The Wild Heart of the San Juans

Needle Mountains, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, Weminuche Wilderness, clouds, reflection

Misty Mountain Morning : Prints Available

Storm clouds break up and lift off of the Needle Mountains, in the high Weminuche Wilderness - August.

Mountain goat, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Father Goat #1 : Prints Available

Mountain goat in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, reflection

Grenadier Sunrise Reflection #2 : Prints Available

Reflection of the Grenadier Range during a fiery sunrise.

Last week we went on another 7-day trek through the high peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. During our backpacking trip we were treated not only to spectacular mountain vistas, but to some pretty cool wildlife encounters too! See LOTS more photos from our trek below!

hiking, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The daily question on this trek: can we make it over the next pass before it starts storming? On this day – no.

tent, camping, Weminuche, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, stormy

Here’s our camp on the second afternoon at the beginning of a bout of stormy weather. It rained buckets this evening, but the lightning and thunder wasn’t so bad, which was fortunate given our slightly exposed above-treeline camp spot. What was more scary, in fact, was the constant rockfalls crashing down from the peaks across the meadow.

Needle Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise

Dark Sunrise in the Needles : Prints Available

A single beam of sunrise light illuminates the Needle Mountains on a stormy morning deep in the Weminuche Wilderness.

The next morning we woke up at 4am to pack the tent and hike up to a high lake to shoot sunrise. In the darkness we sensed lots of clouds swirling around overhead, but since I could see patches of stars now and then, I had a hunch that it was more of a low misty cloud layer rather than a brewing thunderstorm. Still, we couldn’t tell, and the last thing we wanted to do was to hike right up into a thundercloud (a terrifying experience which has happened to me before on a pre-sunrise hike in the same range). So we waited a while in the dark, until finally time ran out and I made the call to go for it. We hiked as fast as possible and I made it to the high lake just in time to catch a few beams of sunrise light filtering onto the rugged peaks.

Turret Needles, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, clouds, misty, abstract, rugged

Rugged Clouds Abstract : Prints Available

Misty mountain clouds reflected in a high alpine tarn.

I turned out to be right – the high clouds quickly burned off into clear blue skies, while far below our high 12,600 ft. vantage point, we could see a sea of clouds filling up the lower valleys. For the next couple hours those clouds really put on a show, as they’d rise up the valley and crash over the peaks like breaking waves!

Needle Mountains, clouds, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Misty Needle Mountains : Prints Available

A breaking storm leaves misty clouds swirling around the Needle Mountains.

After shooting this awesome cloud spectacle, calamity struck when I absentmindedly left my tripod unbalanced for a moment, and it crashed down lens-first onto a rock. My vintage 35-70mm Contax-Zeiss lens instantly became a vintage paperweight. Fortunately my camera was ok, and that was the best lens to destroy on this trip – I still had my two wideangle lenses which are the workhorses in the big, up-close mountain terrain on this trek.

Animas, San Juan Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado, sunset

Animas Sunset #2 : Prints Available

A fiery sunset over a remote valley in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Another sunset in paradise!

Needle Mountains, hiking, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, August, Weminuche Wilderness

Now that I know these remote routes so well, trekking through these mountains has lost a bit of the adventurous feel that they used to have for me back when I was exploring them on my own for the first times, when I was “feeling” my way through them on instinct rather than knowledge. Nevertheless, these rugged peaks never fail to inspire me, and the more I go in there, the more I gain an even deeper appreciation and connection with them.

Anyhow, I’ll stop babbling now and just show you some photos!

Vestal Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, reflection

Vestal Peak, Grenadier Range, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, hiking, backpacking

Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, reflection

Weminuche Reflection : Prints Available

Evening light and monsoon clouds reflected in a remote lake in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Mountain goats, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Mother and Child : Prints Available

Mountain goats in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Mountain goat, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Father Goat #2 : Prints Available

Mountain goat in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Trinity Peaks, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Trinity Pond : Prints Available

Trinity Peaks reflect in a grass-filled pond in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, reflection

Grenadier Sunrise Reflection : Prints Available

Reflection of Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak of the Grenadier Range during a fiery sunrise.

During our last trek here, while descending from a mountain-top sunrise shoot, I stumbled across these small ponds which offer a reflection of Vestal and Arrow Peaks. For the two years since then, I’ve been longing to shoot a sunrise from those ponds, so I was elated to score a fiery sunrise on the one morning we were there on this trip!

Mountain goat, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, grenadier range

Mountain goat, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado

Grenadier Goat : Prints Available

A mountain goat poses in front of the Grenadier Range, Weminuche Wilderness.

Moose, Elk Creek, Beaver Ponds, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Moose in Beaver Ponds : Prints Available

A moose wades in the beaver ponds of Elk Creek, with a backdrop of Arrow Peak (13,803 ft.) and the Grenadier Range.

Moose, Elk Creek, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Moose in the Green : Prints Available

A moose wading in the beaver ponds of Elk Creek in the Weminuche Wilderness, eating the green algae in the water.

moose, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Moose Bath : Prints Available

A moose shakes off a spray of water after eating green algae from the lake bottom with its head underwater.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, train, Elk Park

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train : Prints Available

Our ride back to Silverton!

Here’s a link to our previous 7-day trek in the Needle Mountains.

And one final note: If you email me asking for route descriptions, please forgive me if I’m unresponsive, or vague at best. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I’m not a guide and it’s far too difficult to describe these challenging routes, most of which are unmarked, trailless, and tricky. Secondly, and most importantly, I believe that half the fun of these off-trail journeys is the research, the adventure, and the sense of exploration; publishing detailed route descriptions ruins all of this.

62 thoughts on “The Wild Heart of the San Juans

  1. Wow, excellent work, Jack. The shots with the mist are exquisite, unbelievable conditions. Of course I love anything with Vestal and Arrow, and the shots of the goats are pretty sweet too. All in all, looks like an amazing week. On the “Dark Sunrise in the Needles” image are those clouds behind the peak in the center? It gives the effect of having another peak behind.

    1. Thanks Paul! Yeah, that misty morning was unbelievable… those kind of conditions seem pretty rare and fleeting in Colorado I think.

      In the “Dark Sunrise” photo, what you’re seeing are the back ridges of the peak, but with mist in between obscuring them a little.

      1. Ah, that makes sense, it looks really cool. I think you are right about conditions like that being fleeting in this state for sure.

      1. Yes, a little. I’m just taking every season as it comes. And I love fall. Colors are already coming in here and it seems like its changing on an hourly basis. Excitement is building for sure. Hope we see you guys soon. Let us know if you come up this way.

        1. I know… I read your blog and agree – fall is in the air! Well, just a little bit. But there’s that crispness… I kept telling Claudia during our trek… fall is around the corner!

          We’ll probably do a little road trip to Kebler and perhaps the Aspen/Marble area later in September/early October. I’ll let you know!

  2. Jack, I love your photography. I grew up in CO but now live in New England – your pictures and adventures let me vicariously relive some of my favorite treks in the Rockies. Keep up the great work!

  3. Top notch work, Jack. You do the amazing state we live in justice with your shots, truly. It’s not easy to capture what you see and experience in photos and you do a damn good job of it. Love this place.

  4. The atmosphere the misty mountain shots transport is unreal. Wonderful work, Jack. Although, the mountain goats would be a little too close to invading my comfort zone. Ha! Keeps me wondering though why you would want to leave THIS and join the crowds in the Alps? I’d trade in the San Juans for say, half of Austria and all of Germany any day.

    1. Thanks David! Those goats are really kind-hearted and curious, though of course I never keep my eyes off those pointy horns! There is a certain distance that I don’t let them get any closer – just far enough away where I could jump back if I had to!

      And, good question about the Alps. It’s just different. Totally different. Here we have the wilderness, the solitude, and the heavy backpacks to camp anywhere we want. In the Alps you’ve got the huts: the wine, beer, food, and bed after hiking – that is a seriously deluxe novelty for us Americans! Light packs, cozy alpine towns, and – the Alps are pretty freakin incredible mountains! Much bigger mountains than here. Glaciers. Via Ferrate. Trains to get around. I love it there… I love it here too…

      1. Interesting you mention the huts. Quite honestly, I’d rather carry a 50lbs. backpack over one being lighter and camp where I want to spend the night (preferably right by a lake) than trying to get from one hut to the other, rushing past vistas, trampled down meadows and crowds. Speaking of crowds, I hate the Alps in that regard. You can’t hike one mile without running into at least half a dozen people, no matter where you really go. Switzerland, really the best part about the Alps, got so expensive, more than two weeks and you need to start selling your left kidney. I really used to love it down there, especially in the Dolomites (which sort of look like your recent San Juan images with the needles and high alpine tarns) but the people kinda ruined it for me. It’s still pretty amazing to soak in the landscape views but you know, it just lost something for me.

        Aigรผestortes was different, very Eastern Sierra-like, minus the bears. One could probably say, in the Pyrenees you can find the best of both worlds. Around the huts, it was crazy, just like in the Alps, but as soon as you got above those, the air and crowds got thinner and you could sit and watch the clouds pass over your head without seeing a soul. Yet, back at the hut, you socialize with beer and a warm dinner. (That you didn’t have to haul up the mountain yourself.)

        Having all that said, I’m looking forward to the images you’ll bring home!

  5. Wow, Jack…another awesome trip report! That first shot and the others with the misty clouds are really spectacular, especially the first shot, which, for some reason, reminds of the Andes.

    You ready for some snow yet?!?!

    1. Thanks Justin! I just had an awesome snowboarding dream last night… so yeah I’m probably ready for snow, whether it’s conscious or not! But, I’m really excited for autumn first!

  6. Damn, Jack! Rugged Clouds Abstract may have just become my new favorite from your portfolio. I was browsing your site earlier today trying to get inspired to load up and head to Colorado this weekend, and stumbled on these new images at the back of the gallery. They’re some inspiration alright! Just gotta make up my mind where to go…..

  7. Another enjoyable journey I get to share through your eyes! Stunning images. You said that the adventure had gotten a bit lost over the years, but you get to experience it all anew with your exciting new partner, Claudia. The rock fall during the night sounds terrifying! Do you guys have kevlar jammies ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. You cease to amaze me with the rugged beauty of your photographs from these amazing places. Dark Sunrise and the Rugged Clouds Abstract are my favorites. Hope your lens is ok. I have one you can buy…I don’t use it much.

  9. Jack – I’ve been following your blog for a few years. I have consistently been amazed at the quality of your work. I think you are absolutely at the top of your game.
    I live in the midwest but the San Juans are near and dear to my heart. Your photos on this trip are from some of the same places I visited 30 years ago on an Outward Bound course. That course began my love of the outdoors. I took my boyfriend backpacking in the Weminuche in 2005 to show him this special place (epic trip, rain every day from Katrina). These photos make me want to go back, with the real camera this time. (Aspiring photographer here). I just had to let you know how much these photos resonated with me.

    1. Thanks for your note and compliments, Theresa! That’s great you visited these mountains 30 years ago! I’ve heard that Outward Bound does a lot of treks in here, and they have some great super-secret maps of all the routes.

  10. I fell off of my chair so many times when I came down to each of these photos Jack…this is the best of your recent trips…so makes me dizzy!. and are just ridiculous…actually all of it are awesome!! But the dark sunrise… needs some love…noise reduction then sharpening might help I think…. just a thought!

  11. Jack, I love seeing your posts in the NPN forums and your post about this trip had me very intrigued because I love the Weminuche! Amazing photography, I’m very very impressed! Thank you for sharing your photography and your gifts with us, it’s inspiring. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail on of these days!

  12. HOLY COW!!!!! Astoundingly beautiful… and those goat pictures!!! And the mooose…you’ve outdone yourself Jack (if that is even possible).

    Thump. (Marilyn falling over in an attack of sheer awe.) ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Beautiful pictures Jack. The Weminuchee is probably my favorite area for backpacking in Colorado. We took Stony Pass from Silverton to Creede last Thursday, a gorgeous drive.

  14. Some of your best ever Jack, don’t know how you manage to keep getting better. Inspirational as always.

    P.S do you think you’ll ever plan on opening some sort of gallery in the future? I’d love to visit.

    1. Thanks Jeremy! I’d love to open a gallery here in Ouray someday, but probably not anytime soon. I’d rather be spending all my free time (and my money) out hiking, traveling, and shooting more rather than being stuck in a gallery all week long. I think when I’m older, once my knees are worn out, it might be a fun project to consider.

      In the meantime I do have some prints on display in the Skol Gallery at 812 Main St. in Ouray.

  15. Great imagery throughout, Jack and it’s hard to believe that one person can make all of these images in a week! You’re everywhere at once I guess… Misty Mountain Morning and the Rugged Abstract are my favorite landscape images here – “Rugged” is one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a while. What keeps me coming back is your ability to deftly weave a story of adventure, wildlife encounters, weather, and landcapes that most us will only see through your lens. Thanks for sharing the awesomeness of the San Juan back-backcountry!

  16. “I believe that half the fun of these off-trail journeys is the research, the adventure, and the sense of exploration; publishing detailed route descriptions ruins all of this”

    I totally agree. Thanks for not giving up the information through a blog so that every tom dick and harry can spoil the unpopular gems. Those who make the effort to research will be the ones who are the utmost respectful and appreciative. I love finding these places on my own, and hopefully without a soul around, but for animals… Your work is exquisite, btw.

  17. Jack:
    Tremendous photos, seeing these restores the belief that “It’s good to be alive !”
    Your ‘Grenadier Sunrise Reflection’…with Vestal & Arrow Peaks of the Grenadier Range
    reminds me of a Jeep trip in the San Juans near ‘Heart Lake’ in 1974. Spent the night camping
    by a small lake such as this & did watch the sun come up. Took 8mm film of this & cherish it
    to this day.
    You have a ‘Good Spirit’ to guide you!

  18. Wow ! Your photos of the Weminuche Wilderness during your 7 day trek are incredible.

    Have you ever considered offering a 7 day photography trek tour of this same trip? If you are,
    please let me know, I’d love to do this !



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