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

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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

Cottonwood tree, fall colors, Trout Lake, Colorado.

Running Out Of Autumn

Lizard Head Pass, late October dawn.

Lizard Head Pass, late October dawn.

It’s almost time to say goodbye to the fall colors for another year.

Almost.

So to savor some of the best of the last, or the last of the best, I returned to the high country of southwest Colorado.

Autumn is the perfect season. A little bit winter, a little bit summer, a lot of fall. I have known people who have dreaded fall, despite her beauty. Why? Because to them it meant the doorstep of winter. Of snow and cold. And while I highly respect their opinion, they’re weenies.

Lizard Head Peak, from the Pass.

Lizard Head Peak, from the Pass.

Because to me fall has always meant the climax of the year. It’s not the end of the calendar year, quite yet, but it’s the end of the growing season. Harvest time. Celebration. Preparation for winter, which used to be a kind of hibernation time even for humans, before our year-round climate control inside our buildings. Time to rest and dream and contemplate next year’s growing season.

To begin my latest sojourn I drove past sunset and into the night, back up to Lizard Head Pass in the San Juan Mountains. I knew exactly where I wanted to camp, just off a National Forest road that had good drainage. Because it had been raining. Another cold camp: no campfire. Too much trouble. And I don’t mean trouble starting them in the wetness, I’m good at that.

Night peace in the Rocky Mountains. A one-third full waxing moon playing with the clouds, until she set.

At dawn, heavy cold condensation on the windows. Fire up the engine, let’s get this this warmed up so we can see what’s out there this time. My campsite had the advantage of having a nice overlook of Lizard Head Peak and the high mountain meadows of the Pass. I quickly set camera on tripod to portray it.

Cottonwood tree in fall colors, Trout Lake, Colorado.

Cottonwood tree in fall colors, Trout Lake, Colorado. Don’t park in front of it, it doesn’t like it.

Then down the other side a few miles to Trout Lake. A beautifully pensive sunrise: sun not yet over the high peaks and clouds to the east, a breeze riffling the lake’s surface. A cottonwood tree captivated me. Normally, with such flat overcast light I wouldn’t have known what to do with the scene. But I liked being there at that moment. The wet ground and fallen leaves, along with the bright yellow foliage yet to drop. And soon.

Cottonwood tree on Trout Lake, October.

Cottonwood tree on Trout Lake, October.

I drove back the lane along the lake to see what else might present itself. Of all the vast expanse of mountains and lake and near-wintry sky, that lone cottonwood tree stood out. For a few moments the morning light lit it up there. But I couldn’t move fast enough to capture it like it still is in my mind’s eye.

I didn’t know whether to linger there or move on. Such an exquisite place and time. Who knows what might happen? I sure didn’t.

Late October morning light across Trout Lake.

Late October morning light across Trout Lake.

The weather decided for me: clearly a snow squall was moving in from the south. Dark clouds, and not of the thunderstorm kind. Snow.

So I headed toward it. Back up to the Pass, to greet it, see if I could make a few photos that captured the stirring that I felt.

Snow squall on Lizard Head Pass.

Snow squall on Lizard Head Pass.

It wasn’t a blizzard, it was merely a late fall kiss on the high country in the early morning of a late October day.

I was hungry. Desiring some hot food, I headed down the mountain into Telluride. The day was truly just beginning.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

The Sheep of Sheep Mountain, Colorado

Moonset at Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

Moonset at night at Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

I was back at Lizard Head Pass in the San Juan Mountain Range of southwest Colorado to check on the progress of the fall colors. Somebody’s got to do it.

I arrived at the Pass (elevation 10,222 feet) in the dark. Drove back across the meadows where I knew the camping is good. I saw what I thought were a couple of RVs parked down low. I went up the hill, pleased to find no one there.

But I was hearing some “baa, baa” animal noises in the night. At first I thought they were goats, I don’t know why. Anything is possible, I suppose. Especially when you’re tired and it’s dark. And you’re no farmer, either.

Sheep herding operation below Sheep Mountain, Colorado.

Sheep herding operation below Sheep Mountain, Colorado.

In the morning I saw what was going on. Spread out below me was a sheepherder’s corral, a travel trailer, and what seemed like a thousand sheep. Ah, I thought, whomever has the grazing permit here on the National Forest (or Forests, since the Pass sits on the boundary between the San Juan and the Uncompahgre) is taking the summer’s sheep down out of here.

The high mountain meadow was situated below Sheep Mountain, its 13,000-some foot peak showing its autumn tundra colors way up there above timberline.

Soon after sunrise a big semi truck with a quadruple-decker stock trailer arrived. A second one soon afterward. The loading began, the sheep dogs yelping and bouncing about. Eventually the two big trucks trundled off.

Sheep corralling operation, Lizard Head Pass.

Sheep corralling operation, Lizard Head Pass.

But in the afternoon I was surrounded by sheep. Me, up on my little hill on the edge of the forest. More sheep coming down from above, down to the corrals. Where they spent the night, too, and were loaded into the returning trucks the next morning.

High country sheep and fall colors, Lizard Head Pass.

High country sheep and fall colors, Lizard Head Pass.

On the third morning the operation reached its finale. The last visit of the stock trucks, the last sheep gone. A big pickup truck to haul the sheepherder’s camper trailer — his high country summer home — back to wherever.

It had been interesting watching the operation from afar. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be up there all summer, and then finally see your season’s work done. Real done. Gone way before winter. And where would winter be spent? So many questions.

I went down the corral. It seemed lonely. Everything gone but the wood and steel wire of the enclosures, of the chutes used to funnel the livestock onto the trucks.

Suddenly lonely sheep corral chutes, and Sheep Mountain.

Suddenly lonely sheep corral chutes, and Sheep Mountain.

Autumn. Harvest time. The best time of year.

Photo location: Lizard Head Pass, San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests, Dolores County and San Miguel County, Colorado.

© Copyright 2015 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

High Country Colors Begin: Southwest Colorado

Mountain meadows at Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

Mountain meadows at Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

It’s the best time of year again: Fall. Autumn. Time for perennial (multi year) deciduous plants to get ready for winter. And for annual (one year) plants to die, having done all they came forth to do in a single glorious season.

Streamside willow colors, Lizard Head Pass.

Streamside willow colors, Lizard Head Pass.

In the Colorado Rockies, there’s no better indicator of how things are going in this regard than the high country. It starts up there, and works lower in elevation as October, then November, approaches. And this year has been a banner year in terms of rainfall. It’s been a great growing season, and now the cool nights and warm sunny September days are setting up quite a show of color if it continues like this for two or three more weeks.

Willow leaves in my campsite's mountain stream.

Willow leaves in my campsite’s mountain stream.

Why? Because the green in plant leaves is caused by chlorophyll. Interestingly, the green of spring and summer masks other colors in the leaf. In the fall, the coolness of the nights signals the approach of winter. And the trees begin to ease back on the manufacture of chlorophyll. Less green, more other colors, like yellow, gold, and sometimes oranges and reds.

Fireweed, Dolores River. It colonizes burned over areas, and goes out with a blaze of red at season's end.

Fireweed, Dolores River. It colonizes burned over areas, and goes out with a blaze of red at season’s end.

So to see how things might be progressing, I headed up into the San Juan mountain range of southwest Colorado. What was even sweeter was that rain showers were in the forecast. Love those clouds mixing it up!

At Lizard Head Pass, I first stopped because its namesake peak was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds. The San Juan National Forest on one side, the Uncompahgre National Forest on the other.

The spire of Lizard Head Peak peeking through the clouds.

The spire of Lizard Head Peak peeking through the clouds.

I found a nice campsite in a high mountain meadow below Sheep Mountain. A fine 360-degree view. I was beside a babbling mountain brook. That sweet music. The willows along its banks were already gold. Much more so than the aspen forests, which were maybe 5 percent turned to yellow. However, the tundra up at timberline, and the meadow grasses and forms, were already golden with touches of red. The small plants signing off before the aspen forests would take the main stage.

Sheep Mountain, as sunset time nears.

Sheep Mountain, as sunset time nears.

Rain showers off and on; more music on the steel roof of my vehicle. At one point before sundown a heavy squall breezed through. It looked more like sleet than rain, but if so it didn’t stick on the ground.

Rain/sleet squall livens up the scenery for a while.

Rain/sleet squall livens up the scenery for a while.

For fall colors, cool weather is perfect, but really cold weather isn’t. That’s because if there’s a sudden hard freeze, or an early snow, the trees drop their leaves quickly, almost in unison. Thanks for another summer season, they say; see you in the spring. Gotta go.

Some aspen colors up close, Dolores River.

Some aspen colors up close, Dolores River.

So I’m hoping this cool but not hard-cold weather lasts for a while. I intend to savor whatever happens, though, week by week. Until the last leaf falls.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg