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, http://www.mycolorado.org. 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.