Red Mountain Greenery

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Iron Mountain from U.S. Hwy. 550.

I was once again driving the San Juan Skyway circle of highways in the high country of southwest Colorado. I pulled over that fine late June morning for a shot of Red Mountain, named for the iron ore that colors its rocks and soil.

So which one is Red Mountain? Trick question! There are three of them up there, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. So I’m not much help. They all look great. Especially with the spruce, fir, and aspen forests on their flanks.

While wandering the highway’s shoulder with my camera my eye was caught by a small, cold mountain stream that was passing underneath the road. Willows and bright green algae, the morning sunlight on it just right.

Mountain stream at U.S. Hwy. 550, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Cold mountain stream and Red Mountain.

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Morning sunshine, reflections, and deep, cold-water shadows.

Photo location: San Juan National Forest south of Ouray, Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

High Country Waterfall: San Juan Mountains

Waterfall in San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Mountain waterfall, San Juan Mountains.

It’s early summer (or late spring) in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. Springtime greenery and wildflowers.

The snowmelt from the uppermost peaks and tundra was in full roar.

Photo location: San Juan National Forest near Silverton, Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

High Country Wildflowers: Mules Ears and Lupine

Mule's Ears and Silvery Lupine, Ouray County, Colorado.

Mule’s Ears and Silvery Lupine in bloom, Ouray County, Colorado.

Late June and I was back in the high country of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado for the first time this summer.

After a stellar day at Lizard Head Pass, I was off the next morning to Ridgway, Ouray, and Durango.

Maybe I got started too early, after photographing the Milky Way during the middle of the night. Because shortly before dawn I pulled over for a nap. Afterward, the sun was rising and I could see all the early summer wildflowers in bloom in nearby pastures.

I had chosen my pre-sunrise nap location well, it seemed.

Photo location: Ouray County, south of Ridgway, Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Rocky Mountain Snowmelt

Dolores River, Colorado springtime runoff

Dolores River, springtime runoff

It’s southwest Colorado and the springtime is advancing. Sometimes not quickly enough for warm weather visitors, and sometimes a bit too warm for residents that are wary of drought. Since none can control the weather, we should appreciate what comes.

What comes, sooner or later, is the greening of the landscape with the deciduous trees and shrubs. The grasses, and the forbs with their wildflowers.

Dolores River, Colorado

Dolores River spring runoff.

And so I drove up along the upper Dolores River valley. From Cortez and the little river town of Dolores itself. Up along the broad flat floodplain ranches and smaller properties. Cottonwood trees leafing out along the river. Aspen stands breaking out tenatiously on the mountain slopes above.

San Juan Mountains, Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

San Juan Mountains, Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

The Dolores River swollen with snow melt from the high mountains. Muddy and cold and doing its job of continuing to sculpt the high mountain landscape.

I drove up to Lizard Head Pass, the divide between the Dolores and the San Miguel River watersheds. It was like going from spring to winter. But it will soon be spring up there, too.

Photo location: southwest Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Upper Dolores River Springtime Green

Dolores River Valley, upstream of Dolores, Colorado.

Dolores River Valley, upstream of Dolores, Colorado.

Driving up the Dolores River valley, from Cortez, Colorado. In springtime. Gorgeous greens on the river floodplain. Grasses and forbs celebrating the Spring season. Cottonwood trees leafing out above.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

A Real April Day at Mesa Verde

April 27, and the Four Corners region was finally getting back to some real springtime weather. As in moisture: rain, snow showers. Good. It had been almost three weeks without precipitation.

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A wet cold April morning at Far View in Mesa Verde National Park.

I had gone up onto Mesa Verde early, hoping for some parting clouds kind of scenic shots before I had to be at work. I pulled over at a choice spot, waiting. But it turned out to be a nice little nap while the rain continued to softly fall on the windshield.

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Wild Turkey gobbler, Mesa Verde.

As I neared work, a wild turkey gobbler (i.e., a male) was strutting his stuff on the shoulder of the road. It’s mating season, so he feels the urge to proclaim to his corner of the world that he’s the top male around here. Living in a national park, he knew that he wasn’t going to get shot, so he had the luxury of parading around only semi nervously. I made a number of (camera) shots of him, but the light was still too poor for more than a few in-motion captures.

Utah Serviceberry, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Utah Serviceberry blossoms and new leaves.

Mesa Verde is covered with innumerable shrubs of Utah Serviceberry, which emerges early in the spring, both the leaves and the white blossoms. I stopped to capture them in the soft overcast light and wetness.

Then some Bitterbrush as well, a tough shrub that is a favorite food of deer.

Bitterbrush - Purshia tridentata, Mesa Verde National Park

Bitterbrush – Purshia tridentata

Then it was to work, cooped up inside the Chapin Mesa Museum building except for a couple of short breaks, and lunch. Outside it was rain, clouds, fog, and even a blizzard-like snow squall for a while.

Navajo Canyon Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Navajo Canyon Overlook, Mesa Verde.

After work, it was my time. I drove out the Mesa Top Loop road to see what was going on with the interesting light from the clearing storm front. First stop was the Navajo Canyon Overlook. Some sunshine through the heavy clouds provided a rich and dramatic view.

Square Tower House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Square Tower House Ruin, Mesa Verde.

Nearby was the Square Tower House Overlook. This Ancestral Puebloan village is not the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, but it is one of the most photogenic. Its tower is the tallest in the park. At that time of the early evening in late April, the sun and shadows contrasted nicely.

Sun Point View of Fewkes Canyon and Cliff Canyon, Mesa Verde.

Sun Point View of Fewkes Canyon and Cliff Canyon, Mesa Verde.

At Sun Point View, I made a panoramic series of shots of two converging canyons, including a distant view of the iconic Cliff Palace. A number of cliff dwellings are visible to the sharp eyed, especially as aided by the interpretive signs.

Mummy House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mummy House, Mesa Verde.

Remains of room blocks on a sandstone shelf below Mummy House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Remains of room blocks on a sandstone shelf below Mummy House.

The last stop was to drive the Cliff Palace Loop and take another several shots down onto the Palace. The crowds were gone for the day, the overcast light was soft.

Cliff Palace panorama, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cliff Palace panorama, Mesa Verde.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

See more of my photography at http://www.NaturalMoment.com

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Lizard Head Pass: Snow Melting

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Sheep Mountain, early evening light, April 10.

I had been avoiding Lizard Head Pass, my favorite area in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, all winter. Why? Because when the snows pile up too far you’re only allowed to drive through. No stopping. The avalanche danger is too high. No place to even pull over for some quick photos unless you care to risk a citation from a Highway Patrol trooper.

But it’s April now. Still early way up there, yes, being just above 10,000 feet. But spring has been moving along. I wanted to see how things were up there.

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Lizard Head Peak, April 10.

So after a day at work, I drove up the Dolores River canyon to Rico (elevation 8,800 feet), looking for some of my favorite National Forest camping locations along the way. Below Rico, things were looking good. Just good enough. Above Rico, forget it. Unless you’re into making snow caves.

At Lizard Head Pass, the avalanche warning signs were down, and many turnouts were clear and dry, allowing for photos. Above Trout Lake, I made an early evening panorama of Sheep Mountain. After scouting around for additional possibilities, I settled in for sunset time warmth on the massive mountain.

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Sheep Mountain in sunset light, April 10.

Photo location: Lizard Head Pass area, San Juan Mountains between Trout Lake and Rico, Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Colorado Fall Colors: Trout Lake

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Trout Lake, Colorado near the peak of the fall colors.

It was late September in the southwestern Colorado Rockies. The San Juan Mountain range, specifically. The fall colors were nearing their peak and there was an early snow at the even higher elevations.

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One of the high peaks above Trout Lake.

I had arrived while the last of the storm was still leaving the area. Even with gray skies and occasional snow showers it looked awesome. It was great to be back to one of my favorite places, at my favorite time of year. Then the skies began to clear.

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Trout Lake closeup.

Photo location: Trout Lake, San Miguel County, Colorado.

© Copyright Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde National Park in February

Mesa Verde National Park has the largest ancient cliff dwelling ruins in the Southwest, most notably Cliff Palace, though there are many other impressive ones as well.

Cortez, Colorado and snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

Cortez, Colorado along the east end of Main Street, with the snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

The park is located in southwest Colorado, about ten miles east of  Cortez, or about 35 miles west of Durango, the two largest towns in the area.

Cortez, Colorado at dusk in winter.

Cortez, Colorado at dusk.

Cortez makes for a nice “base camp” if you’re staying in a motel while you explore the area. In fact, the cliffs that form the North Rim of Mesa Verde also provide a dramatic backdrop to the town. If you’re camping in winter, you’re limited to what few commercial campgrounds are open.

Although the splendid Visitor Center and Research Center is just off of Highway 160, to get all the way to the south end of the park on Chapin Mesa, where the park headquarters, the museum, and the main cliff dwelling ruins are located, is 21 miles, a drive of 45 minutes.  Thus even a quick look at the highlights of the park takes at least a couple hours. And that’s just from the side of the road. In winter, the Wetherill Mesa road is closed, as is the Far View Lodge, and the campground. Also, there are no ranger-led hikes to the main cliff dwellings.

Mancos Valley and La Plata Mountains, from Mesa Verde.

The Mancos Valley and the La Plata Mountains, from Mesa Verde.

After passing the entrance station, some sharp switchbacks take you up onto Mesa Verde’s north end. The first pull-out is the Mancos Valley Overlook. Here you can view not only the valley, with Highway 160 following it east toward Durango, but the high peaks of the distant La Plata mountain range to the northeast.

North Rim of Mesa Verde.

Cortez, Colorado along the east end of Main Street, with the snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

The next stop is to look the other direction: northwest, at the Montezuma Valley Overlook. Montezuma Valley is where Cortez is located, and being on the North Rim of Mesa Verde you can also look all the way to the Abajo Mountains across the state line at Monticello, Utah.

City of Cortez, Colorado, and Abajo Mountains in Utah.

Telephoto shot of the Abajo Mountains in Utah, looking across Cortez and the Montezuma Valley in Colorado.

“Mesa Verde” means “green table” in Spanish. But it’s not like a typical mesa, which is typically quite flat. Mesa Verde is more like a table with two of the legs cut short, making it tilt to the south, toward the sunlight. That makes for more frost free days than you would otherwise experience if you were living up there at 8,000-8,500 feet in elevation. Meaning the Ancestral Puebloan people that grew their crops in the fertile soil got enough precipitation (usually) from being up that high, but warm enough for corn to mature before the first frosts of autumn.

Mesa Verde canyons and ridges, in winter.

Some of the canyons and ridges that form the interior of Mesa Verde.

So overall Mesa Verde, the landform, is more like several smaller mesas along with a lot of parallel canyons that drain from north to south.

Winter is a great time to take in the many variations in this complex of mesas and canyons. When there is snow on the ground, as soon as the latest storm has passed and the sun comes out again, the hillsides that are facing south start melting off almost right away. The slopes that are facing north, however, hold their snow much later, because in winter the sun is at too low of an angle to touch them. And the ground is too cold to melt snow that’s in the shade. Until spring comes.

Different aspects of a slope show where the winter sun shines, or not.

Even slight changes in direction affect whether the winter sun can warm a slope, or not.

Finally, to the south end of the park where the famous cliff dwellings are located. The trail down to Spruce Tree House, near the Archeological Museum, was closed due to a recent rockfall. So it was on to the Mesa Top Loop drive.

Oak Tree House cliff dwelling ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The ruins of Oak Tree House in its sheltering alcove in the canyon wall.

The Cliff Palace Loop is closed in winter, but you can get views of Cliff Palace from across Cliff Canyon on the Mesa Top Loop. From there, overlooks let you get scenic shots of the best ruins.

Fire House Ruin panorama, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The two-level alcoves of Fire House Ruin. Where was the elevator?

The cliff dwelling era was when the Ancestral Puebloans built their adobe, often multi story dwellings and other structures. There are 600 cliff dwellings in the park. Cliff dwellings were built in alcoves: natural recesses in the sandstone cliffs. Alcoves that face south were preferred. Why? Because in winter they get the most sunlight, while in summer, when the sun is at a much higher angle, the alcoves are in the shade of the overhanging cliff in the heat of the day. They also built pueblos and pit houses on the mesa tops. In fact, there are many more of those than their are cliff dwellings. But the overhanging alcoves provide a lot of protection from the weather to the cliff dwellings, so they are much better preserved over the approximately 750 years since the last of the ancient ones migrated on from here.

Cliff Palace cliff dwelling ruins, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cliff Palace, from Camera Point at Sun View.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg