Friday, August 12, 2011

Ice Lake - a hike in photos

No painting yesterday, and while I'd originally planned to go out with the Friday plein air painters to La Plata Canyon, between getting up too late and the self-imposed beating I took yesterday, that didn't happen.

So, instead, I thought I'd share some of the photos I took on yesterdays hike, where we took advantage of a [supposed] break in the monsoons to hit one of the most scenic locations in the San Juans:  Ice Lake.

We've done this hike twice before, but only once have reached the destination of upper Ice Lake itself.  Nestled up high in the mountainous basin west of Silverton, it's a hugely popular day hike and backpacking destination for locals and photographers.

As it seems with so many things, the best things never comes easily, and that's quite apropos for this hike, where the spectacular views are proportional to the degree of difficulty required to obtain them.  With a trailhead elevation of 9,900', it gets serious right out of the blocks, with 2,400' of elevation gain in 3.5 miles  to the first money shot:

Ice Lake - 2-part pano
Yes, the lake is really this color

Wildflowers at alpine tundra elevations are right at the cusp of peak season, so I brought my tripod and both lenses along for this hike rather than the plein air get-up.  It requires much more mental energy and concentration to paint rather than set up and take photos.

Getting there is not easy, but scenic the entire way as it passes through forested sections of fir and spruce (the aspen are left behind within the first 1/2 mile or so), and open meadows.

Every hike I take, I obtain several photos of the view along the trail itself - the light and shadow patterns and trees full of character never get old.  It's hard to just choose one for these blog posts.

[This is for Dan]

I keep speaking of a series of trail paintings, and it's a certainty I'll never run out of reference material.

At timberline elevations, larkspur, monkshood and these tall white flowers are abundant.

The huge boulders of what appears to be a mix of conglomerate (rock composed of smaller rocks of older and different compositions and origins) and what appears to be volcanic basalt deposition are scattered in the meadows.

Perennial waterfalls are found all along the hike, cascading down through the dark rock and occasionally making crossings difficult.

The pale slopes - mine tailings - are a testament to the history of this area as mining country.  The main creek that enters Silverton from this area - Mineral creek - still carries heavy metal contaminates from these old tailings.  The water is crystal clear...and is devoid of all life.

I've been on a major butterfly photographing kick this summer, and never pass up the opportunity to get a good photo of these colorful and beautiful creatures.

With the unfortunate closing of Borders, I was able to get Kaufman's field guide to North American butterflies at a great price, which helps to identify this male Shasta Blue.  He is very small - about 1" wingspan.

Patience, persistence, practice, location and luck, along with a telephoto lens are what you need to shoot members of the Lepidoptera order.

The final ascent of the trail climbs a particularly rough section of cliff and broken rock, and on the trail map, has the black diamond classification.  Llamas and dogs can follow it, but horses will be turned back.

This is the final 200-300 yards, out of the somewhat exposed and most treacherous part of the trail, and as you are hiking, you wonder if the unrelenting trail ever ends and if the lake or the promised views really do exist...

...and then you see this:

Colorful wildflowers explode on the tundra of the basin, and the eastern side of Yellow Mountain is visible; time to swap out the telephoto lens for the regular zoom.

But, it gets better as the deep turquoise blue lake comes into view.

By this time, clouds are building up and to my dismay, I hear some thunder off to the south.  However, there is no lightning and to the north and east the skies are still relatively least for the moment.

So, after taking a break and getting some photos of lower Ice Lake, we decide to push it and head up to the next basin level.

A cluster of beautiful blue columbine sets off the foreground of this photo of a smaller lake and the Yellow Mountains.

This was amazing, and I used my tripod with the aperture stopped down to f/20 for maximum depth of field.

It's one of my favorite of the "money shots".

pano shot of the upper and lower lakes - what a view!

A beautiful stream surrounded by Parry's Primrose and Marsh Marigold (both of which disappeared from lower elevations about 5 weeks ago) make their appearance.

Large boulder erratics sit atop the highest basin below the mountains.  View is to the east and shows the ominous dark clouds that sent us heading back soon after.

The old miner's cabin near the upper most lake.

After hearing more thunder, we decided not to push our luck any more than we had already, and quickly beat it back down the trail, hoping to escape any torrential downpour and possible lightning.

It did start to sprinkle, but stopped after we dropped below the lower Ice Lake.

This is the view of the timberline meadow below the steepest section of the trail.

The view after reaching the meadow.  Amazingly, we didn't get any more rain for the remaining 3 miles of the hike.

And in fact, the clouds cleared and the sun came out towards the last 1/2 mile of the trail, allowing another view of shadows crossing the trail in the aspen section.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the photos and the hike.

For those that find these photography-based posts boring and tedious and choose to un-follow the blog...well, sorry, but this is never going to be a painting-only blog.   Photography is a much a passion for me as painting, and I enjoy sharing the photos of these beautiful places I visit with you all.

And thank you again to those who are reading this - you are the best!


  1. Thank you for the photo, I love the way the shadows roll with the contour of the land. All these shots are wonderful.

  2. Thanks Dan. Yeah, it was precisely the rolling curves of the shadows (and the tree) that attracted me to this particular shot.

    The hike was a non-stop painting reference extravaganza and landscape painter's eye candy galore! I have tons more of trail photos...I need to put them in a separate Picasa album and send you the link so you can help me cherry pick the best (or use any you want, of course...I didn't know if you ever painted from photos you didn't take).

  3. I love your photography and trail postings Sonya :) We rode from Coal Bank Pass to the top of Mineral Creek (south fork) last week, it was stunning and the wildflowers, as you said, are peaking. What a non-stop visual feast!

  4. Thanks, Sarah - I'm glad I can share them with another local backcountry person :). The next time we talk or get together, you'll have to tell me about your ride - I know we've never done that trail before!

  5. Love the photos! You get such amazing shots - especially love the cabin with those clouds.

    Funny you should talk about trail photos...I just took a bunch in northern Maine - the old logging roads are becoming a favorite subject of mine ;-)

  6. Thanks, Debbie - in some ways, it is just hard to go wrong shooting photos of the Ice Lake basin area - it is one of the most scenic areas in the region. Beautiful views were everywhere you looked.

    I always found appeal in the old dirt roads, especially when covered with autumn leaves, that I'd see when I lived in New England, so I definitely understand the appeal of them. They will be a subject for future paintings...right :)?


Your thoughtful comments add value to this blog - thank you so much for taking the time to leave them!

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