Gretta on Weminuche Trail, SW Colorado (2003)
Ten-Six and Lesser Elevations
writing and photos by Greg Larson
“Look at those peaks and rocks!” I shared with Gretta as I pointed to a peak in the San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado. We had just finished lunch on the continental divide at an elevation of 11,500 feet, during a break on a hike from our base camp near Weminuche Pass in a designated wilderness area.
“Wow, this is why I like the back country,” I said as I scanned the vistas in all directions.
“Come here,” said Gretta while she took me by the hand, “I want to show you something.”
We walked over to a clump of grass on the alpine meadow, and she pointed downward, “See those little flowers? They are so tiny, but every petal is perfect!”
I had to get down on my hands and knees to see the little blue flowers with five petals. Each blossom was smaller than a pencil eraser.
My view of the world expanded a bit more that day. No longer did I look just for things big and massive. I started to see the tiniest details in the mountain environment. I guess that’s how I’d describe why Gretta and I enjoy backpacking and hiking. Sure, it takes a lot of time and energy to plan and execute a camping trip, and mother-nature doesn’t always cooperate, as we found out in Rocky Mountain National Park in July of 2009. But every bit of effort is worth it when something unexpected is discovered. From the smallest flower to the grandest vista, it is the treasure of memories and images that makes the hardships worthwhile.
Three of our campsites in Colorado have been at an elevation of 10,600 feet; in an alpine zone that is near the timberline transition point. We’ve hiked and camped at lesser elevations, too, always finding unique and picturesque country not seen by motorists or casual passers-by.
Camping in the wilderness clears the mind of all the social clutter. Necessities are put into a different perspective. Does one really need all of the paraphernalia and accoutrements taken for granted in our everyday life? We carry the barest essentials, and only when the items don't add too much weight to the pack.
The following photos are some of my favorite images; good examples of why we don't mind putting up with temperature extremes, mosquitoes and flies, strenuous climbs and dehydrated food.
Englemann spruce in SW Colorado (2003)
One afternoon, a rain shower pattered on our poncho hoods while Gretta and I sat on a boulder, looking out at the endless forest of Englemann spruce trees before us. The peace and quiet stretched minute upon minute, mile upon mile. Without warning, the sunlight pierced the clouds. It was as if the giant spotlight of God shone on the spruce trees in front of us. On instinct, I quickly pulled out my camera, ran a few feet to frame the picture and snapped the photo above. Within twenty seconds, the sunlight was gone.
Weminuche Creek in SW Colorado (2003)
It was a crisp morning in the dry, thin air as I walked to the creek to fill our water bottles. The gurgling and rushing water, along with the birds awakening with song, made the hidden oasis seem full of life. The little waterfall caught my eye; the natural landscape far superior to anything designed by man. A tree trunk had fallen years ago, creating the weir on the creek, with one half of the trunk becoming a flower box for the summertime greenery. It was an invigorating moment, yet peaceful.
Mills Canyon, New Mexico (2003)
Mills Canyon is in a remote area along the Canadian River in northeast New Mexico. Just prior to camping there in 2003, I learned that wildlife officials used the canyon as a location to release the "problem" bears that had been trapped in the towns and ranches nearby. The beauty of the place was worth the risk, and we never did see any bears, good or bad.
Cholla Cactus blooms in Mills Canyon, New Mexico (2003)
Rock Cliff in Mills Canyon, New Mexico (2003)
I sat and waited during the sunrise for the correct light, and noticed that the rocks, which were at least a hundred feet above the canyon floor, had been eroded by fast flowing water at some point in eons past. Scenes like the one above are as beautiful and moving as any found in the National Parks.
Sunrise at Mosca Pass, Colorado (2003)
Mosca Pass was one of the first mountain passes used by explorers and trappers, such as Kit Carson and John Fremont, as a relatively easy path to get from eastern Colorado to the San Luis Valley. The photo above is from a lookout point near the pass; the view is southeast. The photo below is looking west along the trail below Mosca Pass. The trail ends at the base of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.
Gretta on Mosca Trail, with Great Sand Dunes and San Luis Valley beyond (2009)
Gretta among giant aspen trees near Mosca Trail (2009)
We discovered a side path from the Mosca Trail and meandered through the trees to a remote, lush green valley surrounded by an aspen forest. The aspen trees were the largest I'd ever seen, with some of trunks nearly two feet in diameter.
Abandoned miner's cabin in hidden valley near Mosca Trail
I wondered how many pairs of eyes viewed this remote valley each year. We hiked in the hidden valley on two days in the warmth of summer and never saw a soul.
Unidentified fisherman at Bear Lake (2009)
Bear Lake is in the San Isabel National Forest and is located near Cuchara, Colorado, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the southern part of the state. Luck was with me when I photographed the fly fisherman; the picture captured the line as it whipped and arched during the cast.
Gretta and Greg on a mission near Bear Lake (2009)
We backpacked into the Englemann spruce forest above Bear Lake to set up our base camp. We wanted to stay away from the bears that roamed the RV campgrounds at night looking for some easy food or trash to eat.
Gretta resting at timberline above Bear Lake (2009)
The air was thin at this resting spot just above the timberline on the mountains above Bear Lake. We took advantage of the view during a break on an afternoon hike/climb at an elevation of approximately 11,500 ft. The shadow on the mountain gave a hint that big clouds were coming for the afternoon storms. We turned back towards camp, knowing we would return the next morning and attempt our climb to the ridge at the 12,500 ft. elevation.
Gretta hiking at 12,000 ft. elevation above the clouds (2009)
On the morning climb from our base camp near Bear Lake, we passed through the fog in the forest, and found ourselves above the clouds on a steep alpine meadow full of flowers. I expected Julie Andrews to appear any moment wearing her dress with apron, singing "The hills are alive.."
A surreal spot on a beautiful planet (2009)
(Near Sangre de Cristo ridge looking east to the Spanish Peaks)
Cell phone coverage was quite good from the ridge near the spot shown above. We were able to see a large part of the state of Colorado, looking east and west from the main ridge of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The beauty of terrain and clouds, along with the thin air, left us breathless. We felt as though we were in a different world for a few brief hours. In early afternoon, we retreated to base camp just before the storms unleashed with thunder, lightning and rain that drove us into our tent for two hours.
Columbine in SW Colorado (2003)
The columbine is an elegant flower in a wild environment with a short growing season. The flowers in the high, alpine elevations have only a brief twelve weeks each year to flourish and bloom. Time is relative and it makes me realize that we have a few cosmic moments on terra firma to grow and experience all that surrounds us.