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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.”
Shortly after returning from Glacier National Park in August 2013, I wrote of exploring the Hidden Lake trail with my son for the first time. The trail is a popular route which leads westward over the Continental Divide and offers excellent scenery. My worries about finding good scenery so late in the season were unnecessary, because most of our hiking was done in the higher altitudes of the park. East of the Rockies, the Plains scorched in late-summer heat, but in our little corner of the Universe, it was springtime.
We had just arrived from the Avalanche Creek drainage, a short distance west. It isn’t visible in the photo at right, but the north side of Hidden Lake (right side of photo) cascades down to the valley beyond and merges with Avalanche Creek, not far above Avalanche Falls. An unusually large amount of Pacific moisture is funneled into this corner of Glacier, and the Avalanche Creek trail is lined with giant cedars not seen elsewhere in the park; the soil is boggy and lush with ferns, so the lower part of the trail is raised to protect the fragile undergrowth.
The moist air typically can go only a few more miles eastward before colliding with the cold, high ridge of the Continental Divide. Those hiking down to Hidden Lake can see that ridge, nicknamed the “Dragon’s Tail”, off to the south. To take the imagery a step farther, Reynolds Mountain can be considered the dragon’s “head”, on the left side of the photo.
As late as August, one can still find large patches of snow on the mountains of the Divide. These patches melt at a leisurely pace all summer long, filling Hidden Lake via countless mini-cascades and rivulets. When this photo is printed large enough, one can see no less than half a dozen of these rivulets in the lower half of the picture.
My son and I took a break below one of the larger cascades, a beautiful wall of water fed by a patch of snow on the south side of Clements Mountain. Part of the lower slope of Clements, leading down to the lake, is a deep maroon-colored shale, which shows its color well during a rain.
Though the clouds looked threatening by the time we stopped, as of yet there was but a sprinkle of rain, and my son stretched out on a table of maroon shale alongside the waterfall, glancing up every so often to see if I was done taking photos yet.
He did not have to wait long, and we retraced our steps eastward back over the Divide to the Logan Pass visitor’s center. By the time we crossed the Divide, the clouds had dissipated and rain no longer seemed likely. But the weather of the Continental Divide, as they say, is subject to change without notice.
In past trips to the Montana Rockies, I was not as aware of the potential of light vs. shadow, and usually wouldn’t bother taking scenic photos if there wasn’t a clear blue sky in the picture. Being a bit wiser and a lot older now, I’ve learned to be open to all possibilities. Oftentimes it pays off, as can be seen in the image above. A blue sky can be nice, but it can also be just too ordinary. To make the scene extraordinary, sometimes all one has to do is throw in some Pacific moisture and stir gently!
In my previous blog entry, I told the story about hiking the Grinnell Glacier trail in Glacier National Park with my son, and what we found at the end of the trail. This chapter of the story takes place midway in the trail.
The trail ascends quickly after one passes the sign at the fork by the southwest shore of Lake Josephine. Close to the one-mile point, we reached a point high enough to get the magnificent bird’s-eye view below. Angel Wing and Grinnell Lake are the centerpieces of this scene. Toward the east (left side of photo), one can see the Cataract Creek drainage all the way to the peak of Piegan Mountain.
Toward the west is the Garden Wall on the Continental Divide. The Salamander is a glacier that one can see from the trail. That glacier lies just above Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake, which aren’t visible from lower elevations. But Grinnell Falls below, with its multi-tiered cascades, makes a mighty fine view.
Our last ascent had taken place in 2006, shortly after I purchased my first digital camera. Its built-in zoom lens did not have a view wide enough to take in the entire scene, so I compromised and chose a composition with an interesting foreground, even though it meant cutting out the east half of the lake. I was not really satisfied with the compromise, but at the time I was not acquainted with Photoshop’s image-stitching feature, which I could have used later to create a full panorama in my computer.
Happily, I am better equipped now. But instead of mounting my superwide lens to my camera body, I decided to shoot the scene at a normal focal length, and to capture it in about a dozen “tiled” frames. Each frame was also exposure bracketed—which meant bringing home a boatload of image files, most of which would be discarded—but I was resolved not to limit my options, not after waiting seven years and traveling so far!
More importantly, our timing this year was better; we got to the trailhead early, while there was still a place to park, and by the time we reached our “scenic spot”, the Garden Wall had not yet fallen under shadow, except at the top ridge where a few wisps of cloud began to gather moisture from the west side of the Divide. Timing is nearly everything when shooting outdoors, and I am grateful it played in our favor this year.
The forecast for that evening was for clear skies, and I had toyed with the idea of staying in the high country till after nightfall. I could picture in my mind how the scene might look under moonlight. Alas, my spirit was willing but my body was not so much. After our trek, my lower back was telling me to pack it in for the day. If you’re considering a night trek in Glacier, there are many primitive backcountry campgrounds; unfortunately, none lie close to Grinnell Glacier. Would-be night hikers in the upper Swiftcurrent valley should be experienced trekkers—and should travel in groups, not solo.
After applying finishing touches to my image of Grinnell Lake with Photoshop, I suddenly remembered a photo I had taken in the pre-digital era of the 20th century, on the west shore of Clear Lake, Manitoba. That photo was taken before sunset, but by putting a dark blue filter over my camera lens, I ended up with the image pictured at right, which most viewers think had been captured in the moonlight.
In the 21st century, specialty color filters aren’t needed on digital cameras; one can easily darken the exposure and adjust to a cooler color tone in one’s computer, which is about all I needed to do to get the “twilight” image pictured at left. To make the new image more realistic, I added stars from a different photo.
I hope you enjoy the result as much as I do!
I had hiked the Grinnell Glacier trail in Glacier National Park seven years ago with my son, early in July of 2006, and loved the bird’s-eye views of Grinnell Lake. Despite the steepness of the trail, we were in the mood to follow it all the way to Grinnell Glacier. We had just passed a waterfall directly below the peak of Mount Grinnell when we encountered a park ranger, who said the trail just ahead was closed due to an unstable snow bridge.
We were hungry anyway, so we quickly found the sandwiches in my backpack and took in the scenery while we ate. Back in the Swiftcurrent Valley, as we approached the trailhead where our car was parked, we could see storm clouds were gathering rapidly over the Continental Divide, and we were no longer envious of the others on the trail, who had pushed onward toward Grinnell Glacier.
By the time we returned to our motel room in St. Mary, the mountains of Glacier had become engulfed in lightning and thunder, and they remained so until early evening. Grinnell Glacier was the last place we wanted to be that afternoon, with nothing to shelter us from lightning bolts and freezing rain...
...Fast-forward to early in 2013, when our summer vacation was still in the planning stage. We resolved to finish the trail we started back in 2006 and to find out what lies at the top. At that time, we could not be certain the weather would favor us for the short window of time we’d be in the Swiftcurrent valley, nor did I know how promising the scenery would be. I had been to Swiftcurrent on three prior trips, but never as late as August.
Our day trip at Swiftcurrent Lake started out well, much like our last day there over seven years ago. I observed that the parking lot above Many Glacier Hotel was filling quickly, so starting out early was a good choice. From that spot, Grinnell Glacier is a 12-mile round trip, but we planned to follow our previous strategy of crossing the valley on the tour boat to eliminate the level portion of the hike.
Upon my arrival at the tour boat launch, I found that things aren’t as simple as they were in years gone by. Now, one doesn't just walk up and buy boat tickets; instead, one must make reservations days in advance. My son and I were determined to see our journey through, one way or another, so we immediately switched to plan B and hiked up the valley on the trail which encircles Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. In our eagerness to cover the distance quickly, we crossed over to the northwest shore of Lake Josephine before the second boatload of hikers even came into view.
The remaining three miles of trail is well kept up, but is fairly steep much of the way, and gets a bit technical toward the top where it climbs over a loose rocky moraine. But the weather stayed sunny and fair, and we were rewarded at trail’s end by the view pictured above, looking over Upper Grinnell Lake to the Continental Divide. The little that remains of Grinnell Glacier is covered with a thin blanket of snow in August; as can be seen in the photo, most of the cirque is filled by the bright turquoise lake and the rocky moraine left by the rapidly-retreating glaciers. Clinging to the arête, in the left side of the photo, one can see what little remains of Gem Glacier. Another glacier named The Salamander is seen in the center, and its meltwater spills over the arête in two ribbon-like waterfalls down to Upper Grinnell Lake.
The lake’s east shore is neither sandy beach nor rocky moraine, but a solid orange-gray shale bench which slopes gently and disappears into the icy water. I was pleasantly surprised by the bright turquoise color of Upper Grinnell Lake, because the photos I had seen made it appear less colorful. The angle of the ambient sunlight, it seems, has something to do with the lake’s appearance.
The young people visible on the shore in the center of the photo were students from College of the Holy Cross, who had brought their college pennant with them and were debating whether to leave the pennant on the closest ice floe. They decided instead to take turns jumping into the freezing water and swimming a few strokes to the floe; after “tagging” it, they retreated quickly to the sunny rock to regain their breath and dry out.
My son, himself a hardy college student from Minnesota, joined them and gave it a go for the honor of MSU. After he climbed out, seconds later, and could speak again, he confessed: “That is not what I expected it to be.” Once dried out back and in his usual cheerful mood, he decided: “The Old Man should have tried it.” I had to smile. “The Old Man did try it, in 2007,” I responded. “It was a different lake, of course, and you weren’t there. And I’m glad nobody was there, because you could have heard me yell a mile away.”
In a previous blog entry, I told my tale of finding abundant wildlife along the Hidden Lake trail in Glacier National Park. The trail is popular, and is easily accessed from the visitor’s center just east of Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.
In Glacier, much airborne moisture from the Pacific side is trapped at the Divide. Although storms frequently cross eastward over the mountains and drop moisture into the tributaries of the Missouri, those who travel westward over Logan Pass can see the evidence of the wetter climate even before reaching the McDonald valley below. The wildflowers along the edge of the highway are a different color combination, and upon reaching the valley, one can explore the Trail of the Cedars with its lush undergrowth of ferns.
The morning after my son and I crossed Logan Pass, we hiked to the Grinnell Glacier overlook. It lies 4½ miles straight north of the meadow from which I took the picture shown here, but due to the piles of scree and talus skirting the mountains in the photo, few attempt such a route, opting instead to drive two hours farther to reach the Grinnell trailhead.
From lower elevations, where most of the park’s trailheads are located, it’s nearly impossible to know if a summer morning of blue skies is about to give way to an afternoon storm. The only warning one gets is some friendly-looking, white, puffy wisps of cloud that float benignly over the Divide, usually from the west as seen at left. As often as not, the puffy white clouds are quickly followed by an ominous wall of dark gray; any hikers in the area are greeted by thunder soon enough.
Before continuing our trek to the Hidden Lake overlook, I paused to capture several dozen images of the scene; the alpine wildflowers seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. It is one of those “you gotta go there” parts of the world, and my intent was to bring a piece of the Divide back down with me to share — if such a thing can be done at all by mortal men. I could write another whole blog entry on the subject of Glacier National Park’s wildflowers, but to illustrate the point I made above, you will notice the vivid, nearly fuchsia-colored hues of the rosy paintbrush in the meadow.
At the beginning of August 2013, I met my son at a small airfield outside of Kalispell, Montana, for Glacier National Park was our summer vacation destination. It had been seven years since our last visit, and we were looking forward to revisiting familiar places and finding new ones. But we brought the rain with us, as they say. It was too wet to attempt any trails in Glacier the following day, but we did not mind. It gave us a chance to catch up on things, and to get our “game plan” together.
Keeping in mind that the plans of outdoorsmen and photographers are subject to change without notice, we reached Logan Pass the afternoon of the following day, August 3, and explored the Hidden Lake trail which leads travelers westward over the Continental Divide and offers excellent scenery. It was the first time we had come to Montana late enough in the summer to explore the pass; on every prior trip, we’d been told the trail was closed because it was still snowed over.
Parking space at Logan Pass is something one must take into account if one plans a trip to Glacier, since the park gets more visitors now than it did at the turn of the century. During the summer months, we discovered, the chances of getting a parking spot are better if one arrives at the trailhead by 9 am.
In spite of our late arrival, we were fortunate and swooped into a parking spot just as its previous occupant was leaving the Logan Pass visitor’s center. I was grateful, because the Hidden Lake trail turned out to be as picturesque as I imagined. With the recent retreat of the snow, it was like springtime in August. Never mind that the autumn snows would arrive in a matter of weeks: it was good to be there with my son that day.
We had already spotted some mountain goats before our hike; in fact, a small herd was causing a small traffic jam below Logan Pass. On the first mile of the trail, we saw individual goats here and there, taking advantage of the abundant greenery covering the meadows which span the Continental Divide.
Just over a mile in, we reached a wooded grotto composed of huge red boulders which had tumbled off the unstable south face of nearby Clements Mountain. Several hikers were peering through the rocks, which was enough reason for us to put the hike on hold to investigate.
We were rewarded by the touching scene I captured above, of a nanny goat with her kid. I had only enough time to take a few shots, and it was only after returning home and reviewing my photos that I realized how fortunate my timing at the grotto was.
During the hike, though, I was unaware of my good fortune, and reminded my son of the herd of mountain goats we had seen the previous year at Mount Evans, Colorado. Due to the excellent view Mount Evans offers, it was easy to capture great images of the animals. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much—and went so far as to say that, since we’d seen so many extraordinary views of mountain goats in 2012, I wouldn’t bother taking goat pictures at Glacier unless they were just as extraordinary.
The nanny goat was still within earshot, and apparently overheard my comment. In the few days which followed, I think, she must have repeated it to every other nanny, buck, and billy on the pass. I intended to return to the same trail three days later, but I did not say so out loud.
I returned to Logan Pass on the 6th, with the intention of following the Hidden Lake trail until it dead-ends at a cliff, where the waters of the lake plunge down to Hidden Creek far below. But you will recall that I started this blog by stating that plans are subject to change without notice.
I never made it to the end of the trail that afternoon, for I was intercepted along the path by every mountain goat in the neighborhood. The Universe, it seems, has a sense of humor; the goats of Montana apparently had resolved not to be outdone by the goats of Colorado, and posed for me in every possible scenic spot in the meadow! Wildflowers filled the foreground of each scene, and the mountains of the Continental Divide made for a great backdrop. All I needed to do was cooperate and press the shutter release on my camera.
As I mentioned, I hadn’t told a living creature of my plans to return. I am not aware mountain goats can understand English, much less read our minds; but after such a day, you gotta wonder.
The road construction crews at Glacier had imposed a 9 pm deadline for travelers to get down from Logan Pass before closing the pass for the night. Though I had to forsake my plan of getting to the end of the trail, I beat the 9 pm deadline with five minutes to spare. It would be over-dramatizing to say I was a changed man, but I did learn a valuable lesson: Always be open to possibilities!
Late in July of 2012, my son and I traveled to Mount Evans, a 14,264-foot peak located about 1½ hours west of Denver. The route is paved the entire way, ending just short of the summit, and happens to be the highest paved road in North America.
Though we did get to the summit, the highlight of our morning’s journey occurred on the way up, when we spotted a small herd of mountain goats right near the highway, at about 13,600 feet.
I pulled off the highway as far as I could—at that elevation, the pavement is narrow and shoulderless— grabbed my camera, and scrambled down the rock-strewn slope with my son. Thinking back upon it, as dizzy as I felt in the thinner air, I was fortunate not to have tripped over my own feet, to say nothing of all the rocks!
It turned out that there was no need to rush. We soon realized the mountain goats had chosen that spot to soak up the bright morning sun, and weren’t in the mood to move away just because some two-legged creatures wanted a closer look at them.
As you can see in these images, the goats were the picture of contentment; in fact, their expressions were amazingly humanlike when compared to animals I had seen on previous trips to the northern Rockies.
The goat herd was not large, but it did have many youngsters. There was a stiff chill breeze blowing down the mountainside, and four of the kids decided to tough it out atop a large rock by huddling together as close as possible.
Nearby, a yearling paced to and fro at the base of another rock while working up the nerve required to leap up to join a couple of kids. As the yearling placed its small hooves against the rock, one of the kids was peering down at it. If not for the wind, I’ve no doubt I would have heard it telling the yearling to circle uphill around the rock, to access it from above as the kids had done. “Jumping’s too much work, you dummy! Go around!” Humiliated, the yearling found its courage and easily made the leap to the top of the rock.
Meanwhile, the other kids in the herd rested with the grownups on the patchy tundra, in a small sunny space with a nice view of Mt. Bierstadt and the Abyss Lake drainage. Another kid napped near a less-exposed rocky niche as my camera clicked softly but steadily, capturing the scene.
While we avoided making sudden movements toward the herd, the experience was fun because the goats are used to gawkers and don’t mind being watched. That doesn’t diminish the respect I have for those who specialize in capturing wildlife images. We got lucky on that morning late in July. Good wildlife shots normally require a thorough knowledge of the animals and the paths they travel... and even more patience.
We did not take the time to visit the Echo Lake trail, down lower on the mountain, but it is also a great place to hike. We did, however, continue to the summit trailhead parking lot and climbed up the short trail to the peak. I’m glad we did... one can see miles and miles of the Colorado landscape when the weather is decent, from the Great Plains toward the east to Guanella Pass looking west.
In the summer of 2008, I decided to visit some of the “hidden” lakes of southwestern Montana. My definition of a “hidden” mountain lake is one that is not a typical summer destination. The lakes I’ve visited can be accessed via Forest Service trailheads and “easy” to “moderate” hikes, but can’t be seen from any highway.
Nestled deep in Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains are many such lakes, some of which are easily reached from the South Boulder River access road in the Beaverhead–Deerlodge National Forest.
To reach the USFS access road, one needs to get onto Montana Hwy. 359, which can be accessed from the north via the Interstate 90 exit at Cardwell, or from the south via US 287 near Harrison. The South Boulder road exits MT 359 on the west, and makes a lot of twists and turns past farms and ranches before following the river southwest into a picturesque canyon. During the summer, brightly colored wildflowers are plentiful in the open sunny slopes of the canyon, as one can see in the picture shown here.
The lower South Boulder canyon is a nice drive in itself, featuring a wide variety of scenery. About halfway in is a village of cabins straddling Park Creek, called “Mammoth”. Continuing on to the southwest, on the left side of the road, is a trailhead which provides hiking access south toward Louise Lake.
A half mile past the Louise Lake trailhead, the main road ends at a fork. The right fork is a two-track road, which is best navigated by high-clearance 4WD vehicles, or better yet, ATVs; it hasn’t been maintained by the Forest Service since the mining and logging days of the 20th century. About 18.7 miles from MT 359, the two-track road (if it can still be called a road) dead-ends at a small campsite, an ancient rusty piece of mining equipment, and the Trail #167 trailhead.
From this trailhead, there is relatively easy access to Sailor Lake, Globe Lake, and Brannan Lakes. Although (as of 2009) the trailhead sign gives the distance to Brannan “Lake”, Google Maps clearly shows Brannan Lakes as a higher chain of shallow lakes. At the outlet of the lowest Brannan Lake, the South Boulder splashes merrily down a rocky cascading slope into Sailor Lake.
Sailor Lake is the first stop on Trail #167, a pleasant uphill hike of about half a mile. When I followed this route and arrived at Sailor Lake, I hiked around to the inlet of the lake on the far shore. The steep slope where the cascade splashes into Sailor Lake has a great south view of the Lake and the surrounding peaks of the Tobacco Root Mountains. As nice a spot as this is, I was a little surprised I saw only a few other visitors. Most of the people I had seen to this point were anglers parked along the South Boulder River a few miles down the canyon, where it’s a swiftly-flowing mountain creek. Up at the outlet of Sailor Lake, the South Boulder is little more than a babbling brook.
Next, I retraced my steps along the shoreline and followed the last quarter mile of the trail to Globe Lake. Globe Lake is a little smaller than Sailor Lake, but otherwise similar; another beautiful and secluded spot. Walking around the lake, I noticed it is well stocked with brook trout.
I was pleased with the scenic images I’d captured, enough so to make a second visit the following summer of 2009, and to hike up the extra half-mile to explore the Brannan Lakes. Nestled in a cirque beneath an un-named peak, these ponds are the essence of what “getting away from it all” means in Montana. The south rim of the cirque offers grander view of Sailor Lake and the South Boulder River canyon far beyond—a better panoramic view than I could get from the bottom of the cascade on my previous visit.
In early summer, the Brannan Lakes are filled with snowmelt from the mountains towering above, and the cirque is lush, green, and dotted with wildflowers. The only disadvantage of visiting in that season is that the moist, boggy slopes are perfect mosquito breeding grounds... so campers are more likely to be eaten by insects than by bears, unless one’s tent has mosquito netting. Sometimes you gotta take the bad with the good!
Another word of caution: At the time I lived in Montana, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest had been hit hard by the mountain pine beetle. Evergreen trees that have been killed by the bark-burrowing insects have green needles during an infestation, and typically into the following winter. But when the snow melts and the forest comes out of dormancy, the dry foliage suddenly turns reddish-brown and becomes the ideal fuel for forest fires.
Some folks don’t mind the aesthetics of reddish foliage, but I think that color looks nicer on the autumn leaves of scrub oak. But this is the 21st century, and coloring is a minor issue. I usually use Photoshop to change reddish evergreen needles back to a more lively green color.
The major issue for hikers, anglers, and campers is one of safety. The South Boulder canyon may now be at the end stage of the pine beetle infestation, but there are now many standing beetle-killed trees, which can fall without warning onto the two-track road or the hiking trail. Motorists may need to bring a chain saw, and hiking with at least one partner is prudent. In rare cases, the Forest Service will post tree-fall warning signs at trailheads—but do yourself a favor, and use your own eyes and ears when hiking through areas of dead timber!
Soon after moving to central Florida, I noticed that summer thunderstorms pop up nearly every afternoon, only to mellow out toward the end of the day when the sun’s energy subsides and the air currents become calmer.
On one such day late in May, the weather in northwestern Orange County was fair, but I could see plenty of action in the northern skies as the day wore on. I came home, had supper, and stretched out on the couch for a while till close to sundown, when I noticed a peach-colored glow through my picture window. Grabbing my camera and quickly checking its settings, I rushed outside to see, literally, what was up.
The weather system I noticed hours earlier had moved east—out toward Daytona Beach or beyond, from what I could tell—and the last few rays of sunlight set the clouds ablaze in brilliant colors. This was one of those “right place at the right time” opportunities, and the image tones needed little adjustment. What you see here is pretty much what I saw.
The second image in this post was taken a few years earlier, in the summer of 2008, during a trip to Madison County, Montana. On that photo safari, I had a rare opportunity to explore restricted-access private and Forest Service lands on Fan Mountain, just west of Big Sky. It was great fun and I captured many nice images. I could see a thunderstorm gathering, but it was way off to the southeast, beyond Lone Mountain and Big Sky, and looked to be heading towards Yellowstone. So I continued exploring the area until close to sunset. The storm receded into the distance, and was soon forgotten.
Toward evening the slopes of Fan Mountain began to fade into shadow. I figured I was done playing for that day, and headed toward Big Sky, about a half hour to the east. The sun had not quite set by the time the road opened into the meadows of the Gallatin Canyon, but everything below the horizon was nearly dark.
Having gotten stiff and thirsty, I pulled off the road into the parking lot of a Big Sky convenience store, and stretched my legs. Just south of the gas station, on US Hwy. 191, is a local landmark called Soldier’s Chapel, a place with tall evergreen trees along its fenceline. A peach-colored glow caused me to look up over the trees. The remnants of the storm I had spotted earlier were now right above my head, brightly lit by the setting sun, and the contrasts of color, light, and shadow were incredible!
The next half-minute was a blur, but I’m certain I set a personal speed record for unpacking my camera, mounting it to its tripod, and getting back to my vantage point near Soldier’s Chapel. Other travelers milled about in the parking lot behind the gas station—all with faces turned skyward, all just as awestruck as I was.
While I like both these photos, there was something special about those few minutes shared with travelers years ago, in a Big Sky parking lot. For me, it was a reminder of my good fortune to have been born and raised in the USA. And therefore—as night fell and I approached my car to leave—I looked up one more time, and said “Thank you”.
The Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado lies in the White River National Forest, south of the ski towns of Snowmass and Aspen, and its star attraction is a pair of peaks named the Maroon Bells. The Bells form a photogenic backdrop when viewed westward from nearby Maroon Lake. This, in addition to the easy access to the wilderness, makes the Maroon Bells the most-photographed mountains in Colorado.
Images of the Bells towering 4400 feet over the lake have been captured by millions of visitors. Over 100,000 visitors travel to the Maroon Lake trailhead, about 13 miles south of Aspen, every year. Aspen is on Colorado Highway 84, and the most direct route is via Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs. Those traveling west to Aspen via CO 84 get there by crossing Independence Pass, which is one of the many scenic byways in the state.
Arriving at Aspen early one summer afternoon, I discovered the parking lot at the lake had filled up hours earlier, but that one could purchase a shuttle bus ticket at Aspen Highlands, 8 miles north of the trailhead. The bus ride was slow, bumpy, and hot, but the destination is well worth it.
Once there, I saw what I had guessed at before arriving: The best sunlight for capturing an image of the Maroon Bells would be in the early morning. It is not rocket science; if one does an online search for photos of the Bells, the most striking images are either “moody” settings with the peaks surrounded by cloud formations, or they are captured on clear mornings when the peaks are bathed in sunlight from the east.
I followed a popular trail on the north side of the lake, which crosses into the wilderness and leads to Crater Lake. Whenever I reached an open space, I gazed around the valley to get a feel for the place, and wondered what uniqueness I could lend to an image of a scene which had been captured masterfully by many folks already.
The only sure thing was that no competition existed between myself and the other travelers in whose footsteps I was following. Artists capture beauty as seen through their eyes, and sharing it with others is its own reward. Competition springs from a “survival of the fittest” instinct, and has no place in the creative process.
My intention was to revisit the lake the following day, but I was unsure what the next day would reveal. I was only certain that I would need to awaken at dark o’clock to arrive at Maroon Lake when I needed to.
The following morning’s drive from Snowmass Village through Aspen was dark enough, but the glow in the eastern sky brightened swiftly as I made my way south past Aspen Highlands to Maroon Lake.
This time, the drive was quiet, peaceful, and cool. By then I had learned how things work in Colorado’s summer recreation areas: The early bird gets the parking spot. And no matter how early one arrives, one will find a few parked cars at the lot, belonging to earlier birds.
I had arrived on time, as I had hoped, but not too early. The sun was beginning to rise in the east and was already setting Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak aglow in the distance, as I set up my camera alongside a lake still in the shadow of Pyramid Peak.
There were but a few other hikers near Maroon Lake... nothing like the throngs of people I had seen the day before. There were also some other two-legged creatures nearby: Canada geese, making the most of an opportunity to poke around in the shallows before a thousand other folks like me would appear.
That is how Divine Providence helped me to capture a view of Maroon Lake I consider to be unique. There are many images of the surrounding valley filled with wildflowers, and even more images of happy sunburned vacationers by the shore of the lake, captured by proud parents or grandparents. But good pictures of critters visiting Maroon Lake can’t be set up. One must be lucky enough to cross paths with them.
Many mountain formations in this corner of Colorado are composed of reddish mudstone, which is how the Bells got their name. Their natural color is overpowered by the warm glow of sunlight in the image I captured above, but a close look at the lake bottom reveals it is covered with small gravelly pieces of the same maroon-colored rock.
Above the Maroon Lake trailhead near the parking lot and bus stop, the spires of Sievers Mountain South rise 3000 feet above the valley floor Sievers Mountain is part of the Elk Range, which for the most part is made of the same red rock as the Maroon Bells. I took a photo of Sievers Mountain about an hour after my arrival. By that time, the sun was shining on the valley, and though it still had a warm tinge, one can better see the magnificent reddish tones of the Elk Mountains.
On my second visit to the Maroon Bells–Snowmass National Wilderness Area, I arrived even earlier, and captured images entirely different than the ones pictured here. Click/tap here to read the next chapter of the story...
In another blog entry, I wrote of my autumn trip via US Highway 550 to Ouray, Colorado. The town extends to the south end of the narrow box canyon in which it lies. At that point, the highway and the Uncompahgre River enter the canyon and continue on to Ouray and Ridgway.
The first attraction for southward travelers is Bear Creek Falls, not quite three miles south of Ouray. On the west side of the highway, the waters of Bear Creek fling themselves over a ledge and into a narrow, deep chasm with a turquoise-colored pool at the bottom.
There are plenty of vantage points from which one can admire the falls. I spoke with one such admirer, who informed me that if I returned to the gorge in early summer, the waterfall would be more impressive to look at. That seemed to make sense, but something compelled me to stay a while and capture a series of images anyway. Waterfalls—like people—each have a unique character. Just as you and I can experience different moods, a waterfall’s “personality” changes with every season... and with every change in ambient lighting.
After writing my previous blog entry, I was sifting through my folder of images of Bear Creek Falls and came across the one I have posted at left. I realized what compelled me to capture the images and to hang on to them all these years. I recall that when I visited the falls, the water appeared to flow in an unbroken ribbon... but my camera had captured an image of the the water in 1/320 second. Seen in this brief slice of time, the falls are more three-dimensional. The water forms a delicate arched shape, which repeats itself until it meets the pool.
Farther up the highway, the Uncompahgre River cuts through Poughkeepsie Gulch before crossing beneath the road and splashing its way down Uncompahgre Gorge. The road to Engineer Pass follows Poughkeepsie Gulch eastward at a fairly steep ascent, but I figured there was little risk in navigating it with my SUV, and decided to give it a try.
I did not make it far up the Engineer Pass road before deciding to turn back and leave the route for travelers equipped with Jeep Wranglers or ATVs. Whenever a USGS or Forest Service map designates a route as a “Jeep” trail, they really mean you’ll do better with an ATV. The Forest Service means well, of course. Most of the backcountry routes in the San Juans were carved out of the mountains by 19th century miners. The trails are cleared of fallen logs and boulders every spring. Were it not for that, the routes would soon disappear. The mountains quickly reclaim what is theirs.
It was just as well, as things turned out; by the time I made it down to Hwy. 550, I had better light for taking pictures. The afternoon sun was now backlighting the aspen trees growing alongside the Uncompahgre River, which splashed merrily over the rocks on its way to merge with Red Mountain Creek at the bottom of the gorge.
I chose a faster shutter speed (1/500 second) to capture the image of the river at right. Viewed as a large print, the glowing colors of the aspens make a great backdrop for the waterfall, whose droplets appear to hover over the cascade, frozen in place. One doesn’t have to be a photographer to see that this waterfall, only a few miles away from Bear Creek, exhibits a completely different “personality”.
The old mining town of Crystal, Colorado is fairly well known as a tourist destination to people familiar with Glenwood Springs on Interstate 70, and with the smaller towns southward along State Highway 133, like Marble and Crested Butte. Despite its high elevation (nearly 9000 feet), Crystal boasted 400 residents 150 years ago.
Today, only a handful of old-timers call it home in the summer months, and the forces of nature have covered over what remains of 19th century buildings and mining structures. One outstanding exception is the Crystal Mill, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It survives because of the dedicated volunteers who do repair work on the structure every summer.
The mill is perched above a bend on the aptly-named Crystal River, with Crystal Peak serving as a scenic backdrop. The smaller shed extending from the larger log wall building was, actually, not a mill. Instead, it housed a horizontal waterwheel coupled to an air compressor; the compressed air powered machinery in the nearby silver mines.
Though the building itself appears to have changed little since the mining days, the surrounding neighborhood has been transformed by Time from an unsightly collection of wooden buildings, flumes, and mining contraptions into a tranquil mountain scene flanked by aspen trees. The Crystal Mill is undoubtedly one of the scenic jewels in the Colorado Rockies—but getting there can be tricky if one is not prepared.
The mill can easily be viewed from Gunnison County Road 3. CR3 is listed clearly on the Colorado road atlas as well as online maps, but road maintenance consists of clearing fallen trees and rock slides in the spring. Gunnison County road graders don’t touch it. It may have been appropriate to call CR3 a “road” a hundred years ago, when a road was something one usually traversed by horse and cart. You can probably already see where this is leading to...
The closest town of any size is Marble, a few miles northwest of Crystal as the crow flies. I observed that Marble offered ATV rentals and jeep tours, but I have driven my SUV on rough mountain roads many a time, only avoiding routes designated “4WD” on USGS maps or Forest Service maps (I quickly learned that “4WD” means “This really isn’t a road, it’s just an ATV trail. Any vehicles larger than an ATV will get beat up”).
Following the Crystal River upstream on CR3, I soon found out the folks who draw the maps forgot to designate this road as “4WD”. The entire 4-mile route is one lane wide, if that; several stretches are too narrow for one car to pull over enough to let an oncoming vehicle pass. Instead, one of the two vehicles must back up to a wider spot. I got pretty good at driving in reverse, before I arrived. Do not take your shiny new Hummer or Jeep to Crystal, unless you also intend to bring a chain saw and whack off every tree limb that’s long enough to scratch your paint.
Amusingly, my brother Mike endured nearly an identical experience some months later, during the autumn color season. Despite the harrowing drive, we both agreed the destination is well worth the trip. During my visit, I sat on one of the large rocks pictured at the left side of the color photo, and slowly munched on a sandwich, taking in the pleasant sights and sounds. The noise of mineworkers and machinery washed down the Crystal River decades ago. Only the river speaks now, accompanied by songbirds.
The better images I have seen of the Crystal Mill appear to have been taken in early summer—when the aspens have just leafed out at the 9000 foot elevation—or at the peak of the fall color season. The light is most favorable in the early morning, when the sun rises enough to clear the high ridge on the east side of CR3. However, rules are made to be broken, and the sharply defined light of late morning served me well when I captured the image above.
One enthusiastic traveler told me I could continue on Forest Service Road 417 south to Schofield Pass. That trail offers excellent views of Emerald Lake and the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness. The person who shared this information was, perhaps, not aware of the route’s history: After the deaths of a number of motorists attempting to descend from Schofield to the Devil’s Punchbowl, someone finally decided it was a good idea to post a conspicuous warning sign on the most dangerous section. So if I do head to Schofield Pass at some future time, I’ll be riding an ATV in low gear!