Columbine Lake and The Secret San Juans

Ok, so maybe Columbine Lake isn’t quite a secret but it is definitely unknown compared to the more popular Ice Lakes or Blue Lakes located in the same area. This little known lake may be less known but it is just as beautiful with it’s aqua blue water encircled by a ring of jagged peaks sitting beneath the shadow of Lookout Peak.

I have to say that the trail up to the lake is a bit on the steep side and it becomes apparent a very short time after leaving your vehicle at the trailhead. When you first find the trail and start up it is truly up, meaning that you immediately begin climbing on switchbacks up, up, and up some more. I would say that there is probably a good half mile of switchbacks before they ease off a bit and give you a brief reprieve from the climbing. But of course, after a short ways the climb starts again and soon after that you find yourself breaking out of the trees and before you is a beautiful mountain valley. Don’t be fooled here, the climb still continues on up the valley.

Once up the valley the trail again takes a couple switchbacks up the headwall at the head of the valley to the top of a small saddle. There are incredible views from this spot looking down into Mill Creek Valley or turn around and take a look back at the famous Red Mountains of the San Juan Range. On my trip up this trail the West Fork Complex Fire was burning near Wolf Creek Pass and the plumes of smoke pouring off the fire could be seen in the distance.

From the saddle the trail kind of heads in a westerly direction cutting across and side-hilling along the backside of the ridge before crossing several small alpine valleys with nice little streams cutting through them that would make beautiful high alpine campsites. For me, on my quick overnight trip though I had one thing in mind, Columbine Lake, so I continued on and made it up to the lake by mid-afternoon.

The blue of the water is amazing, something that has to be seen to be believed. I decided to set up my small camp to the northeast of the lake, a little ways above the lake so I could shoot images in all directions when exploring around the lake without having my tent in the images.

I spent the afternoon exploring the edge of the lake trying to find some nice spots for an evening shoot and the morning to follow.

The wind was blowing pretty hard and there were some small whitecaps on the water, at this point I was still hoping that the wind would ease up but that didn’t happen til’ the next morning. None the less, toward the east end of the lake there was a small snowfield that was left over from winter that almost extended into the lake, in the snowbank there were some nice melt patterns that really intrigued me so I decided to shoot some images of this snowfield with the lake and some distant peaks included in the shot.

Columbine Lake shines a brilliant blue in the early evening light.

Soon enough the evening sun started to set and the sky started to light up. The clouds had drifted off a bit so the sunset display wasn’t quite as brilliant as I was hoping for but it was still a beautiful show. I stayed and shot the eastern end of the lake til’ well after sunset, but since my camp was only a few hundred feet away finding camp in the dark was easy.

The night was pretty uneventful except for the fact that the wind was really whipping and since I didn’t put any extra guy lines on my tent the flapping kept waking me up all night long.

My alarm went off about 5 am and I got up to find the air still and the cool of the morning refreshing. I headed back over to the east end of the lake again for the morning shoot, this time pointing my camera to the west to catch the first light of day on the ring of rocky peaks. I was hoping for some clouds to fill the blue sky but this morning dawned clear. Even without clouds the scene before me as the sun slowly crept over the ridge and lit up the cirque before me was breathtaking. I was entranced by the patterns of small stones that could be seen through the crystal clear still water and the small rocky outcroppings that were sticking up from the lake. I spent a good hour shooting this spot as the sun slowly filled the basin and then before I knew it the full sun of morning was upon me and the shoot was over.

Morning Sun

I decided to relax for a bit and make some breakfast before packing up and heading back down the trail toward home. The small alpine lake made an impression on me and I have to say that I will be back to this hidden gem of the San Juans.


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