I recently returned from an exciting trip to the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. I was there to photograph wildflowers and scenic alpine locations on an Arizona Highways workshop led by professional photographer Jim Steinberg. The San Juans are among the highest and most rugged range of the Rockies, with peaks reaching 14,000 feet in elevation. Even in late July, patches of snow cling to shady areas of the mountain and early morning temperatures are cool enough to require extra layers.
Getting into the backcountry isn't easy. The dirt roads leading up into the mountains are narrow with steep grades, large rocks, loose gravel, and 2,000 foot drop offs. That's why it's better to hire professional jeep drivers, as we did. To reach our remote locations by sunrise, we had to leave hours before dawn, prompting my driver to enthuse, "This is cool! I've never driven this trail in the dark before. It looks completely different!" I admit that I spent most of the trip leaning away from the edge and clutching my camera bag.
During Colorado's early history, the San Juans figured big in the gold and silver rushes of the late 1800's, after white settlers signed treaties with the Ute Indians to access their land. The mountains, which are highly mineralized with gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc, turned out to be hugely profitable. In roughly 120 years, 210 tonnes of gold has been extracted from area hard rock mines. Today's high costs of extracting precious metals has shut down most of the mines, but Colorado's mining past is still visible in the remnants of mines, tailings, mills, and tramways perched high in the mountains.
I was drawn to this location by the contrast between the light on the reddish-orange mountain and the lush green of the grassy areas around the ponds and the hillsides. The high altitude sun intensifies the vibrancy of the mountain's colors and the reflection in the pond echoes the effect.
The color of the mountain is due to surface iron ore, which may indicate the presence of gold deposits.
I like the way the shafts of early morning light come over the adjacent mountain peak, spotlighting the trees, grasses and the slopes in the distance, while the rest of the mountain remains in shadow.
If you look closely at the left side of the image, you can see the old mine trail and tailings lower down on the mountain.
When I saw this location, I felt as though the peak had spread its arms to encircle the small basin and shelter the trees and wildflowers below.
On my last day in the San Juans, I was awakened during the night by the sound of rain, which to a photographer is like hearing beautiful music. It opens up the possibility of shooting a clearing storm at sunrise if you're lucky, or the clouds could hunker down and it might continue raining, in which case you can go back to sleep--still lucky! I like the way the mountains are layered and the rainclouds are tinted by dawn light.
At high altitude, sunrise light is a beautiful honey yellow, which pops the green tones of the grass. I like the shimmery quality of the alpine light, the curve of the lakeshore rocks in the foreground and the reflection of the grass and peaks in the lake.
High elevation photography can be challenging. The air is very thin at 14,000 feet, which may cause fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, slower mental acuity, dizziness and nausea--all symptoms of altitude sickness. It's really important to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. If symptoms get worse, go to a lower elevation as soon as possible. Wearing a hat, sunglasses and applying sunscreen is advisable to protect from the intense rays of the sun.
Bring your usual photography gear, but also pack a polarizer for photographing water, and a remote release and neutral density filters for long shutter speeds if you're photographing waterfalls. In terms of wildlife, elk and deer are commonly seen in the San Juans. Be alert for bear or mountain lion activity, especially during sunrise or sunset times when they feed. On a positive note, when you stretch out on the ground to take pictures of wildflowers, rest assured that you won't get nailed by a tick--the San Juans are above their elevation range. :)