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

Colorado Winter Beauty

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Upper Dolores River, Colorado.

January: first time back up into the San Juan Mountains since October. I wanted to see them in thick snow, not just the early snows.

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Upper Dolores River, in winter glory.

And when I got there, I wondered why I’d waited so long. It was a gorgeous day in between the storms. The trouble was, with all the snow, the highway crews couldn’t push it off fast enough. So few places to pull over and photograph.

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So I took what I could get. And they were lovely opportunities.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Perfect End to High Country Autumn

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October 21st. Lizard Head Pass, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. I had gotten up during the night and felt the wet snow falling on my head in the dark. I went back to bed eager to see what it would look like in the morning.

This was it: the first snowfall of the season on the Pass. Until now it had stayed high for two weeks, up above and generally at treeline/timberline. No longer. The morning weather forecast on the radio called for the snow level dropping further, down to street level in Telluride, at 8,750 feet. As dawn came, there was an inch of accumulation on the ground where I was. Nothing much visible through the falling snow than the highway. So I decided to head down the mountain a few miles to Trout Lake.

Lone cottonwood, Trout Lake, Colorado.

Lone cottonwood, Trout Lake, Colorado.

There I was below the clouds, the lake mirroring the snow dusted landscape. And the lone cottonwood tree on the shore. After having photographed it two weeks ago in fall colors, it was already feeling like an old friend. A soon-to-be-bare old friend. Because this was it: the first snow, the final signal to the deciduous trees that the season would linger no longer. Time to drop the golden leaves and wrap it up for the winter. I noticed that a leaf was dropping each second, more or less. That would make 60 leaves per minute (LPM). At that rate, one only had to know how many leaves were still on the tree, and if the wind didn’t come up, you would know when the last few would fall. And that I had been alone in the wilds for too long. It happens.

It wasn’t that cold. Freezing, sure. But no wind to amplify the chill. I was alone, enjoying the peacefulness. The colors of the tree, and some of its leaves blown up against the shore of the lake. The golden grasses at water’s edge. By contrast, the background meadows and forests and mountains, snow covered, looked almost black and white, juxtaposed in the same scene. Beautiful.

Trout Lake, first snowfall of the season. Black and white version.

Trout Lake, first snowfall of the season. Black and white version.

I swung my camera to the far shore, which had no colorful trees or grasses to pop out. The forest lines, the lakeshore meadows, a cabin. The reflection upon the lake. Beautiful.

Then to some cottonwood leaves washed up against the shore.

Cottonwood leaves on the shore, Trout Lake.

Cottonwood leaves on the shore, Trout Lake.

The clouds started to slowly. seductively. part across the summit of Sheep Mountain high above. They toyed with me: will they or won’t they? A grand opening in the sky, reflected upon the lake?

Sheep Mountain in fog.

Sheep Mountain in clouds…more or less by the moment.

It didn’t seem to be happening. I decided to move further along the lake shore road. The fog was getting thicker. Well, fine, then. I made another photograph of the mountain barely, barely appearing above and also in the reflection of the lake.

Trout Lake in the fog, as the snow moved back in.

Trout Lake in the fog, as the snow moved back in.

At the upper end of the lake I was captivated by the forest shoreline, the snow-frosted trees. And it was then that I had my answer as to whether the fog would lift soon. Because it started snowing again.

Upper Trout Lake shoreline forest edge and meadow.

Upper Trout Lake shoreline forest edge and meadow.

So I contented myself with less panoramic scenery. The exquisite details along the ground. Like sticks above the water, snow coated.

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Like marsh grasses reflected on the water as they lost their color for the winter.

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The lake road turned into a National Forest road. It rose so gradually that it didn’t seem like it was taking me back up to Lizard Head Pass. But it did.

Historic Trout Lake railroad trestle.

Historic Trout Lake railroad trestle in the snowfall.

And there I closed a kind of autumn emotional circle by photographing the sheep loading pens from several weeks ago. At the beginning of this high country autumn experience.

Sheep loading pens below Sheep Mountain.

Sheep loading pens below Sheep Mountain.

One last look at the Pass before heading down the Dolores River valley.

Highway 124 at Lizard Head Pass.

Highway 124 at Lizard Head Pass.

Photo location: San Miguel and Dolores Counties, Colorado.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

 

 

 

Above Ridgway, Colorado with the Fall Colors

It had been a full weekend (in mid week) in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, chasing the fall colors, incredibly accented by the first snows up high. It was the afternoon of the last day before returning home, to sleep in my own bed before going back to work.

Sensibility urged me to point the front wheels of the truck toward home. To get there in late afternoon, cook a nice supper, relax through the evening and then surrender my body onto the mattress for a good night’s sleep.

My gut urged me in the opposite direction. This is your last great day of an awesome fall foliage season; next week will probably be too late! While you’ve made some delicious photos already…what else is out there? Out there for the experiencing in the next several hours before dark?

Talk about tempting. Comfort versus more adventure, photography style, in one of the most beautiful places on Earth in the prime season of the year.

On the road up to Owl Creek Pass, Uncompahgre National Forest.

On the road up to Owl Creek Pass, Uncompahgre National Forest.

Well, of course I pointed the truck wheels toward another afternoon of adventure. Did you have any doubt? If you did, I’m glad you weren’t riding shotgun in my truck, because I was wishy-washy enough all by myself.

So let’s do this. I had been aching to return to the mountains northeast of Ridgway, so that’s where I went. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I felt sheepish that I’d even considered heading home reasonably early.

The clouds lifted on the way up to Owl Creek Pass.

The clouds lifted on the way up to Owl Creek Pass.

Up to Owl Creek Pass. What an area. Incredible forests, and stony crags hovering over them all from a spiny backbone like ridge.

Owl Creek Pass road aspen colors.

Owl Creek Pass road aspen colors.

The soft light from the overcast skies was an advantage. Either that, or I’m just so used to adjusting my tactics to the conditions. I loved the light, the calmness of the aspen forests. It was a very still, breezeless afternoon.

Aspen forest fall colors, Owl Pass Road, Colorado.

Aspen forest fall colors, Owl Pass Road, Colorado.

I went down the other side from the Pass. Some rain. Some hail. Sunshine. Even some thunder booming in the distance. Dang, I thought, this day has just about all the weather in one.

Fallen aspen leaves.

Fallen aspen leaves, sparkled by October rain.

The light rain offered another gift: raindrops on fallen aspen leaves, for closeup photos.

Aspen colors and spruce-fir forests, near Silver Jack Reservoir.

Aspen colors and spruce-fir forests, near Silver Jack Reservoir.

Finally I came out to Highway 550 about  20 miles east of Montrose. Still plenty of afternoon light left. But a long way left to go. West into Montrose, then back south to Ridgway, quite a big loop drive.

At the overlook of the mountain peaks south of Ridgway, I stopped for a few more shots. Then onto Last Dollar Road for an alternate way back down to Sawpit.

Scenic fall colors panorama above Ridgway, Colorado.

Scenic fall colors panorama above Ridgway, Colorado.

Finally I was back outside Telluride again. I was actually relieved that the light was too flat at some of the better overlooks to keep me from pulling over. I wanted to keep going.

Late afternoon autumn colors along the Last Dollar Road.

Late afternoon autumn colors along the Last Dollar Road.

Not long thereafter I was back at Trout Lake. I wanted to keep going. No, stop. Just get out and relish this scene one more time.

Trout Lake at dusk in early October.

Trout Lake at dusk in early October.

I just had one more photographic obstacle to cross before it was dark. It was only a few miles away, back up at Lizard Head Pass. And I almost missed it.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Fall Colors Peak – And First Snow, Colorado

My return to the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado crossed paths with a storm front sliding through the region. Too strong of a front and the aspens stands would quickly drop their brilliant leaves. Except for those early stands that had already turned and shed theirs. So I was interested in seeing what was going to happen.

At the tiny mountain hamlet of Rico I paused for a shot from town even though it was heavily overcast. Who knows what would happen the next day? Get what you can at the time and sort it out later, is my way of working.

Rico, Colorado and peak aspen fall colors.

Rico, Colorado convenience store and peak aspen fall colors.

At Lizard Head Pass, Lizard Head Peak was once again being enveloped by playful clouds…and snow up high! First of the fall season.

Lizard Head Peak, first snow of the season.

Lizard Head Peak, first snow of the season.

Similarly, the peaks to the north of Trout Lake were shrouded with the white stuff. But not down below treelike. Not down in the aspen forests. Which was important if the colors were to continue much at all.

Looking north from Lizard Head Pass at the first snow on the peaks.

Looking north from Lizard Head Pass at the first snow on the peaks.

Down at Trout Lake, I made a shot in softly overcast light of the water reflecting some of the colors.

Trout Lake, Colorado aspen reflections.

Trout Lake, Colorado aspen reflections under overcast skies.

Then at camp between Trout Lake and Telluride, I watched the clouds come and go as dusk came on. A little rain, a little clearing, then a lot of night.

Evening mist in the mountains, Alta Lakes area.

Evening mist in the mountains, Alta Lakes area.

The next day, further north along Highway 145 I made some reflection shots in a lake just off the side of the road.

Aspen reflections, unnamed lake.

Aspen reflections, unnamed lake.

Stopping again along 145, I was enthralled by Sunshine Mountain and the highway.

Highway 145 aspen colors, south of Telluride, Colorado.

Highway 145 aspen colors and Sunshine Mountain, south of Telluride, Colorado.

The next day was quite a bit clearer, so I backtracked to Trout Lake for more shots. After all, my dream had been realized: peak aspen colors along with the first snows above treelike, in the same compositions. It doesn’t get any better. Driving up the road along Trout Lake, I enjoyed a cabin surrounded by golden aspens. I fantasized that I lived there. With my four wheel drive pickup truck with tire chains for the winter, and my tall stacks of firewood that I’d cut well beforehand. My canoe put away for the winter, as well, after a fine summer of paddling and fishing on the lake.

Trout Lake cabin in the aspens.

Trout Lake cabin in the aspens.

Back out on the highway, I made another panoramic scenic of Trout Lake. The bright high clouds and the soft foreground, and the new snow on the high peaks.

Trout Lake panorama, October 7.

Trout Lake panorama, October 7.

It was late morning, and I had to go back to work the next day. What to do? Head home now, for an easy drive and evening? Or push it to get the most out of one of the most perfect fall days ever?

That will be answered in my next post.

© Copyright Stephen J. Krieg