The High Country

Finding Wildflower Frenzy!


It’s true our Rocky Mountain summer started out hot and dry.  Now in August, the dryness has been moderated by seasonal monsoonal thunderstorms and occasional day long drenches, but temperatures are still higher than normal. Wildflowers in the Rockies can be awesome.  The displays mimic the current climatic conditions, of course.  There are feast and famine years, so typical of the intermountain west.  We can have totally different climatic features east and west of the Continental Divide, as well.  This year, east of the Divide, we had decent snows until spring, when it turned unseasonably hot.  West of the Divide, it has been terribly dry since autumn.  As a result, finding mountain wildflower meadows has been a challenge this summer.  The blooming season began a full month early, and now, by August, it is suddenly green, but still fall-like in the high country.

We had been amazed and excited to find the flowery fields of Loch Lomand (see my previous entry).  As a result, I wanted to hike in the same general area the very next week in early July.  We chose a drainage just one over from the Loch Lomand glacial valley:  the valley of Chinns, Sherwin and Slater Lakes.  Normally, hiking to the highest lake would be a deep snow post-hole experience in early July.  Slater Lake, in particular, generally has its best wildflower show fairly late in August.  Not this year.  The second week of July was peak!

I hiked in with a friend and her son and our Samoyeds.  Our goal was to add packing points to our dogs’ working certificates, to photograph the dogs, and to photograph water and wildflowers.  The “trail” is actually an old water storage road used to build and maintain the diversion dams on the upper Fall River drainage.  4-wheelers use these roads to get in for fishing and car camping, primarily.  As a result, the roads are in terrible shape, only really advisable for high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles.  My little Rav4 made it in a ways.  When I was sure I’d lose my oil pan, we stopped and parked, and hiked on up the road.  We had a couple of miles on loose rock road, until getting to Sherwin Lake, where the trail begins upward to Slater Lake, the true destination of the trip.

The following photos show the details of our journey:

First lake is Chinns Lake, a lake dammed for water diversion. The dry summer demanded a draw-down, and the lake shore is very low. An old log cabin is usually near the shoreline.

Colorado blue columbine at Chinns Lake. Columbine is a relatively early blooming flower. Along with it, late-blooming fireweed was beginning to blossom! What a mixed-up season!

Our four dogs, all outfitted with their well-loaded packs, pose in the scarlet paintbrush found in a meadow near Slater Lake.

Hiking companions above Slater Lake.

Spirit, MJ & Avie walk through an incredible meadow of scarlet paintbrush, tansy asters and small yellow composites.

Happy hikers!

Marsh marigolds……early bloomers, and pink parry primrose grace the cascades that tumble into Slater Lake.

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The Lakes of Loch Lomond

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On the 4th of July I drove up the Fall River Road from the Fall River exit on I-70, just past Idaho Springs with some favorite hiking companions.  The road winds up the river valley and trends right at the junction of Rainbow Road.  We turned left onto Alice Road. . . .  Alice: …”Gold was found here in the 1880’s in the valley below St. Mary’s glacier. Alice was one of many camps on the Fall River that boomed and died just as quickly. About $50,000 was taken out of the mines in the first few months and by 1889, the town and mines closed. There are still ruins of the cabins scattered among the pines and the area is one of the few where there is enough snow to permit year round skiing. There has been a little activity in the area since the late 1890’s, but not much. “ –  At the end of Alice Road, the pavement ends at Stewart Road.  We parked by the pictured trail sign and began our hike 2.3 miles from Loch Lomond.

    • USGS Topo Map of the Loch Lomond area with our route highlighted in red.  It shows we gained 1189’  in elevation throughout the hike, and we hiked a distance of 6.58 miles from the beginning of Stewart Road to our high point at Ohman Lake.
    • With us were two young dogs:  “Mollie” the golden retriever, and “Spirit, my year old Samoyed who was on his first long backcountry hike.  We enjoy our canine companions in areas where dogs are allowed on the Colorado high country trails.  On the Loch Lomond trail, there are no restrictions on dogs and no leash regulations.  Still, we tried to be as courteous as possible with our packing companions.  On his very first hike, “Spirit” was cautious, and fairly well-behaved.  He even posed for pictures among the abundant wildflowers along Stewart Road, and on the Loch Lomond trail, as you see in the attached slide show.
    • The wildflower of the day was the fuscia-colored, yellow-centered, Parry primrose.  It is one of the showiest of Colorado wildflowers, usually growing in small groups in marshy soils along alpine streams.    Obviously,  2012 is a banner year for this species on the Front Range, as they were growing in much larger than “small groups” this season!  We found them in abundance both along Stewart 4-WD road as it reached above treeline and met the north fork of the Fall River.  Another flower in abundance the summer of 2012 is the Colorado Blue Columbine.  This delicate blue and white blossom is a favorite of many, and always a delight to find along the trail.
    • As we came to the shores of Loch Lomond we paused, but followed the lake to its far inlet. Loch Lomond is special because of the stream cascading down the slope from the outlet of Reynolds and Stewart Lakes above.  Not only is the inlet of the lake spectacular, but the meadows there beside the lake are laden with colorful blossoms that only get more colorful as the season advances.  We back-tracked to a trail that led up a side stream flowing into Loch Lomond.  The fairly steep and rocky trail traversed meadows of Scarlet Paintbrush, white American Bistort, and blue Greenleaf Chimingbells – flowers fit for a 4th of July celebration!  The fairly steep trail climbs between Loch Lomond and Reynold’s Lake, the second in the “paternoster” chain of five glacially-carved lakes in the Loch Lomond basin.  These lakes, viewed from the slopes above, are reminiscent of the beads of a rosary, and hence, the name:  Paternoster Lakes.
    • It was a relief to gain the shore of Reynolds Lake.  The lake is a pretty bowl situated at the foot of a ridge off 13,250′ Mt. Bancroft.  Just beyond the lake, the trail crosses a cement dam between Reynolds and Stewart Lakes. Many Colorado high country lakes have been enlarged by man-made dams used to impound water for measured use on the dry eastern Colorado plains. The outflow from the dam is the top of the beautiful waterfall that flows into Loch Lomond.
    • At Stewart Lake, one of my hiking companions decided to stay for a peaceful rest on a rock at the lake’s shore.  We pushed on towards the fourth lake in the chain:  Ohman Lake, hiking among the rocks and cliffs between Stewart and Ohman. As we came upon a full meadow of Colorado blue columbine beside the lake, I suspected the name “Ohman” Lake might have been used because of the exclamation made when coming upon it:  “Oh MAN!”   With those words in mind, we were tempted to make the last steep rock and shelf track to the highest lake, Ice Lake, at 12,000′ and another half mile along the trail.  The highest lake beckoned with its refreshing name, and its enviable position high in a glacial cirque between 13er’s, Mt. Bancroft and James Peak.  But our companion was waiting back at Stewart Lake, and the day was getting late, so we turned and retraced our steps.
    • We re-passed  the glorious scenery in reverse, discovered a butterfly moth (white-lined sphinx moth) feeding at a stand of Parry primrose, and took a last look at beautiful Loch Lomond before taking off down the trail. What a great hike!  Beautiful streams and abundant wildflowers, four lakes along the trail, with a fifth lake left to explore at another time, all made for a wonderful 4th of July. We were so lucky to have enjoyed every aspect of a spectacular and wonderful backcountry experience.
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The Goats of Summer

Mountain Goat Babies (Kids)

I love to go up the Mt. Evans road in summer!  Besides being the highest paved road (to just shy of 14,264 feet in elevation) in the United States, it is what is found on the mountain’s slopes that make it special.  The drive ascends through climate zones much as you would driving north to the arctic.  The destination is the alpine tundra, but getting there you traverse switchbacks from the montane at Echo Lake, to the subalpine and timberline at Mt. Goliath, where bristlecone pines grace the slopes.  Beyond is the land I love:  the high rarified air of the alpine tundra:  land above the trees.  Here rock gardens bloom with tiny vibrant flowers hugging between the rocky landscape.  Also here are well-developed alpine meadows of alpine aven, nodding sky-pilot, green leaf chiming bells and dwarf clovers, all combining to create a colorful scene on the slopes.  Here also is the home of my favorite animal species:  white-tailed ptarmigan, long-tailed and least weasels, pikas, and marmots.  Even more spectacular are the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and Rocky Mountain Goats found going about making their living at elevation, residing on the cliffs, and foraging in the meadows.

In early summer the nannies and ewes stay hidden away with their newborns in nurseries of meadows with protective cliffs above and below.  About mid-June, the ewes and nannies appear with their babies, climbing the slopes along the Mt. Evans roadside and to the summit.  There they seem to create a social scene for their babies to meet the babies of other nannies, and ewes, and to eat the minerals found in the rocky soil, and perhaps the salt spread on the roads early in the season when road-opening and spring storms sometimes come together.  Here they also meet US, and their young become of tolerant of the two-legged gawkers who watch them, photograph, and sometimes interfere with their passage.

Wildlife photography is renowned on Mt. Evans.  Nearly any day of the week photographers toting huge lenses, tripods and cameras search out the alpine wildlife to photograph.  Because of their long lenses, they can hold their distance from the animals, and do not disturb their movements and their habits.  However, I have been dismayed and sometimes annoyed by people with pocket cameras and cell phones trying to get close up photos of the sheep and goats.  Both species are extremely tolerant of humans, but they are not tame pets.  They don’t beg for food, and they prefer respect in the form of the distance humans keep.  They prefer a quiet group who makes no sudden movements, and quiet sounds.  They will continue their normal behaviors and display immensely satisfying antics, if not crowded.  In more remote places on the mountain, I have been able to sit on the ground where the goats and sheep will actually approach me.  Sitting is not as threatening, and the animals’ innate curiosity will often allow a close encounter.  I’ve often hiked to the goats and sheep, and I’ve had wonderful opportunities to observe and photograph the intimate moments of their lives.  If you don’t own a telephoto lens, do be content to include the environmental surroundings of the animal as a highlight to the landscape.  Enjoy the animals with respect, and you will be rewarded with some amazing moments!

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Photo Reconnaissance….Finding Treasures

Did you ever go somewhere to photograph something (in my case bears and coyotes) that someone told you was ALWAYS in a particular spot? I was in my local hardware store the other day, and heard a contractor talking about building a screen for a patron’s dogs…….to keep them from barking so much at the coyotes and bears… ears pricked up! I had to break in……”and where would THAT be????” Of course I had to set out the very next early morning to find said coyotes and bears. Well, it was a beautiful morning after a lot of stormy weather: usually a great time to find wildlife. But, nada. However, I did enjoy the morning, searched out a new (to me) county open space park (Pine Valley Ranch), and drove up through incredible Sphinx Park (at the wrong time of day, though for photos……that is an evening kind of place). The historic Elk Creek valley is full of incredible vintage Rocky Mountain stick architecture, and the whole area SHOULD have been teeming with wildlife. Oh well. I’ll just have to make some repeat visits!

Spires above the South Platte River

South Platte River along S. Platte R. Rd.

Cascades along the Platte

Canada Geese along the S. Platte

Elk Creek Valley……road to Sphinx Park above Pine

The iconic Buck Snort Saloon in Sphinx Park…….I’ve always wanted to stop there! Live music, outdoor eating over the creek, this out-of-the-way spot hops on weekends!

Lovely example of Rocky Mountain Stick Architecture above Sphinx Park along Elk Creek. A vacation rental!

No, NOT the plumbing for the vacation rental! But obviously still in use by someone in the valley…….note the “porthole” window added on.

Wonderful little spot along Elk Creek

Grazing land in the valley

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Hiking In the Clouds

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The summer of 2011 has seen some interesting weather.  The “monsoonal effect” is not an unknown phenomenon in the Colorado Rockies.  During weather patterns when moisture pours up from the southwest, it results in fantastic cloud patterns, building thunderheads, and potentially violent storms, usually in the afternoon hours that can culminate in “gully washers,” hail, and scary cloud-to-ground lightning.  We had had some wild weather the evening before, but the storms did not arrive until late in the day.  We hoped we would be down from the heights before the sky show began once again.  None-the-less, we hiked with an eye towards the sky, and could not help but be amazed and awed by the beautiful building clouds on the skyline.  Our hike that day was to be mostly above treeline, where lightning can be the most dangerous to mountain hikers, but a beautiful boon to the landscape photographer.  Wide-angle lens photography is particularly suited to ridgetop views with incredible thunderhead skyscapes.

We began our hike at Berthoud Pass along U.S. route 40.  We parked at the old unused ski area parking lot, and began our hike across the highway on a trail once part of the Berthoud area ski runs.  The trail switch-backed towards the ridgeline and met up with the Mt. Nystrom trail that runs through the Vasquez Peak Wilderness.  Once above tree line, the views were tremendous.  To the west we looked towards Byers Peak.  To the north were the Indian Peaks.  Eastward we saw the 13,000’ peaks above Berthoud Pass, and to the south was the 14,264’ massif of Mt. Evans. We walked along the old peneplain (flat ground that was raised up during mountain-building ages, showing remains of the older, once lower, flat land).  We entered the Vasquez Wilderness, and moved north towards a tundra pond, then hiked up to the top of the slope, turned east, and traveled to the edge of the peneplain above the Current Creek Basin.  This was our high point of the trail, where we rested and photographed the peaks around us before our descent to the Current Creek valley.

Our descent involved a scramble along the cliffs of the ridge that marked the boundary of the Current Creek Basin.  We found the easiest route downward, and made our way with caution.  Once below the cliffs, we were able to walk the tundra slopes down into the trees below the basin.  Once in the trees we encountered our exit route:  the Berthoud Ditch, a water diversion project owned by the plains city of Thornton.  The aqueduct cut a swath across the mountains just below treeline.  We were happy to reach this point because any lightning danger is less once hikers are in the forest.  Still, the clouds seemed beautifully benign, and the subalpine pond we pointed towards was the perfect place to intersect the aqueduct.  From there our hike involved walking out along the ditch to where it came alongside Highway 40, right by Berthoud Pass, the beginning of our circular hike.

Map used:  Winter Park, Central City, Rollins Pass Trails Illustrated Colorado map # 103

6.22 miles with an elevation gain of 1638’

Hiked  August 4, 2011

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Can It Get Any Better Than This?

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I just spent a wonderful five days photographing, hiking, jeeping, and enjoying the West Elks and the San Juan Mountains between Crested Butte and Lake City, Colorado.  The West Elks had nearly 300% of normal snowfall, so the wildflower show is later than usual, and I believe any time this summer is wonderful for colorful meadows beneath towering peaks in that area.  This year, however, we wanted to jeep to another wildflower mecca on the Alpine (jeeping) Loop:  American Basin.  I’ve been following (and enjoying) Darren Kilgore’s website,  Darren has a lot of experience photographing gorgeous medium format film images all over the state, and especially in the San Juans.  He has a lot of information and shares it generously.  Our biggest concern was timing for the best wildflower displays, especially since the mountains around Crested Butte, just to the north, are so behind in the blooming season this year.   Kilgore says, however, that the best wildflower dates for the San Juans is the 10 days between July 20-30, no matter if a big snow year, or a dry one.  We crossed our fingers and started off for the high country.  I must say that after several years of visiting the West Elks around Crested Butte at different times of the summer, that the area truly is a crowing jewel of wildflower display; however, I am not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as amazing as the high basins of the San Juans.  We hit it right on, jeeping into the high country on July 25th.  (Thanks, Darren!)

In Colorado, there are several life zones of vegetation as one ventures from plains to foothills, to peaks, to mesas, to desert.  Each area has its timing for best wildflower viewing from early spring to mid-summer.  Of all the life zones, the sub-alpine zone buried beneath the heaviest snows of winter, is the last to emerge.  It is also the most vibrant and lush of any of the Colorado vegetation zones.  Perhaps the heavy, wet snows of the southern mountains, and their southern position of more temperate climate and better soils, makes for a vast variety of species, bigger size, and more colorful individuals.  My comment to friends on this trip was that while we have stems of lovely flowers in the central mountains, the more southern areas have the same species, but in bush and tree size!

We didn’t hike in the San Juans as we have in the West Elks, but went by jeep.  Next time I’d love to go into some other basins famous for wildflowers in these mountains!  Our five days were filled with wildflowers, wildlife, sunsets, sunrises and many good times.  I hope to comment on some of these in the next editions of my blog.  Until then, I show here several views of American Basin.  Everywhere we looked there were unbelievable flower displays.  The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River begins high in the snowbanks of American Basin.  Directly up the streambed was a view of streamside chimingbells and brookcress, Parry primrose and other species who live with their feet wet along the streamsides.  Lovely feeder streams were lined with other flowers as were the meadows between.  All had the jagged ridge between Jones Mountain and Cinnamon Mountain, both peaks above 13,000′, rising above the alpine meadows.  What gorgeous scenery!  Next time we will rent the jeep the night before and get an earlier start.  Luckily, we had some stormy weather and cloudscapes to vary our lighting, but definitely this is a morning kind of place.

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Summertime….Is for the High Country

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Since I am a teacher, summers are pretty much my own time.  I do work at summer camp a couple of weeks most summers, so in between work and keeping my photography business intact, (and this year, publishing a book, Foxes at My Window-see my previous post to preview), I hike.   I have hiked avidly in Colorado since 1969 when I was a Hike Master at a camp in Estes Park.  An old knee injury incurred in college is now making it harder to do the high peak summits I used to scale…….now I am more content to do the most exciting wildflower and scenic hiking I can do to add to my photography files.  I have favorites I hike nearly every year……but always, new horizons beckon.

This past week, a friend and I hiked one of the most beautiful areas in Colorado:  Shrine Mountain and the Shrine Ridge Trail.  I have always arrived at Shrine Pass too late for the wildflower displays I’ve seen depicted by other photographers……and this year I’ve been determined to time it right.  Summer out here is about 2-3 weeks behind the normal season.  The mountains received 300+% of normal snowfall in some areas… the snow has been slow to melt.  We found the season was just getting underway at Shrine Pass, but at least I now know where the flower show stands……it promises to be incredible, and I want to return when it peaks.

On the other hand, the snow on the mountains is beautiful, giving the landscape a touch of Switzerland.  By late summer our mountains are usually bare of snow…..these views along with the gorgeous greens of the alpine tundra gave the entire scene the feeling of an out take from The Sound of Music along Shrine Ridge!

We took our Samoyed dogs along……my friend is working on pack hiking and working certificates on her dogs.  I put these titles on many many dogs in the past.  I’m not actively pursuing the titles now, though I should, since my 10 year old Sammie, “Avie” has been on so many hikes in the past 7 years with me, she probably has earned the WSXM title a couple of times over.

The trail was marshy and muddy until we gained the ridge to Shrine Mountain.  I regretted the many extra trails forged through the willows that people made trying to avoid the muddy mess that was the trail itself.  This is so hard on high mountain wet habitats, and the multiple tracks through the marshes will not erase easily.   I know the U.S. Forest Service likely doesn’t have the funds to elevate the trail, or lay boardwalks through the marshes, but it should be a priority considering the number of people who use the area.

Our white dogs were soon two-tone white and red from the red muck we walked through.

Marsh marigolds, globeflower and narcissus anemones were everywhere……these are early wildflowers that love the lush wet of melting snow.

We passed and trekked through some of the snowfields.  In the slideshow photo of the Gore Range behind Shrine Mountain, you will see a group on the foreground snow on their way up the mountain.  Once past the wet and snow, the alpine meadows were a heavenly green, and dotted with alpine wildflowers.  The alpine sunflowers were putting on their best show, and mouse-eared chickweed, and black-headed daisies dotted the meadows.

I love tundra walks!  The trail across Shrine Ridge was beautiful, with views of stunning high peaks in every direction.  The views of the rugged Gore Range were magnificent.  To the northeast we could see the ski slopes of Copper Mountain, and to the south, the views were of the highest peaks in Colorado:  those around Leadville and the Collegiate Range.  To the southwest, the Holy Cross Wilderness was stupendous.  I was excited to have such an incredible view of  Mt. of the Holy Cross with snow still in the couloirs that form the shape of the cross (more-or-less).  Avalanches in years past have rendered the cross a bit less cross-like than when William Henry Jackson first photographed the mountain in the 1800’s.

After many photographs, lunch, and soaking in the scenery on the Ridge, clouds began building and we reluctantly moved back down the trail.  Raindrops did not fall until we were back into the vehicle to return home!  A perfect hike; a perfect day!  And to think I’ll be in another Colorado scenie paradise this weekend:  The mountains around Crested Butte and Lake City!  More to come on that.

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