It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.
I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).
As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.
Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.
While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.
Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!
Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.
Golden Larches at Blue Lake in the North Cascades.
Still reeling from the disappointment of having to leave Colorado a mere fortnight before the world’s largest Aspen forests exploded into their annual displays of color, I was determined to find some similar photo opportunities in Washington this fall. The “Aspen of the Pacific Northwest” is arguably the Western Larch. Most common in the Northern Rockies, a handful of Western Larch stands can be found east of the Cascade Crest in Washington state. Tall but unassuming for 50 weeks out of the year, and then drop-dead spectacular for two, the Western Larch looks all for the world like an evergreen, but it is decidedly deciduous. Most high-altitude Pacific Northwest forests are all evergreen, so unless seeing dead and decaying brown pine-needles pile up on the forest floor is your thing, autumn up in the high Cascades isn’t anything to get too excited about. Add larch though and it’s a different story. The yellowish-green needles of the larch go out with a bang, turning a glittering golden-yellow for just a few short weeks in the late fall before leaving the tree buck naked until the following spring.
Golden larch season in the Cascades is an event that generally attracts hordes of needle-peeping Seattleites to the mountains. My hope was that the several feet of early-season snow the mountains had received in late September would be deep enough to temper the crowds. I was wrong. The parking lot at the Blue Lake Trailhead off of Highway 20 in the Okanogan National Forest was completely full, forcing us to park alongside the highway. Fortunately, photographers are born with an innate desire to bask in late-afternoon light which meant we were headed up the trail to Blue Lake late enough that most other folks were already on their way down. One advantage to having lots of folks on the trail was that we were alerted to the presence of a solitary mountain goat scrambling along a rocky gully a few hundred feet above the trail.
The lower portion of the trail was snow-free, but by the time we reached the goat and the larch groves, it was several feet deep. The main trail was hard-packed snow and ice due to all of the foot traffic but wandering off trail trying to take pictures of the larches sans people would definitely have been easier with a pair of snowshoes. The larches were nothing short of spectacular, especially against the snowy-white backdrop. In the late afternoon sun, the color of the needles was so resplendent that you could have painstakingly coated each needle in gold leaf and not known the difference. Individual larches on mountain ridges miles away could easily be picked out, their needles back lit by the sun, shining like beacons in a sea of mountains.
A surprisingly sunny and warm October afternoon in the North Cascades is perfect for larch hunting.
Exploring off trail, gazing out at the Cascades through the larches.
Later in the evening, headed to a lower-elevation (read: warmer) camping spot, I was able to catch the very last rays of sunlight on Liberty Bell Mountain. And just in case larches and a spectacular sunset weren’t enough, the clear skies and nearly full moon were ideal conditions for some nightscapes of the North Cascades!
Sunset along the North Cascade Highway.
The constellation of Aquila sets over North Cascade peaks illuminated by the Full Moon .