by Jeff Goulden
Some people's idea of an adventure would be to island hop in the San Juan Islands of Washington, stay in a bed and breakfast and enjoy fine dining. This is what I thought my daughter Molly had in mind when she proposed a trip to the San Juans. I had forgotten about that high range of mountains in Colorado also known as the San Juans Little did I realize I would be carrying a 50 pound pack up a steep trail. Oh, did I mention we would be hiking with Molly's dog Shuksan? More about him later.
The San Juan Mountains is an area of incredible beauty with many mountain peaks reaching 14,000' and meadows and lakes at or above timberline around 11,000'. Meadows are abundant with wildlife, small lakes, creeks and wildflowers. Some of the hiking trails in the San Juan Mountains are not well marked or maintained so these areas don't experience many hikers. This was alright with Molly and me. We wanted to experience true wilderness.
Historically, much of the development in the San Juan region is based on mining. It's disturbing to see the many abandoned mines and rundown buildings. The small towns we drove through celebrated their rich mining heritage and an effort is underway to preserve this heritage while cleaning up the damaged environment. Today, the economic driver of the region is tourism with the natural beauty of the area drawing thousands of skiers, hikers, offroad vehicles and river rafters.
After flying into Durango on Sunday and meeting Molly, we drove to the sleepy former mining town of Silverton, the county seat of San Juan County. Silverton is at 9300', and coming from sea level, I could feel the effects of the thin air right away. Many visitors come to Silverton via the historic Durango to Silverton Railroad. We liked Silverton and its quiet laid back atmosphere; and as it turned out, Silverton would be our home base for the next 3 days.
Our original plan was to backpack to Upper Ice Lakes Basin at 12,300' and spend Monday and/or Tuesday night camping and exploring. After talking to the Forest Service ranger in Silverton, we decided to camp in the lower basin at 11,300', then day-hike to the upper basin from there, which turned out to be a good choice. Lower Ice Lakes Basin is an incredibly beautiful area of lush green meadows dotted with lakes and ponds, fed from above by many streams and waterfalls. Marmots run amok in the meadows much to Shuksan's delight. We set up camp in a beautiful meadow by a babbling creek.
After a tasty dinner of canned chicken and ramen noodles I explored the lower basin with my camera, taking advantage of the glowing evening light. Shuksan spent his evening chasing marmots. Molly spent hers chasing Shuksan and yelling "SHUKSAN NO!!".
Tuesday's challenge was to climb from the lower basin to Ice Lake in the upper basin. After a light breakfast we started hiking and crossed several creeks without incident. With lighter packs we gained mileage and elevation quickly, arriving at Ice Lake by mid morning. The upper basin was incredible with several still-frozen lakes, surrounded by 13,000' peaks.
A few of the early wildflowers were in bloom. I can only imagine what this place looks like in late July and August when the wildflowers are in full bloom. As beautiful as the upper basin was, I'm really glad we camped down lower. The upper basin is above timberline, exposed to the weather and still soggy from recent snow melt. After lunch at Ice Lake, we decided to head back down to the lower basin, break camp and spend the night in Silverton. While in Silverton, Molly searched on her Iphone to find a hike for Wednesday.
According to reports on the internet, Columbine Lake is a 3.5 mile hike to 12,600' elevation on a "seldom used" trail. The "seldom used" turned out to be the only correct part of the report. Just finding the unmarked trailhead was a 1.5 hour ordeal. And that was after fording a knee deep stream and walking close to a mile on an abandoned mining road. Once we found the trailhead, we proceeded uphill through the trees. Eventually we reached timberline where we could see a pass 700-800 feet above us. Since the hike was supposed to be only 3.5 miles, I assumed the lake was just over the pass. Not a good assumption! When we reached the pass at 3:00PM, the trail almost disappeared.
We spent the next hour and a half negotiating snowfields and talus slopes (loose rocks) until we reached Columbine Lake. We allowed ourselves 30 minutes to enjoy the beauty of the lake and its surroundings before heading down at 5:00PM. On the way down Molly leashed Shuksan so he couldn't chase marmots. A wise decision indeed since we saw not only marmots but also a coyote and a young elk. We arrived back at the car at 8:00PM, not having seen another person all day. We later found on the official National Forest Service web site that Columbine Lake is at 12,800' and the hike is 5 miles one way. When you include the 3/4 mile walk on the road, we ended up hiking almost 12 miles that day. All things considered it was a very challenging but rewarding hike. The section from timberline to Columbine Lake has some of the most stunning high elevation scenery I have ever seen. And, when you see more wildlife than hikers, it's a true wilderness experience.
After the tiring hike, I looked forward to pitching the tent, grabbing a bite to eat and crawling into my sleeping bag. Wrong again! The campground near Ouray where we planned to stay was full. Molly again came to the rescue with her Iphone and found us the last hotel room in Ouray. We arrived at the hotel at 9:30PM and checked in after asking about restaurants. "Oh, everything closes at 9, but we have a microwave oven in the room", the manager said. "Great", I replied "we can cook our camping food in that." We checked into our room and Molly started dinner while I got ready for a badly needed shower. Within minutes of putting the dinner in the oven, the hotel experienced a power failure. After reassuring us several times that the power would soon be restored, 30 minutes later we finally finished cooking our dinner of chicken and couscous. We collapsed into our beds around midnight. It had been a really long day!
On Thursday morning we went out for breakfast and saw a little of the town. Ouray is a strange old mining town built on both sides of the Uncompahgre River canyon. The town is completely surrounded by high mountains. The streets are not level, having to follow the contours of the steep canyon. This is definitely not the place to be if you have claustrophobic tendencies. After a short hike up the Uncompahgre Canyon, we were on the road again.
The remainder of the trip was fairly uneventful. After visiting the bustling ski resort of Telluride we camped at the nearby Matterhorn Campground. Remembering the real Matterhorn in Switzerland from many years ago I failed to see the resemblance.
Heading back toward Durango on Friday, we stopped at Mesa Verde National Park. The park has a rich history of native culture and many interesting and well preserved cliff dwellings but is not the wilderness experience I enjoy in many of our national parks. We saw as much as we could while tolerating too many tourists and a temperature that exceeded 90 degrees. It was time to continue to Durango.
Friday evening in Durango we visited Ska Brewing and sampled their beers; then dined on Serious Texas Barbecue. The food was tasty, plentiful and very reasonable. Saturday morning Molly and Shuksan enjoyed a much needed run on the Animas River Trail while I walked and photographed the picturesque scenery. Later we picnicked in a pretty park on the Animas River and savored our adventure. Too soon it was time to leave for the airport and my flight home.
My flight from Durango to Denver was delayed 3 hours by mechanical problems and I missed my connecting flight by only 10 minutes, forcing me to sleep on the floor in the Denver airport and arriving in Seattle 12 hours later than scheduled.
Despite the setbacks it was a great week. Molly and Shuksan are always fun companions and I wouldn't have reached Columbine Lake without their support and persistence. Shuksan has become quite the little hiker, carrying his own food as well as some of our water. I definitely look forward to our next adventure together. Maybe we'll go on a ferry boat ride to the San Juan Islands.
To see more of my trip pictures go to the San Juan Mountains Gallery on Istockphoto. Signed fine art prints from many of my photographs are available for purchase on Fine Art America. Be sure to enter discount code LFMNSE at checkout. For special offers and to follow my photographic journey please Join My Email List.
Jeff's Photo Blog
In this Photo Blog I have combined my 50 year passion for photography and my love of the natural world, creating a portfolio that reveals nature in its pure and simple beauty. I am pleased to share my passion with you through this blog.