Snow Patterns: Colorado High Country

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Rico, Colorado, the historic silver mining town turned Telluride bedroom community.

This post could have been titled: “Snow Patterns, Forests.” Except that it has a bit wider scope.

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Dogwood shrubs on the Dolores River riparian area, San Juan National Forest.

It was up the Dolores River valley, from the town of Dolores (after another juicy, giant hamburger at the Depot) to my favorite Colorado mountain town, Rico (elevation 8,800 feet). Where the Enterprise Bar and Grill was not open (only on weekends during the winter), otherwise I would have had a delicious meal there instead.

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Colorado Blue Spruce sapling, Dolores River.

Rico is surrounded by the San Juan National Forest. As you drive up the Dolores River on Highway 145, much of the access to the river is blocked by private landownership. That is, until you get within the boundaries of the National Forest, where there is much more access.

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Upper Dolores River, only semi frozen in January.

So I stopped to photograph snow-laden shrubs and tree seedlings.

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Dogwood, Dolores River.

Higher up, the patterns of the spruce-fir forest from across the valley attracted my attention.

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Snowy Spruce-Fir forest above Rico, Colorado.

And stands of aspen trees, too.

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Aspen forest during a winter storm, San Juan National Forest.

Then I was startled to see a herd of elk on the hillside above the highway. Why? Because they were yet another indication of how little snow has fallen up here so far this winter. Normally the elk would be much lower, down out of the high country. But not yet.

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Elk herd, way higher in elevation for January than normal. 

Soon I was all the way up to Lizard Head Pass. My favorite area. For the high mountain meadows and clear alpine streams. And for the lofty mountain peaks…that were shrouded in clouds on this visit.

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Alpine meadows at Lizard Head Pass. 

Photo location: San Juan National Forest and Uncompahgre National Forest, southwest Colorado.

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Lizard Head Pass, elevation 10,222 feet (3,116 meters).

See much more of my photography, and order prints, at my website www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2018 Stephen J. Krieg

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What One Tree Can Do

Cottonwood foliage in fall colors, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cottonwood foliage in fall colors, Mesa Verde.

I was driving along the windy highway along Mesa Verde National Park’s North Rim on a glorious October morning. All the pieces were in place: clear, sunny, perfect Colorado high country blue sky.

Mesa Verde National Park's highway along the North Rim.

Mesa Verde National Park’s highway along the North Rim.

Then I spotted a lone cottonwood tree along the roadway, its brilliant yellow fall foliage colors gently shimmering in the morning breeze.

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The lone cottonwood tree in the middle of nowhere.

Cottonwood trees are a water loving group of species. As in lots of water, all year around. Thus they typically grow along rivers, streams, in the bottom of valleys. Not way up on a mountain ridge like this one.

But this lone tree was way up here. There was a bit more of the mountain slope above the road, and this bend in the roadway must funnel enough water to this spot that a tiny cottonwood seed landed here and took root. With sufficient water down below, it took advantage of the full sunlight, growing far above the shrub-like Gambel Oak trees that are more typical of this steep, high slope.

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Cottonwood foliage closeup. Fall colors spotlit by the morning sunlight against a background of deep shadow, thanks to the far ridge.

Like most, in autumn I am drawn to forests, to stands of trees with superlative fall colors. But sometimes I come across a lone tree such as this that shines all by itself.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

See more of my photography at NaturalMoment.com

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Tracking the Aspen Colors, September 30

Colorado Highway 145 near Rico, Colorado, fall colors.

Colorado Hwy. 145 near Rico.

September 30, the last day of the second-best month of the year. The day before the very start of the best month.

I drove up Colorado Highway 145 from Dolores, which parallels the upper Dolores River almost to its source high in the San Juan Mountains. According to the calendar.

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Morning mist and fall colors, Rico, Colorado.

I was somewhat surprised that the aspen fall colors had not peaked in the week since I’d been there last. There had been more snow on the high peaks, but the aspen stands had taken it in strike just below that, not feeling the need to dump their leaves for the winter.

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Former County Courthouse, Rico, Colorado.

I drove into Rico, at 8,800 feet elevation pretty much my bullseye for what was going on for autumn colors around these part. I took another shot of the gravel street looking down from the Rico Community Church, that stately and gleaming white frame building. I was working on a series of the progression of the colors with that as a vantage point.

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Rico Community Church, September 30.

From Rico it was up over Lizard Head Pass into San Miguel County and down a little bit to the stunningly gorgeous hamlet of Trout Lake. But the lake and its surrounding peaks were pretty much wreathed in clouds. Tough light, but I wanted to document it anyway.

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Trout Lake on a nearly socked-in fall morning.

Then on past Telluride and over to Dallas Divide, turning off onto Last Dollar Road. There, the expansive ranches have huge mountain meadows of cattle grazing beneath towering peaks.

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Cattle ranches and snowy peaks, from Last Dollar Road.

Even there the aspen forests had a lot of green left to turn to gold. The photographers were lined up along the road at key spots, I think under the direction of photography safari outfits. Not my scene. I want to do everything on my own.

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Aspen grove, Last Dollar Road.

Soon after that, I turned my little vehicle around and headed back to Cortez, with over a hundred miles to go. I paused again at Rico for a beaver pond reflection shot of the colors.

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Beaver ponds reflection near Rico.

Photo location: San Juan Mountains, southwest Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Whispers of Fall at 8,000 Feet

Colorado False Hellebore and Quaking Aspen, San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

Colorado False Hellebore (gone to seed) and Quaking Aspen.

For my most recent outdoor outing (is there really any other kind of outing worth noting?) I was exploring some public roads that were new to me on part of the San Juan National Forest.

This summer has been kind to the region, blessed with rain in late summer. Not too much, either. The fire danger went down from Very High in June to Low now. Pretty sweet.

Driving north into the forest from Mancos, Colorado soon had me back into Ponderosa pine, aspen, mountain meadows, and–even higher up–spruce and fir. The dirt roads were dry and it wasn’t too crowded with summertime recreationists.

Hesperus Peak in the La Plata Mountains, San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

Hesperus Peak in the La Plata Mountains, August 2017.

I stopped at a nice viewpoint up the West Fork of the Mancos River canyon to the high peaks of the La Plata (“Silver”) Mountains. To Hesperus Peak, one of the four mountains sacred to the Navajo people.

Puffball mushroom, San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

Puffball mushroom, big as a greatly over-inflated football.

At a nearby junction, I spotted a nearly-white blob in amongst the greenery. Could that be the giant edible mushroom called the Puffball? It was. In perfect condition to come home with me, too.

Mushroom in San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

A red mushroom amongst the forest floor greenery, San Juan National Forest.

Further along there were more mushrooms, which I could not identify at the moment. The rule about eating wild mushrooms is that you never should–unless you can be positive of the identification. There are many poisonous species.

But on to the wildflowers, of which there were still many. Here is a gallery of them:

There were some berries, too. Common was Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa var. pubens. The seeds of the berries of this species are considered poisonous.

Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa var. pubens, San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

Red Elderberry fruit clusters and foliage.

As far as the earliest whispers of fall, the False Hellebore “Corn Lily”) were done for the season and were turning from green to gold.

Soon the other forbs of the high forest will be turning, too. Then it will be the main event: the aspen colors. We’re still a month away from that, but for now here is my favorite aspen forest photograph from the day.

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) forest, San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

Aspen stand, late August, San Juan National Forest.

Photo location: San Juan National Forest, Montezuma and La Plata Counties, southwest Colorado.

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

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Snowshoeing It

Snowshoeing in the Manti-La Sal National Forest near Monticello, Utah.

Snowshoes, sunlight and tree shadows.

Real winter finally came to southeast Utah this season. There had been a number of beautiful snows up until recently, but not much more than seeing the mountains brightened up again each time, with a couple inches down in town.

That changed late this month, with several back to back storms that as usual came from the west or southwest and kept on truckin’ into western Colorado.

Atlas snowshoes, ready to be put to use.

Atlas snowshoes, fresh out of the shipping carton from REI.

My trout fishing lake had finally frozen over, and snowed over the ice as well.

The problem with the dead of winter is how to exercise. Oh, the runners keep running out there. And the people who work out at gyms keep on the treadmills and the weight machines.

Gambel Oak stand in January snow, Manti-La Sal National Forest, near Monticello, Utah.

Gambel Oak shadows on a January afternoon at 7,000 feet.

But what is a mountain man to do when the snow is deep? walking to the Post Office and back each day doesn’t count for much. Though it’s better than nothing.

Snowshoes. Like trout fishing it had been many years, but perhaps another facet of my life was coming full circle.

Loyds Lake in January ice and snow cover, Monticello, Utah.

Overlooking frozen Loyd’s Lake in January.

I went to REI and there were a pair of modern snowshoes on sale for just $40. End of the season, you know.

They arrived last week and I’ve been out twice. I avoid the weekends when there are snowmobilers, cross country skiers, and other winter sport enthusiasts flying about. I prefer to be the only human breaking the silence of the woods, if possible. And it’s possible.

Snowshoeing on Manti-La Sal National Forest in San Juan County, Utah.

Snowshoeing near Loyd’s Lake, with the Abajo Mountains in the distance.

The advantage to snowshoeing is that you don’t need to have the skill of being on skinny skies like you do with cross country skiiing. Which I have done, and loved, but chose not to get back into at this time. With snowshoes, you can plod along even over deep unbroken snow. Rest when you want, even facing downhill or uphill. You may not get to enjoy the thrill of sliding along and whooshing back downgrade, but anybody can use snowshoes. There is something to be said for going slower.

Photo location: Manti-La Sal National Forest, near Monticello, southeast Utah.

See much more of my photography on my website at NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 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

 

 

 

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

Fall Colors, Lizard Head Pass, Colorado

Lizard Head Pass, Colorado, autumn colors.

Lizard Head Pass, Colorado, autumn colors at sunrise.

The perfect autumn continues in the Four Corners region. In this edition, I’m concentrating on the San Juan mountain range of southwest Colorado. Warm clear days and chilly but not freezing nights have coaxed the aspen forests to back off on their chlorophyll supply to their leaves slowly. Meaning: as the green wanes, the yellows appear. A really hard frost or early snow at this high elevation would mean bye-bye for the leaves.

These photos are from Lizard Head Pass, on the boundary between Dolores County and San Miguel County in the San Juan Range. As gorgeous an area as you’ll ever find.

Sunrise colors on the high peaks, San Juan mountain range, Colorado.

Sunrise colors on the high peaks, San Juan mountain range, Colorado.

The fall colors were at their peak. Though when “peak” occurs I’ve often wondered. It’s arbitrary. When it’s good it’s good.

Photo location: Lizard Head Pass, San Juan National Forest and Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado.

Aspen stands, fall colors, Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

Aspen stands, fall colors, Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Early Fall Colors, Abajo Mountains, Utah

Abajo Mountains, early fall colors.

Abajo Mountains, early fall colors.

A slow, glorious autumn has been progressing in the Four Corners region. Cool nights and warm sunny days. No big cold snaps yet.

I have heard reports of terrible (almost nonexistent) fall colors in much of Colorado, other than the San Juan Mountain Range. The early summer rains — so appreciated for making the region so lush this growing season — was also good for an aspen leaf fungus to prosper. Nothing serious, it’s temporary. But it affects the aspen trees, making them feel like dropping their leaves early. We shall see how this plays out over the next couple of weeks.

Quaking Aspen foliage, Abajo Mountains, Utah.

Quaking Aspen fall foliage, Abajo Mountains, Utah. 

This week I went to the Abajo Mountains, a very small but beautiful mountain range within the Manti-La Sal National Forest just west of Monticello, Utah. The higher forest stands had some nice colors going, especially on the north side of the range.

Thunderhead cloud over the Abajos.

Thunderhead cloud over the Abajos.

Afterward, climbing up onto Cedar Mesa, large raindrops splattered my windshield. So I pulled over to get out an enjoy the spontaneous shower, and the gorgeous clouds that produced it.

Rain cloud over Cedar Mesa.

Rain cloud over Cedar Mesa.

Photo location: San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Aspen Forest Afternoon Light, Manti-La Sal

Bare Quaking Aspen trees, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah

It was time to explore a route I’d heard about, over the mountains from near the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park over the top and back down to Natural Bridges National Monument. It would pretty much take all day, a long slow ride on fairly rough dirt roads. But then, I had all day. A full tank of gas, and plenty of snacks and water. What more could anyone ask?

From Highway 211 north of Monticello in southeast Utah’s San Juan County, I paused to photograph the remaining fall colors in the Fremont Cottonwood trees in the valley bottoms. Two cowboys were driving their cattle down the road to wherever their next grazing unit was, or winter range. Or market. Temporary four legged traffic jam on the canyon road.

Then slowly winding up along the canyon’s rim. Up west of the Abajo Mountains, past stately Cathedral Butte, peering down into craggy canyons on either side of the high ridge road.

This photo is of a stand of aspen trees, in nude leafless glory, white and straight and gleaming in the slanting rays of the late afternoon late October sunlight. Whites and blues and still a few splashes of gold.