The Finest Hour

Dawn above the Little Blanco Trail in Colorado's South San Juan Wilderness.

…between the edge of night and the break of day,
when the darkness rolls away.

This is dawn looking to Blackhead Peak, seen from near the Little Blanco Trail in Colorado’s South San Juan Wilderness. In the middle of the preceding night, as I tried to sleep on hummocky ground, I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether sunrise last Monday morning was at 5:45 or 6:45. It stood to reason that, since sunset had been a while after 7:00, then sunrise could not be before 6:00 this close to the equinox. But it’s hard to be rational in the witching hours at 12,000 feet, and it was a relief to rise a little after six and see the east only just beginning to lighten. I gathered my things and headed to the nearest convenient highpoint. The sky reddened, I began shooting, and I caught this first brief kiss of alpenglow on the stones as the clouds in the west commenced to incandesce. Moments later, the sun climbed into a cloud bank over the Continental Divide and the light was dead for the rest of the day.

This was the fourth trip I’ve made to the South San Juans, and this area was my favorite so far. There’s a real delight in hiking a very well designed trail, and trail design does have its artistry. The Little Blanco is just perfect, ascending through a nice mix of aspens and conifers, but mostly open slopes with views, at a grade steep enough to be efficient but but not steep enough to be grueling. I even saw a horny toad sunning himself on a switchback at over 10,000 feet; I had no idea they went so high! Views of southwestern Colorado unfold as you climb, and then you top a dramatic notch in the ridge and look east over a wonderland of stony benches, with the Blanco River nestled under fluted volcanic pinnacles several thousand feet below, and the crest of the Continental Divide peaks to the east. I’d gotten a late start, so I hurriedly dropped my gear at a high camp and headed uphill for sunset.

Sunset over the Continental Divide, South San Juan Wilderness, Colorado.

A high camp and a setting moon, with dinner on the stove:

High camp in the South San Juan Wilderness.

We photographers all have fall on the brain right now, and the alpine vegetation was just barely beginning to get on board. Soon, soon:

First reds of autumn, South San Juan Wilderness.

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