wildflowers. You are less likely to see another hiking party; except on weekends, chances are fifty-fifty you’ll have the lake to yourself. Frazier Lake drains out to a waterfall at the head of Frazier Creek. This creek, and nearby Ainger Lake, offer additional opportunities for summer hikers.

On the way up to the ridge, I found a place where I could wedge myself into a narrow draw and take a series of vertical pictures that I later combined into a horizontal panorama. I liked my vantage point, though it was a tight fit on a rocky slope, because it exaggerated the perspective of the many wildflowers along the sunny slopes, and because it had a great view back toward Sacagawea Peak and Hardscrabble Peak. The resulting panoramic format image is displayed below.

#09404 - Lupines and arnica cover a meadow northeast of Sacagawea Peak and Hardscrabble Peak in Montana’s Bridger Mountains

Lupines and arnica cover the slopes northeast of Sacagawea Peak and Hardscrabble Peak — Click / tap image to view full size

If you find yourself in the northern Rockies in midsummer, I hope you find many Montana panoramas of your own!

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September 27, 2015

Small Wonders of the Colorado Rockies

I almost never devote a blog post to insects...though I’ve certainly taken many pictures of them over the years, as you can see here. I have put more energy into capturing grand panoramas of the Rockies and its waterfalls, and I find the majestic scenes easier to write about.

A hillside covered with lupines near Berthoud Pass, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

A hillside covered with lupines, near Berthoud Pass, Colorado

Seeking the aforementioned grand panoramas, I decided to make a few trips to the Continintal Divide near Winter Park, to explore the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail on foot. One of the easier waypoints for accessing the Trail is located at the Berthoud Pass parking lot.

By the time I crossed Berthoud Pass the second time this past summer, the winter snowpack had nearly receded from the Divide, and wildflowers were just beginning to bloom near the shoulders of the highway. But shortly before reaching the south side of the summit, I rounded a hairpin curve and was astonished to see an entire hillside with a lush carpet of lupines. Not the usual Rocky Mountain lupines, but the big, richly colored ones which are common in the Pacific Northwest.

These can also be found here and there in the Rockies, but only where moisture is more plentiful. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the hillside is a large “spring seep”; as you can see on this map, it stands out as a brighter green patch near the highway. Seeps such as these provide excellent growing conditions for wildflowers.

#63000 - A bee gathers nectar from lupines blooming near Berthoud Pass, Colorado - and drops a bit of pollen in the process.

A bee visits lupines near Berthoud Pass — Click / tap image to view full size

I clambered up and down the moist hillside, taking wildflower pictures from every angle. The highway below me appeared in many of the pictures, but I figured I could paint out the road later, in Photoshop. As it turned out, the “keeper” shot of the day was not one of my panoramic views of the hillside. Instead, it was one small portion of one lupine bunch, which I noticed by the guardrail as I walked back to my car. The day was warming up, and I noticed the bees getting busy in the lupine patch. Part of me wanted to return to my car and resume my journey, but another part of me happens to like bees. I've been stung a fair number of times, yet I still like bees—and prefer to think that they like me as well. I chose the photo displayed here to share with you, because I rarely capture a sharp image of a bee hovering in place like a hummingbird.

Some time later, during Labor Day weekend, I made a trip to Guanella Pass, which is a short distance west of Denver. It is tougher to find colorful things in early September; the nights begin to dip below freezing in the high Rockies, freezing the wildflowers which seemed to be everywhere in August; and there isn’t much fall color to enjoy till late September.

Still, I wanted to get out of Denver for a while and clear my head with some crisp, clean mountain air. I chose to explore the Silver Dollar Lake trail, and though I brought my camera as usual, I decided it would be a good day in the mountains whether I came home with a photo or not.

#65541 - Rose crowned sedum attracts a blue butterfly along the Silver Dollar Lake trail, Arapaho National Forest, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

A butterfly feeding at a patch of rose crowned sedum—
Click / tap image to view full size

Most of the easily-seen beauty of the Silver Dollar Lake trail is below treeline. After a half mile up the trail, one can look down at Naylor Lake, which is surrounded by large fallen chunks of the surrounding mountains.

Crossing timberline, where the trail is lined by bushes and more chunks of rock, the wildflowers which had covered these slopes but a few weeks ago were plainly frostbitten and withered. But as I approached Silver Dollar Lake, I was surprised and pleased to find a large swath of very healthy wildflowers. Though located at a higher altitude, the nearby RV-sized rocks provided sufficient shelter and stored heat to protect the flowers, which lined both sides of a small rivulet—the meltwater from a small patch of snowpack high above the trail.

Upon arriving at Silver Dollar Lake, I found another rocky ravine, where I rested for a bit and ate my lunch. The place was sunny and sheltered from the chill winds. It also had healthy wildflowers; not as many, but I could see that some were just beginning to bloom. It was plain that I have much yet to learn about the high alpine parts of the Rockies! Which is another reason I choose trails on the beaten path; if my inexperience gets me into a bind, I know assistance is not far away.

I finished my lunch shortly after noon. By that time, the breeze was warmer and gentler, so I shed the coat I had worn on the uphill trek, and made my way down along the same route.

I stopped at the large swath of wildflowers I had seen that morning, because it was now swarmed with bees, orange butterflies, and blue butterflies. I could not pass them without stopping; instead, I fetched my camera out of the backpack and took literally hundreds of pictures of the small creatures at work. That might seem like overkill, until one considers that even good autofocus systems get fooled when doing macro shots such as these. For every image I saved onto my computer, I discarded a dozen others that were out of focus—or the subject had flown away just before the shutter clicked.

One bug which was not in such a hurry was the blue butterfly pictured here. It was feeding at a small patch of rose crowned sedum, a very showy alpine wildflower that happens to be a late bloomer. I had seen many of them in August, but I saw none in full bloom until September. I marvel at how well adapted these high altitude perennials are. They’re buried in snow for the greater part of the year... but as soon as they feel the sun’s warmth in late summer, they waste no time! Though they and the insects are tiny compared to the mountains, it’s easy to see that they are no less beautiful, if one only stops for a moment and takes a closer look.

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August 12, 2015

Colorado Columbines in the Flat Tops National Wilderness Area
Cascading springs flow down slopes covered with wildflowers at Cold Springs Campground, Routt National Forest, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Those who camp at Cold Springs have THIS for a backyard view!

During much of 2015, I was fortunate enough to live in Colorado. The Colorado state flower is the Rocky Mountain columbine, which can be seen in many places during the summer. Oddly enough, before I moved there I had never laid eyes on a columbine when traveling the Rockies... and I hoped my luck would change over the summer.

After settling down in Lakewood, I spent the next couple of months traveling around Colorado and exhibiting my prints at several art shows. At the last one, in Steamboat Springs, I met many tourists and travelers, and a couple of them made a point of telling me about the great wildflower meadows they’d found in recent visits to the Flat Tops National Wilderness Area.

As it happened, in late June I had traveled west via Yampa through the Routt National Forest, going as far as the Cold Springs Campground at the eastern edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness. At that elevation, the season was still early—and the only flowers out in force were the dandelions at the campground (see photo above right). I was a bit sorry I had not reserved a campsite there. Who wouldn’t want to pitch a tent or park an RV at a place such as this, and fall asleep to the sound of the springs flowing down one’s back yard into a pond surrounded by flowers?

Colorado columbines abound in the summer, above Stillwater Reservoir in the Flat Tops Wilderness.

Rocky Mountain columbines—
Click / tap image to view full size

After hearing the wildflower news from the hikers at the art show, I realized that with the coming of July, the subalpine wildflower meadows in the Flat Tops had warmed up enough to awaken and put on their annual show. Therefore, the day after the art show ended, I headed back to Yampa and Cold Springs to investigate.

Upon arriving at the Cold Springs campground, I noticed that the dandelions pictured above were gone, but the bushy patches of blue mertensia alongside the falls had increased in size. There was but one camper in the campground, which did not surprise me, since it was Monday; the weekend rush had come and gone.

#60327 - Wildflowers cover the foothills above Stillwater Reservoir, located in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness - photo by Jerry Blank

Can there ever be too many wildflowers?

The camper, who was standing by his pickup truck, waited till I was done taking pictures of the cascades before assuring me that if I would travel a bit farther to Stillwater Reservoir, I would see patches of columbines “THIS big”, emphatically stretching his arms out as far as he could.

He added that I should park by the dam at the reservoir, and hike up the Devil’s Causeway trail, where the columbines awaited. I asked him how far up the trail I would have to hike to see the scene he described. He replied that I’d have to go no farther than half a mile.

Thanking the camper for his advice, I left the campground and followed the Forest Service road west another quarter mile, where it dead-ends at the Stillwater Reservior dam and the Devil’s Causeway trailhead. Shouldering my pack, I took to the trail, which crosses into the wilderness boundary a short distance from the trailhead. The friendly stranger at the campground was true to his word: I had gone barely half a mile up the trail before getting my first look at the Colorado state flower. And not just one flower, but huge swaths of columbines, just as my friend had promised.

Thinking back on the sequence of events makes me a believer in Divine Providence. The initial catalyst was my intention to find the columbines and share them with you. Next came the hints and advice I heard at Steamboat Springs and Cold Springs—all of which, I should emphasize, was unsolicited. I could imagine the One who planted the wildflowers by Stillwater Reservoir saying: “I understand you want to take pictures of columbines. How many do you need?” If you’re old enough to remember George Burns’ movie portrayal of God, you’ll understand why I found the thought amusing.

Along parts of the trail, the columbines dominated the slopes, much as shown in the picture below. Along other stretches, they were interspersed with other wildflowers of nearly every color. I got a case of “color overload”—which happens to me occasionally—during which I bounded up and down the trail for two hours of non-stop picture-taking. As I did so, other hikers occasionally passed me, going in both directions. I realized the ones going uphill probably wanted to reach the Devil’s Causeway, the rugged and forbidding ridge which waits above. That part of the trail is a sheer rock ledge about 50 feet long, and only 3 feet wide in spots, hence the name. But the ledge can be traversed without climbing gear, if done carefully.

Colorado columbines, goldeneye, and arnica cover the meadows above the north shore of Stillwater Reservoir, in Colorado’s Flat Tops National Wilderness Area

Columbines and many other flowers cover the hillsides in the Flat Tops Wilderness — Click / tap image to view full size

I learned that information just prior to writing this post. On the day I was playing in the wildflower meadows, I thought the name “Devil’s Causeway” to be inappropriate. I’d have picked a name such as “Angels Meadow Trail”!

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April 19, 2015

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I recall that the first full day I ever spent in Colorado was late in 2008, and the place was Rocky Mountain National Park. I arose before dawn that morning to explore the fall foliage around Alberta Falls in Glacier Gorge, and my route led me out of Estes Park and through Moraine Park.

#06413 - An alert pair of juvenile elk, on a hillside in the Moraine Park area of Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

An alert pair of juvenile elk —
Click / tap image to view full size

Before I had the opportunity to see much aspen foliage, I started noticing that I was driving past elk. They seemed to be everywhere! At the time, that seemed impressive. There are many deer and antelope in the Northern Plains states, but far fewer elk. The only ones I had seen before were in a hunting preserve. Fortunately for them, I only hunt with my camera.

#06416 - A juvenile elk on the alert, on a hillside in the Moraine Park area of Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Young bull elk —
Click / tap image to view full size

I had also seen elk in the wild while hiking in Montana, but they were very skittish, and did not hang around to have their picture taken.

The elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, though, had seen so many two-legged gawkers in their range that they didn’t pay much attention to me. In spite of my enthusiasm, I had the wits to close my car door quietly and to approach the animals very slowly.

I had my telephoto zoom mounted to my camera, of course. The sun had risen, but the light in the canyon was still dim and I had to shoot with the lens wide open to get an image that wasn’t blurred. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to zoom the lens all the way out on any of these pictures... that gives you an idea of how close I was able to get.

#06428 - Bull elk sparring in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Bull elk locking antlers — Click / tap image to view full size

As you can see in every image, they had me in the corner of their eye, but their attention was directed elsewhere.

At the time, I had no idea why so many of them were gathered near Estes Park. More recently, I learned that Rocky Mountain National Park is their seasonal migration route. They damage aspen stands in their search for food, to the dismay of environmentalists.

The local beavers are also dismayed during the season, since the elk snarf up much of the food the beavers need to get through a winter in the Rockies. Many other mountain critters, including the elk, have the same idea; the elk are only trying to make a life for themselves. Over the years, more and more people have been moving into the mountains surrounding the park. So if Nature seems unbalanced, one can thank the two-legged folk.

#06446 - Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, by Jerry Blank

The victorious bull — Click / tap image to view full size

That morning, though, the only thing I saw through my camera lens was nature in balance, and it looked great. I saw young bulls with small antlers just losing their velvet. A couple of them engaged in playful sparring, but I could tell there wasn’t much aggression in their sport. They were instinctively playing out the mating competition that would come when they were mature bulls.

I returned to my car and headed to the Moraine Park visitor’s center, thinking to answer the call of nature before heading into Glacier Gorge.

Unfortunately, I had arrived too early; the visitor’s center was still closed. Fortunately, there were a pair of bull elk near at hand—so close that any fool with a camera could get great shots. Unfortunately, if they chose to vent their aggression upon me, I’D be the fool; my back was against a locked restroom door.

But, like all the other elk, they pretended I wasn’t there. They were more interested in locking antlers with each other. Unlike the juvenile bulls, these two were playing for keeps. The one pictured at left had an uphill advantage, in addition to a few more pounds and a larger rack of antlers than his rival on the right. So the right elk gave up in a few minutes, and walked away from the visitor’s center calmly, no doubt wanting to show at least a little dignity.

After that, I had the victorious elk to myself. Or he had me to himself. I couldn’t be sure. As he surveyed his territory, I captured perhaps a dozen more shots before deciding to leave. The bull found that arrangement acceptable... but as I walked around to the parking lot, we didn’t take our eyes off one another.

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April 12, 2015

Autumn Scenery along Ouray County Roads 7 and 9, in Colorado
#06737 - Autumn colors near Mears Peak and Ruffner Mountain, San Juan Mountains, viewed from Ouray County Road 9 in Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

A colorful panorama, looking toward Mears Peak and
Ruffner Mountain— Click / tap image to view full size

In the post just below this one, I shared the story about my first visit to the Sneffels Range, which is located roughly inside a triangle formed by the towns of Ridgway, Ouray, and Telluride in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Early one morning in October 2008, I headed west on CO Hwy. 62 from Ridgway until I found a “West Fork Dallas Creek” sign indicating the turnoff to County Road 9 south. That location can be seen here on Google Maps.

As the map shows, the road forks in a few spots. I won’t attempt to guide you to any particular spot, firstly because there aren't that many miles of road to explore—and secondly, if you visit the place yourself in October, you’re going to enjoy the scenery along the entire route!

The view of Mears Peak and Ruffner Mountain pictured here is but one example. The foothills and the lower slopes of the Sneffels Range have a perfect mix of cedar, scrub oak, aspen, and spruce, as you can see in the picture. Though the road is short, I spent hours exploring every mile of it, and have dozens of beautiful images to show for it. There is not room to display them all on this post, which is one reason why I recommend exploring the place yourself.

#06814 - Autumn foliage along Ouray County Road 7 frames Mount Sneffels, the highest peak in the Sneffels Range of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

Golden aspens frame Mount Sneffels — Click / tap image to view full size

The San Juan Mountains cover a lot of territory, and one could easily take a month’s vacation to explore it all, from the high elevations late in September down to Durango in October. If you only have time to explore the Sneffels Range, though, I recommend doing it early to mid-October. However, seasons vary every year, and it’s always good to check out the Colorado Fall Foliage Report online—as well as the weather forecast—before heading to Colorado.

After spending the morning exploring Ouray County Road 9, I returned to CO 62 and found the turnoff for County Road 7 south, which you can view here.

Traveling County Road 7, I found the same abundance of great views at every turn of the road. County Road 7 is a bit longer than the other Sneffels Range access roads, because it crosses south into the Uncompahgre National Forest and ends at the Blue Lakes trailhead and a camping area at the foot of Mount Sneffels and Dallas Peak.

I captured this image of Mount Sneffels framed by colorful aspens about two-thirds of the way to the trailhead. After crossing the National Forest boundary, the road is not maintained by county road graders, so it’s quite a bit rougher. If you’re driving an SUV with AWD, as I was, you’ll do fine—provided you take it slow. There’s little point in hurrying the journey, in any case. Once you are there, it’s hard to leave...all the more so if—like me—you don’t know when the next opportunity will come!

For me, the next opportunity to return to the Sneffels Range in autumn was seven years in coming, but it was worth the wait. I arrived at County Road 9 shortly after sunrise in October 2015, and saw the panoramic image displayed below right in front of me—a very short distance from CO 62, I must add.

#65699 - An early morning autumn view of the Sneffels Range in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, as seen from the Dallas Creek valley

An early morning view of the Sneffels Range — Click / tap image to view full size

Continue reading below to see more of the crazy-good scenery of the Sneffels Range...

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April 6, 2015

Autumn Scenery along Ouray County Road 5, near Ridgway, CO

Each autumn, the mountains of Colorado are dressed in bright warm colors, and there are many places where one can see great views just like the ones on this post. There is one mountain range within the San Juan Mountains, however, which offers not only spectacular views of fall color, but excellent access. It is called the Sneffels Range (a name which is hard for me to forget; it sounds too much like the name of a character on Sesame Street).

#06836 - A wooden fence and scrub oak trees frame brilliant autumn colors on the northern foothills of Whitehouse Mountain and Mount Ridgway, San Juan Mountains, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Incredible views of Whitehouse Mountain and Mount Ridgway on
County Road 5— Click / tap image to view full size

The range runs roughly east to west, and aspens are plentiful on both the northern and southern slopes. On the southern side, one’s line of sight is restricted by the narrowness of the Canyon Creek and San Miguel canyons.

It is the north side, therefore, that is considered the most photogenic, and those who travel Colorado Hwy. 62 between Ridgway and Dallas Divide in the fall are treated to a clear view of miles and miles of colorful aspen groves framed by the jagged peaks of the Sneffels Range.

All this and more could be said of other Colorado mountain ranges. What is unusual about the Sneffels Range is that it has no fewer than three county roads which allow “up close and personal” access to the mountains. I have explored all three routes, and each offers unique vistas at nearly every bend of the road. In this post, I will acquaint you with Ouray County Road 5.

Unlike County Roads 7 and 9, there is no sign along Highway 62 to guide travelers to County Road 5. But if you click here, you will see it is not so hard to find with Google Maps. From Highway 62 in Ridgway, one must turn onto South Amelia Street. After passing Elizabeth Street on the left (east) side, County Road 5 is the next right turn.

When saturated with snowmelt or rainwater, be advised that the road is a muddy mess and must be navigated with care, even if your vehicle has AWD or 4WD; I have found that when stuck in a muddy ditch off the road, AWD is of no help. When dry, the road is usually dusty and washboarded, but I will choose dust over mud any day.

The route is fairly short, compared to some county roads I have traveled. By the time you have driven a few miles, you will have climbed out of the Uncompahgre River valley and will have a clear view of the mountains. There are really no better directions I can give you than to explore and enjoy the route to your heart’s content.

Highland Drive is a side road that forks off to the north, and leads to a county park called “Top of the Pines”. The park is located at a fairly high elevation, and affords clear southwest views to Mount Sneffels, Dallas Peak, and Wolcott Mountain. Its location along Highland Drive can be seen here on Google Maps.

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March 29, 2015

Summer in North Dakota: The Prairie Chick and the Fawn

Before you are misled by the title of this post, I must warn you that you will see no photos of prairie chicks or fawns here (Eventually I captured a decent image of a fawn, which you can see in this post). I set out on June 20, 2008 to capture images of North Dakota’s Little Missouri River valley, and that is pretty much what I did.

The Little Missouri River valley, McKenzie County, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

Looking across the Little Missouri River valley —
Click / tap image to view full size

The Little Missouri River, and the Little Missouri National Grassland which surrounds it, provide most of the really fine scenery which western North Dakota has to offer. The river also runs through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is a good place to visit if you want some good views of the river, and of the bison and bighorn sheep which can be found there.

In the summer of 2008, I made a goal of finding and photographing as many of the best views of the Little Missouri River as I could, especially those places which could be accessed by the many miles of public back roads which wind through the National Grassland. These views are largely unknown by travelers to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and to most folks who live in North Dakota, for that matter.

I often find that in spite of my careful planning, I don’t always get the photos I expect to. But just as often, I get some nice surprises I don’t expect, which more than makes up for it. June 20 was such a day. I had worked my way south along the Little Missouri River, following the back roads from McKenzie County down into Billings County, and so far had found only a few decent views.

Following a dirt access road on my way to Goat Pass Road, I had to stop my SUV abruptly to avoid a prairie hen and a bunch of her chicks crossing the trail. I noticed one of the chicks had turned away from the others and was struggling vainly to climb the loose dusty soil of the embankment, so I turned the car off and got out to investigate.

“You’re never going to make it up that way,” I advised the chick, picking it up carefully. “Let me put you over here in the brush with the rest of your family.”

Purple pincushion cactus and sandstone formation overlooking the Little Missouri River, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

Pincushion cactus and sandstone —
Click / tap image to view full size

“No! Put me down!” it seemed to say to me, as I walked slowly across the road with the bird cupped in my hands. I wanted to make the moment last longer, but was more concerned about the bird’s welfare, so I set it down gently in the brush, pleading “Just hang around for a bit while I get my camera, okay?” Fat chance. The moment its feet hit the ground, it dashed away in the direction of its family.

Even though I had no photo to show for the experience, I savored the moment a while longer as I restarted my car and headed north, back to McKenzie County. Not long thereafter, I finally found a nice view of the Little Missouri River near an oil well access road, and captured the photo displayed at the top of this post.

At another oil well site a little farther north, I stepped out of the car to see if there were any wildflowers or interesting scenery nearby. As soon as I stopped walking, and all was quiet, I heard a rustling in the grass to my left and whirled round, expecting to find a rabbit.

No rabbit did I find, but a tiny fawn which I wouldn’t have noticed, had it not lost its nerve and stumbled to its feet. As it did so, one of its front legs got wedged between two branches of the small cedar under which it was hiding, and now it was obviously in trouble. I knew I could not take a photo of the fawn in its pitiful condition; it needed to be freed quickly before its leg got sprained or broken.

Sunset over the Little Missouri River, McKenzie County, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

A perfect sunset over the Little Missouri River —
Click / tap image to view full size

So for the second time that day, I came to the rescue, bracing myself on the steep slope next to the cedar tree and reaching underneath gently to lift the fawn’s leg up and out of the branches which had trapped it. I got up and cradled the fawn in my arms like a baby as I climbed up to my car, while the fawn bleated loudly for its mom. I envisioned getting my butt kicked by an angry doe, and said: “Okay, I’ll put you down. Just sit tight a bit, okay?”

That adventure ended just like the prairie chick episode: The fawn dashed down the coulee with amazing speed as soon as its feet touched the ground, and I had no chance to get a picture of it. On the bright side, the coulee led to another nice view of the Little Missouri, with interesting weathered sandstone formations and flowering cactus nearby. The day was looking up! An image of that location can be seen above.

It was getting late by this time, and I believed I had enough time to re-visit a spot I had found earlier in the day—a bluff overlooking the Little Missouri—and perhaps get a nice sunset photo. Upon arriving there, I knew I had made the right call. The river, which had looked flat in the late morning light, now sparkled and shone with the light of the setting sun, whose glow permeated the leaves of the trees and spread out to the valley below. I got busy and shot photos till the glow was gone and the sun had set.

One of those sunset photos—the image displayed here—was eventually selected for the cover of North Dakota Tourism’s 2009 summer travel guide, and for the cover of the North Dakota Horizons 2009 calendar. As twilight descended upon the Little Missouri National Grasslands, I headed for home with a light heart, but not just because I captured some good images. That afternoon will always be special to me because of the photos I did not get: the prairie chick and the fawn I got to hold for a few moments.

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March 23, 2015

Autumn Color Adventure at Ouray, Colorado
#06683 - A colorful autumn view looking southeast over Ouray, Colorado, toward the Uncompahgre Gorge. Colorado landscape photography by Jerry Blank.

Looking over Ouray toward Twin Peaks —
Click image to view in full size

In my previous post, I shared the stories and photos of the first morning I explored the area near Ouray, Colorado. As the morning grew late, the sun began to gently pull the clouds skyward, away from the mountaintops. Finally, I quit taking photos and returned to town for lunch.

That afternoon, I hiked the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which you can see here on Google Maps if you happen to find yourself in Ouray in the future (and I certainly hope you do!). In the photo displayed here, I was looking over the southwest corner of town, toward the entrance to the Uncompahgre Gorge.

#06883 - Autumn aspen leaves decorate Canyon Creek Road in the Uncompahgre National Forest, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Overshadowing the canyon is the north ridge of Hayden Mountain.

The view on Canyon Creek Road — Click image to view in full size

Because of the previous night’s snowfall, some of the rock formations overlooking Ouray were still wet, and looked dark red from my vantage point. And as you can see, many other colors were splashed upon the lower slopes of Mount Abrams and Hayden Mountain South.

The trees in the foreground of this picture are scrub oak, a common sight in the lower elevations of Colorado mountain country. In autumn, their color can change much like their neighbors, the aspen, except that the warmest color scrub oaks display is a reddish orange. In isolated stands of aspen, the leaves will get all the way to red before dropping.

After spending another peaceful night at the Thistledown campground on Canyon Creek Road, I drove to Ridgway, a short distance north of Ouray on US Highway 550, to explore the fine Colorado scenery in the Sneffels Range, which is practically in Ridgway’s back yard. I could have spent that night west of Ridgway, at a campground not far from Dallas Peak, but returned to Thistledown instead. I had grown to love the sound of the burbling water of Canyon Creek, which rushes right past the campground on its way to the Uncompahgre River gorge.

By that time, it was late afternoon, and the low western sun was catching the leaves of golden aspen stands hugging the north ridge of Hayden Mountain. With scenery such as that pictured here, I could hardly be blamed if I chose to make the canyon my home forever. Alas, autumn in the high country comes and goes quickly. Unlike the black bears, I am unable to sleep through the winter. Nevertheless, I thought myself a lucky man to be able to stay at the place for a few nights.

I could hardly do justice to the scenery around Ouray with my camera—but I did my best, hoping the images I have shared will inspire you to visit Ouray during the fall color season. While Yankee Boy Basin and other high altitude areas near Ouray have excellent wildflower displays going on in August, the San Juans are a much more peaceful place to visit in the fall months—after the crowds of summer vacationers have left, and before skiers begin flocking to Telluride.

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March 16, 2015

When Fall Turns To Winter at Ouray, Colorado

By 2008, I was pretty familiar with the northern Rockies, and in fact I moved there toward the end of that year. I had never visited the Rockies south of Montana, but had learned of the great autumn scenery in the Colorado Rockies. Aspens can be found everywhere in the Rockies, but it just so happens that Colorado has a “sweet spot” environment for aspen growth. In Montana, trees with color are more sparse. An early freeze in the north often cuts the fall foliage display short.

#06612 - Fresh snow covers autumn foliage around a waterfall on Sneffels Creek, in Yankee Boy Basin, Colorado, with Cirque Mountain in the background

Fresh snow at Yankee Boy Basin — Click image to view in full size

Rocky Mountain National Park and the Maroon Bells were my first stops during my 2008 trip to Colorado. But that season, the fall colors came and went early in the northern part of the state—they had peaked before the end of September. I did capture some great wildlife images near Estes Park, but was a bit dismayed by the sight of bare aspen trees.

I was aware that winter cold comes to southwestern Colorado a little later in the season, and that photographers often travel to the San Juan Mountains to find autumn color. So I decided to try my luck there, and to begin by staying in Ouray for a few nights.

The day I arrived at the San Juans, I had seen mixed sunshine and occasional rain—but when I got closer to the mountains, I could see that the skies over the mountains were shrouded by black. The weather report for the days ahead was encouraging, though, so I drove into the rain and through Ouray, found my way to Canyon Creek Road #361, and followed it up the canyon a few miles to the Thistledown campground in the Uncompahgre National Forest.

The campground was deserted because of the weather. It was nearly dark, but in spite of the low light and the rainfall, I fell in love with the spot at once. The burbling creek coursed right past my parking spot, and gold aspen leaves fluttered gently in the wind. It did not take long to fall asleep.

As I slept, colder air moved in... and when I awakened, I could see a light dusting of snow on the campground. Looking past the aspens toward the sky, I observed that the cloud cover was beginning to break up, so with renewed enthusiasm, I freshened up, ate breakfast, and drove back onto Canyon Creek Road, wondering what I would see at the higher elevations.

I wasn’t left wondering for long. In only two miles, I reached an elevation where everything was covered in snow. I was in the midst of a winter wonderland, but autumn was far from over; the golden leaves of the aspen trees were covered in heavy wet snow, and their branches sagged under the added weight.

The Forest Service route is also called “Camp Bird Road” because it ends at Camp Bird, an old mining site. From there, one can turn south on route 26A and travel by Jeep over Imogene Pass to Telluride—but I was not about to attempt such a thing in the snow with my SUV. Turning west onto route 26 instead, I headed toward Yankee Boy Basin, a cirque which is surrounded by the high peaks of the Sneffels Range.

#06621 - An early snowfall covers the trees above the old Camp Bird Road and the northwest ridge of Hayden Mountain South, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

An amazing view of Hayden Mountain South —
Click image to view in full size

The road was safe enough, but soon became too steep for my SUV to climb, so I parked the car and hiked up toward Yankee Boy Basin. In minutes, I found the scene pictured above: The clear icy water of Sneffels Creek, which cascaded over reddish rocks past snow-covered foliage.

I was, as you may imagine, in photographers’ heaven, and would have loved to spend more time exploring the falls, but the sun was beginning to work on the snow. So, instead of exploring the higher altitudes—which have few trees anyway—I drove back down past Camp Bird. At that point, I was greeted by an amazing panorama of Hayden Mountain South, framed in snow-covered aspen trees which were set on fire with sunlight.

The snow was melting quickly under the warm sun, so I continued taking pictures all the way back down Canyon Creek Road. By the time I arrived in Ouray for lunch, the snow was off the trees...and by sunset, it had receded nearly up to the treeline of the mountains. But the peaks themselves would remain snow-capped for the next few days. Just about everywhere I explored that week, there was excellent scenery to be found.

While it helps to plan one’s trips around the weather, one should still expect the unexpected, and be prepared to roll with it. I get off the highway as much as possible, for it is on the Forest Service roads and foot trails that I discover the hidden gems of the Colorado landscape!

Read about the afternoon’s adventures in my next blog post...

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March 8, 2015

Waterfalls at The Grottos, near Aspen, Colorado
4k nature video and scenery pictures of a waterfall at The Grottos, in the White River National Forest near Aspen, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Waterfall at The Grottos — Click / tap image to view full size

At the beginning of my 2014 autumn visit to Aspen, I left Interstate 70 and followed Colorado Highway 82 west over Independence Pass. One can see miles of the Colorado landscape from the summit trail, and after leaving the summit and continuing westward, one can find lots more hiking and photo possiblities. The highway offers great views of the Roaring Fork canyon nearly all the way down to Aspen, but to get photos that are interesting, one must find a trailhead and do some exploring. Which is just as well, because Highway 82 is narrow and shoulderless in the scenic areas. There aren’t enough turnouts to accommodate the number of drivers seeking to pull over, and parking space at the trailheads is also sparse. If you intend to explore a trail in the Roaring Fork canyon, a good plan is to pick your trail in advance and arrive at the trailhead by sunup.

One scenic area along Highway 82, not far from Aspen, is The Grottos. The Grottos has been a popular recreation spot for folks in Pitkin County for a while. From what I could tell, at some past time a large number of rocks, ranging from car-sized to house-sized, tumbled to the bottom of the canyon, yet not enough to dam the river. Instead, the river more or less flows over and around them.

4k nature video and scenery pictures of a waterfall at The Grottos, in the White River National Forest near Aspen, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Roaring Fork water has sculpted Ice Cave at The Grottos.

When the Forest Service roads and trails near Lincoln Gulch Campground and The Grottos were built, the builders were obliged to choose a route that winds between huge chunks of stone. Most of these are weathered and eroded into interesting shapes. I reasoned that most of the fallen rock had been sitting in the canyon for a very long time, all the while being reshaped by the Roaring Fork River.

In spite of having pretty good directions to The Grottos, I drove straight past the access road on my first attempt, and nearly did so again on my second. I’m unsure why the Forest Service doesn’t mark the access road more conspicuously. CO Highway 82 is a pretty busy road, and folks who follow me in their cars like to know when I’m going to hit my brakes and turn south. So, for the sake of those who may visit this place, I’m posting this link to Google Maps to help you navigate to The Grottos parking area / trailhead.

Perhaps it is because of the lack of signage on the highway that there were few other cars in the parking lot. After I got out and stretched my legs a bit, I found that one only needs to go a short distance up the trail before the pleasant sound of the Roaring Fork River replaces the traffic noise of Highway 82.

4k nature video and scenery pictures of a waterfall at The Grottos, in the White River National Forest near Aspen, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

The Roaring Fork in early summer: Fewer boulders visible, but more rainbow.

One can choose either of two trails leading east toward a series of cascades such as the one pictured here. One trail follows the north bank of the river, and the other one begins with a footbridge over the river, allowing access to the south bank. The north trail dead-ends near the waterfall, offering pretty much only one view. The bridge trail is much better, allowing you to scramble up and down the rocks of The Grottos to your heart’s content. The place is more child-safe than other popular Colorado waterfalls; the rocks are smooth, and the incline is not steep. Having raised raised kids myself, though, I suggest keeping your small fellow adventurers in sight. Beneath The Grottos is a section called “Ice Cave”. The entrance is too tight for me, but a four-year-old could squeeze in just fine.

I have a camera that can record 4K HD video, so I returned to the same place early the following summer of 2015 to capture some video footage. Colorado had an extended spring season in 2015, with heavy rains occurring well into July. When I visited the waterfall in mid-June, the Roaring Fork was living up to its name—with a vengeance. The boulders I stood upon while shooting the autumn image (vertical photo above) were covered with a rushing wall of water. As you can see, the still clip I copied from my video footage from June (shown here) looks nothing like my fall photo. But I had no complaints; the churning waters made for a great video, and the spray and mist hovering over the falls created a much larger rainbow than I had seen when the water was low!

To see the video clip, visit my Video page, scroll down to the clip titled “Colors of Colorado”, and play it. The Roaring Fork footage can be seen about 50 seconds into the clip.

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March 3, 2015

Pyramid Peak, Maroon-Snowmass National Wilderness, Colorado

This blog entry sort of wraps up my brief adventures in Colorado’s Maroon-Snowmass National Wilderness, which began, as I wrote below, one September night, shooting the Maroon Bells reflected in Maroon Lake. I stayed at Maroon Lake until shortly after sunup, then hit the Crater Lake trail, a great hike I wrote about in a previous entry.

Most of Maroon Lake lies within the White River National Forest, but soon after departing from the trailhead, one crosses the boundary into the wilderness area. One can’t see much of the Colorado landscape during the first leg of the hike, because the trail is hemmed in closely by the mixed spruce and aspen forest.

Finally, the trail opens up at a fairly large slide area, which is pictured at right. At some point in the past, a portion of Sievers Mountain’s south ridge broke up and sent a cascade of talus all the way down to West Maroon Creek. The rockslide can easily be seen here on Google Maps.

#42600 - Aspens north of Pyramid Peak are set alight by autumn afternoon sun, in Colorado’s Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness.

The fiery colors below Pyramid Peak — Click / tap image to view full size

If you follow the link, you’ll easily be able to see where the trail crosses the rockslide, a bit below the spot from which I took this photo. The slide is no longer just a big heap of loose rock; as can be seen in the photo, there are still unstable portions covered with talus. The majority of the slide has been stabilized by the new aspen groves which have established themselves.

I paused at this spot early in the morning, on the way to Crater Lake. The view was okay, but the sun was nearly behind me—not flattering to autumn foliage. I took a few pictures, then returned to the trail. I was glad to have my hiking poles by then, because the trail gets rough where it crosses the talus, and pretty much stays that way almost all the way up to Crater Lake.

After capturing my image of Crater Lake, I took my time heading back down the rocky trail. There are better views on the higher section, and I stopped often during the afternoon to take in the scenery and capture a few more images of the amazing autumn color.

Upon returning to the rockslide area I described above, I looked back toward Pyramid Peak. The sun had crossed west of the peak by then, and was now back-lighting a billion lemon, lime, and orange-colored aspen leaves. The picture above can give you but a taste of the golden glow that surrounded the trail at that point. The trail was now jammed with other landscape photographers, all with cameras pointed at Pyramid Peak, so I scrambled a short way off-trail over the treacherously-loose talus, which kept me out of other folks’ way—and allowed me to keep them out of my field of view.

Finally, I decided if I hadn’t gotten my fall scenery pictures by then, I never would. So, with a grunt, I hoisted myself off my rocky seat with the aid of my hiking poles, and picked my way back to the trail. The last leg of the return hike, with its smoother trail, was a welcome change from the rock-strewn route higher up. “Leave the talus for the marmots and the mountain goats”, I thought. “They seem to like it just fine”.

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February 25, 2015

Maroon Bells Starscape at Maroon Lake, Colorado

I began my 2014 autumn trip to the Colorado Rockies by making a beeline for Aspen, just as soon as I could get out of the Denver airport. The ski season craziness was still a couple of months in the future, but there were still many travelers in town, for the same reason I had come: To see some of the finest autumn scenery in the Rockies. The Maroon-Snowmass National Wilderness Area lies just south and west of town, and the Maroon Bells attract photographers year-round.

#40560 - A starry night view of the Milky Way and the Maroon Bells in autumn, reflected in Maroon Lake, Colorado.

Autumn starscape at the Maroon Bells — Click / tap image to view full size

If one’s aim is to capture decent images, it helps to plan around weather conditions. On this occasion, I was granted clear skies for one night, persisting till the middle of the next day... so that night was spent near the shore of Maroon Lake instead at my lodgings in Aspen. I figured I’d have plenty of time to sleep in the hotel, once it started raining!

Later, in the very early morning hours, mountain climbers began arriving and hitting the trail southwest toward Crater Lake. I asked them why they chose to start their hike in the dark, and they replied that their destination was Maroon Peak—and that they needed to be off the mountain before the impending cold front arrived in the afternoon.

This area is photographed millions of times every year, at every time of the day, so I admire any picture of the place that stands out as unique. I wanted to capture something unique, but that entails much more than taking as many pictures as possible.

For openers, there is almost always a breeze strong enough to cause rippling in mountain lakes. Too much causes the lake surface to lose its glassy “mirror” quality. Usually, I shoot at a low angle, as close to the water as possible, like the other photographers I saw that night. But you don’t have to shoot that close to get the picture. At Maroon, one can hike away from the lake and partway up the ridge of Sievers Mountain South. At that distance, of course, one must zoom in more, but any minor rippling on the lake surface will be minimized.

As with most things, one has to find a balance. As one hikes up Sievers Mountain South, the image reflected in the lake begins to shrink. Go too high, and the reflected mountains will disappear almost entirely, and one will only see stars in the reflected image.

#23409 - Canada geese visit Maroon Lake, Colorado just after daybreak, as the Maroon Bells glow in the morning light.

The Maroon Bells, in summer — Click / tap image to view full size

Maroon Lake’s location is ideal that way... there are many angles from which one can shoot. Many mountain lakes are at the bottom of steep gorges—and unless you’re equipped with a drone, you may find no more than one or two spots from which you can get a clear view.

I was satisfied with the images I captured that night, except for the appearance of the Milky Way, which ended up pretty much black and white. Under moonlight or starlight, our eyes can’t see in color as well as our digital cameras can—and most consumer cameras record starlight in monochrome also. Nonetheless, I have seen nicely colored Milky Ways in many online photos. As of this writing, however, the only affordable camera optimized for night sky photography is the Nikon D810A, because it can capture infrared starlight.

I aim to be realistic with my scenic photos. I don’t want folks to be disappointed by going to a place I’ve been, only to find that it looks blander than the picture does! In this case, I was trying to create something more “arty”. I trust viewers will forgive me for Photoshopping this night image to mimic the colors a Nikon D810A might have captured.

The second photo in this post was captured just after sunrise, during my previous visit in the summer of 2012. While the aspen foliage is less showy during the summer season, the warm morning sunlight lights up the peaks in a way that I find appealing. That’s the long way of saying most scenery pictures we take aren’t “better” or “worse” than anyone else’s; they’re just unique. I believe the same holds true of the subject matter. It may be hard for me to discover beauty in the desert, but my brother Mike and many other photographers do just that on a regular basis, and they do it well.

Getting back to that September night in 2014: As the stars faded away, the red rays of the rising sun struck the top of Maroon Peak, which was a beautiful sight to me—and to all the others who had arrived to watch and take pictures. After watching the sunrise, I hit the trail leading to the Bells, intending to get to Crater Lake, about 2 miles in, before the weather moved in. You can see how that hike turned out by clicking here.

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February 16, 2015

Twilight Peaks, San Juan County, Colorado

On the final day of my 2014 autumn trip to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I left Telluride early. A weather system had passed through the state the previous night, and although the morning skies were clear, it was looking to cloud up again quickly. My destination was Durango, but that morning I made a detour and revisited Wilson Mesa. I was glad I did so, because Wilson Peak had a fresh blanket of snow, as did all the other high peaks of the San Juans that day.

It was late morning by the time I crossed Dallas Divide into Ouray County. I was almost surprised that the beautiful red-orange aspen grove on the west side, which I’d visited less than a week before, was nearly barren of leaves. Only a few reddish-brown leaves clung to the twigs. I say “almost” surprised because I know how quickly fall can turn into winter!

#52109 - Log cabin and autumn foliage alongside a trail in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Log cabin and autumn foliage on a trail in the San Juan National Forest, south of Silverton

It was nearly overcast by that time, and there were few photo ops in the neighborhood. I could see plainly from the highway that the aspens of the Sneffels Range were still mostly green, and wouldn’t be ready for photographers for at least a week and a half. So I continued eastward to Ridgway, and turned south on US Highway 550 south toward Ouray.

After passing through Ouray, the highway steadily gains altitude up to Red Mountain Pass (see previous blog entry below), which was another place I had visited only days before. Like Dallas Divide, the high-elevation aspens near Red Mountain Pass were done for the year.

#52266 - The Twilight Peaks, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, are surrounded by vivid autumn color in this view from Coal Bank Pass on US Highway 550

The Twilight Peaks, as seen from Coal Bank Pass in Colorado —
Click / tap image to view full size

Crossing south over the pass, I entered San Juan County and the San Juan National Forest. There wasn’t much to see till I approached Silverton. From the highway, I could see the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train pulling into Silverton with its load of passengers.

After traveling a few miles south of Silverton, I caught a glance of a log cabin far off to my left, which is pictured above. The afternoon clouds were beginning to break up, so I waited patiently by the cabin until the clouds granted me a brief half-minute of sunlight in which to capture the image.

The shadows began to lengthen as the day drew to a close. Fortunately, the clouds were also continuing to dissipate, and by the time I reached Coal Bank Pass, I started seeing more color in the Colorado landscape, as well as an outstanding view of the beautiful Twilight Peaks, pictured above right.

Indeed, as I drove past Coal Bank Pass and down Molas Pass into Durango, I could see more aspen groves whose fall colors were nearing their peak, and decided that I must come back to the San Juans in October and explore the San Juan National Forest between Durango and Silverton. It seems that autumn ends there much later than in northern Colorado.

After parking next to my motel room in Durango, I was surprised to see the steam-powered locomotive of the Durango-Silverton railroad once again, chugging along just behind the motel. I was happy for its passengers, knowing that they had seen some of the finest autumn Colorado landscape that afternoon. It’s possible the passengers were the best landscape photographers in the area for the day!

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February 10, 2015

Autumn Color on US Highway 550 in Colorado

I had a splendid time capturing fall color around Aspen, Colorado in September 2014, but wet weather set in after my first full day there. A couple of rainy days later, I made up my mind to head south to the San Juan Mountains—which was on my agenda anyway—via McClure Pass to the west of Aspen and Snowmass.

I left Aspen early the morning of the 22nd, poked around Ridgway for a while, then continued south on US Hwy. 550 and arrived at Ouray early in the afternoon to explore the areas of the San Juans that I had visited before, as well as many places I discovered for the first time.

Autumn color on the foothills of Hayden Mountain, as seen from US Hwy. 550, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

Autumn color on the foothills of Hayden Mountain, as seen from US Hwy. 550 — Click / tap image to view full size

My previous visit to Red Mountain Pass, south of Ouray, had been unproductive. On that trip I had arrived in Ouray on the second week of October, and the trees near the pass had dropped their leaves.

Hoping for better luck late in September, I followed Hwy. 550 out of Ouray, without stopping to check into my hotel. I figured that could wait until dark.

At first, there wasn’t much to see near the road. The aspen stands surrounding Ouray were green, and the Uncompahgre Gorge just south of town features more evergreen trees than aspen. Once I emerged from the dark gorge and arrived at the sunny Red Mountain Creek valley, though, the scenery quickly changed for the better!

A view south to Bear Mountain, above and south of Red Mountain Pass, San Juan County, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

A view south to Bear Mountain, from the San Juan County side of Red Mountain Pass on US Highway 550 in Colorado — Click / tap image to view full size

The foothills of Hayden Mountain South and the lower slopes of the Red Mountains—unlike my 2008 visit—were on fire with color. Entire mountainsides, it seemed, glowed in shades of green, yellow, orange, and even patches of red. As you’d expect, I was pretty enthused by the time I saw the bend in the valley pictured above. These slopes, unlike most I’ve seen, were packed top to bottom with aspens. The place was crazy with color, and I could already visualize the beautiful panoramic images I could capture and share.

The spot pictured above is a few miles south of Crystal Lake, next to the turnout and parking area for the Gray Copper Gulch Road. I climbed partway up a nearby deposit of mine tailings facing the highway and the colorful scenery, and captured a sequence of about two dozen images, which I later combined into the 180-degree view displayed above. A 180-degree panorama tends to enlarge the middle of the photo and shrink the sides for an exaggerated perspective—which suited me just fine for this shot, because the hillside with the best autumn color was the one in the middle.

As the sun continued setting over the San Juan Mountains, I realized there were enough photo ops for at least two more full days’ worth of shooting, just in the short stretch of US Hwy. 550 which starts at Crystal Lake and ends five miles south, at the old Idorado Mine.

A couple of mornings later, I had worked my way south to a popular vista along Hwy. 550, from which can see Red Mountain No. 1 and the few remaining Idorado Mine structures at the base of Red Mountains No. 2 and 3. I should mention that there are plenty of Forest Service roads from which one can access the mountains via Jeep or ATV. As one gets closer to Red Mountain Pass, the trees begin to block the view across the valley.

Since I wasn’t driving an off-road vehicle—and since walking uphill from west side of the highway isn’t difficult—I parked the car at a nearby turnout and hiked up, taking my time and observing how the view changed as I hiked upward and to the north. Before long, I found myself at a place with a clear view across the valley, not far above the highway.

The panoramic view pictured here is enough explanation of why this valley attracts so many visitors with cameras in September!

A mid-morning autumn panorama of the three “Red Mountains” in Colorado, north of Red Mountain Pass - professional photography by Jerry Blank

A mid-morning autumn panorama of the three “Red Mountains” in Colorado, north of Red Mountain Pass — Click / tap image to view full size

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January 30, 2015

Woods Lake on Wilson Mesa, San Miguel Range, Colorado

Before I left home for my fall trip to Colorado in 2014, I was using Google Earth to explore San Miguel County, trying to find photogenic lakes. I was pleased to find a few with “drive up” access, including Woods Lake, just west of Wilson Peak in the San Miguel Range. Zooming in closer, I could see that the lake is surrounded by the Lizard Head Wilderness. Thankfully, at some time in the past, someone had the foresight to allow an easement for a one-mile access road and a campground at the lake, which you can see here on Google Maps.

#46067 - A colorful late evening view across Woods Lake, located west of Wilson Peak on Wilson Mesa in Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

The view across Woods Lake, on Wilson Mesa in Colorado —
Click / tap image to view full size

Late in September, while spending several days in Telluride, I traveled west on CO Highway 145 to Forest Service road 57P, which is signed “Fall Creek Road”, and turned south towards Woods Lake. Getting there was not a problem. The Forest Service roads on Wilson Mesa are maintained relatively well. The last mile of access road is steeper, with larger rocks, but anyone with a decent vehicle can navigate it in low gear.

Upon arriving at the lake, I was pleased to find it was everything Google Earth promised. There is space for small boat trailers to approach the edge of the lake, as well as several campsites. A network of trails surrounds the lake, so although one does not have to hike to it from the highway, those who enjoy hiking can take their pick of trails around the lake, some of which allow access to the Lizard Head Wilderness and the San Miguel Range.

There are a couple of peaks visible in the photo above. The prominent triangular-shaped peak is a ”no-name” peak. East of that peak, a bit of Wilson Peak can be seen peeking above the ridge on the left side of the photo. With such great Colorado landscape surrounding me, I was surprised the place was not crowded with fellow explorers and campers. It seemed to me the perfect place to spend a night under a clear, star-filled Rocky Mountain sky.

I had a second camera in the back of my SUV, which I set up at the edge of the shoreline with a wide-angle lens, set to take time lapse photos at 30-second intervals. Later in 2015, I converted those images into a video clip, which made a great ending for the “Colors of Colorado” clip on my “Video” page. Check it out!

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January 22, 2015

The Ophir Needles, San Miguel County, Colorado

The Ophir Needles, pictured below, are a familiar landmark to the folks living in Colorado’s San Miguel County. They’re not marked by any signs as one drives south from Telluride on Colorado Hwy. 145, but there are Forest Service access roads to the Alta Lakes, which are small, high altitude lakes just north of the Ophir Needles. There are some great south views to the Needles from those lakes. If you are interested in exploring the area, I recommend downloading the Forest Service map here. The Ophir Needles can be found on the map just east of the Lizard Head Wilderness, southwest of Telluride.

In my two previous posts (below), I wrote about the old log cabin and the waterfall I discovered near Ames, which is located southwest of the Needles. To get to Ames, one must turn west on USFS Road 63L; the intersection is shown here on Google Maps.

In early October, you’ll find great autumn scenery along that road, looking west toward the Ames Cliffs. However, I found the Ames Cliffs to be less photogenic than the Ophir Needles, with their warm-colored rock and alternating stands of spruce and golden aspen trees.

#47072 - A stand of gold-colored aspen trees in the Howard Fork canyon, just below the Ophir Needles in San Miguel County, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Autumn aspens below the Ophir Needles in Colorado —
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As I explored Road 63L, I kept an eye out for a better vantage point of the Needles. Looking south across the Howard Fork canyon through the trees, I could see what looked like an access road on the far side. So I made my way back to the crossing at CO 145, hoping I would find luck along the new road I’d discovered.

From the crossing, where the Howard Fork flows westward beneath Hwy. 145, I drove slowly uphill as the highway curved to the southwest. At .17 of a mile, I saw an access road to the right. It was gated, but I found the gate open. Certain I was on the right track, I turned off the highway and began exploring the route. There is a fork in the road 0.2 miles in, but the right fork was gated, so I kept to the left.

I should mention that this access road is not shown on most maps. It’s used primarily by mine tailing reclamation workers, so you may find the first gate locked. If that’s the case, there’s no harm in parking on either side of the gate and walking the rest of the way.

Only about a half mile beyond the fork, I was rewarded with the sight pictured here. I wanted to shoot from where I was parked, but saw that if I wanted to face the golden aspen trees, I’d have to pick my way carefully below the road—a steep, talus-covered slope. You can see a bit of the loose talus in the lower right corner of this photo.

After doing so, a bit out of breath, I plunked my rear down on the flattest chunk of rock I could find. Looking around, I noticed a flat, grassy meadow between the talus and the trees alongside the Howard Fork. I recognized this as one of the places in the San Juan Mountains where mining companies have piled the tailings from old mines, then topped the pile with soil and native grasses to reclaim the Colorado landscape. Since the grassy areas are level and flat, water running down from the mountains is more likely to percolate through the sod and the tailings—instead of washing heavy metals out of the tailings and into the mountain streams below.

The gate I had just passed, I realized, led to the access road used by the heavy machinery operators doing the reclaiming work. I must give credit to the reclamation efforts, because after 7 years, I noticed that the streams in the San Juan Mountains run clearer than they formerly did.

Having recovered from my scramble, I started taking my photos of the autumn scenery that surrounded me. Continue reading below to see more of the great fall photo ops around Ophir and Ames!

January 3, 2015

Log Cabin and Falls Near Ames, Colorado

Ames, Colorado is located a short distance south of Telluride Mountain Village, a mile west of CO Highway 145, where the Lake Fork and Howard Fork creeks join to become the South Fork of the San Miguel River. It barely qualifies as a village, with only a dozen homes and a small hydroelectric power plant—but as some folks already know, there are several Colorado landscape photo ops located nearby.

#46941 - Autumn aspens surround an old log cabin above Ames, Colorado, in the Uncompahgre National Forest

Log cabin near Ames, Colorado — Click / tap image to view full size

The old power station is the first thing one sees upon arriving in Ames, as well as a house where the plant supervisor lives. Clicking the link above will give you a bird’s-eye view of the power station, which has a blue roof.

The village lies within the Uncompahgre National Forest, and there is an unmarked access road just past the supervisor’s house, on the south side of Ames Road. This two-track access road is visible in the “satellite image” view, but is not shown in the regular view of Google Maps.

I had this all pretty much figured out before I arrived in Ames one day in September, but for good measure I had printed out the Google Earth image and had it in the car within easy reach. In the mountains, it can be tough to find one’s location with only a smartphone. A hiker’s GPS is a better bet, because it does not rely on cell signals. The user typically pre-loads maps into the unit before beginning a journey.

Barely a tenth of a mile uphill from the start of the two-track road, I was pleasantly surprised to see the old log cabin pictured here. The front of its roof is barely visible in the Google Earth image. I had come to Ames in search of the waterfalls on the Lake Fork, so stumbling upon the cabin was an unforeseen bonus.

The leaves filtered the sunlight around the cabin, lending a warm glow to everything in the scene. As you can see, the aspens were only beginning to change color, and had not dropped many of their leaves... but there were a few sprinkled around the trail near the cabin, just enough to brighten things up a bit.

Since I did travel here in search of waterfalls, I soon took to the road again to find them. Finding the log cabin in the aspen grove was a lucky break. I was hoping for a second bit of luck, because the only information guiding me to the waterfall I sought were photos shared by two other Colorado landscape photographers, who had titled their images “Mystic Falls”. Google Earth and the USGS map I consulted were of little help. They showed that there were two waterfalls on the Lake Fork of the San Miguel River, but the falls on the map are unnamed, and vehicular access to the area was, well, “mystic”.

Long after returning home—in fact, just prior to writing this post—I searched online and found this helpful guide from SummitPost.org, which explains how to get to the two falls, named “Upper Ames Falls” and “Lower Ames Falls”. Finally, I knew for certain that the two other photographers had visited the lower falls. I found the upper falls, which is pictured below.

#48830 - Upper Ames Falls on Lake Fork Creek, above Ames, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Upper Ames Falls on Lake Fork Creek, above Ames, Colorado —
Click / tap image to view full size

If you clicked the SummitPost link, you probably noticed the post includes a picture of the log cabin. As I mentioned above, the cabin is 0.1 miles up the two-track access road (which is described as a foot trail by SummitPost, because cars won’t get you up to the gorge through winter snow).

The upper falls are not hard to reach once one has driven past the log cabin. On the way up, I saw a fork in the road, and kept to the left since the USGS map did not show a right fork.

0.5 miles later, I found myself at a gate marked with “Private Property” and “No Vehicles Beyond This Point” signs. Those on foot can go around the gate; the private drive is an access point to a foot trail which leads to the Lizard Head Wilderness.

While investigating this, I could clearly hear the sound of the upper falls. There is no marked trail to guide visitors to the falls, but I only had to follow my ears west a short way to the Lake Fork gorge, picking my way carefully over a log-strewn stand of spruce trees. From the east side of the gorge, one can easily access the top of the falls, but I chose a vantage point a bit downstream, which gave me a nice encompassing view of the double waterfall and the colorful, sun-kissed aspen trees in the background. If you click the photo above and view it in full-screen mode, you can see points of yellow light strewn over the bare rock—thousands of gold and orange aspen leaves, which could be seen fluttering down the gorge whenever the breeze stirred.

I considered the possibility of shooting up from the bottom of the gorge, but it is steep, and I did not have a partner nor climbing ropes nearby. So I decided against it; it also seemed to me that a person at the bottom would see more dead trees and fewer of the nice-looking aspens behind the upper falls. If you read the SummitPost guide for ice climbers, you’ll notice that the writer climbed down the smaller waterfall; the large one on the right does not usually freeze solid, making it dangerous to attempt.

I never did search for the lower “Mystic Falls” during that trip. I may revisit Ames in the future to attempt that, but I will have to look more carefully for the trail described by the SummitPost guide!

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