A few months ago I was approached by my friend Jen who had an interesting proposal. She and Marc (also my very good friend ever since I met them both at the Pawnee Buttes four years ago) were finally going to tie the knot this June after years of being together. Jen knew very well that traditional wedding photography was not something I do, but she wanted me to help to create a special memory of the day they would be getting married. Marc and Jen moved out to the Denver area from New York in 2011 and quickly fell in love with all aspects of Colorado. They instantly enjoyed the mountains and also gained a strong appreciation of the open plains (that was possibly encouraged by me), so Jen wanted to surprise Marc with a gift of two images taken by me on June 29th: one sunset and one sunrise, one from the mountains and one from the plains. Perfect! That's pretty much what I do after all. I've spent years in Colorado looking for the most beautiful mountain wildernesses off the beaten path, and capturing the open feel of the plains has been my other passion. I knew right away that the location I would choose for the plains would be the Pawnee Buttes. It's where I met them, it's a place we've been to several times and it's a place that really gives you a true feel of eastern Colorado. As for the mountains I asked Jen to tell me Marc's favorite mountain range and she said the Sangre De Cristos. No surprise, it's possibly my favorite too. It's a narrow and remarkably steep range flanked on the western side by the San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes, one of the more intriguing landscapes of Colorado.
Two landscapes, 300 miles apart from each other in one day. I asked Jen if a window of a few days would be ok given the distance and uncertainty of weather and she agreed. From there it was time to plan out a trip, starting with backpacking into the Sangres and ending with a sunset at the Pawnee Buttes over three days. I decided to choose a drainage in the Sangres that was new to me, the Sand Creek Lakes. It's where the river that forms the northern creek around the Great Sand Dunes is formed, and many of the peaks around the lakes can be seen from the dunes themselves.
To get to the Sand Creek Lakes, you have to head to the small town of Westcliffe and then down a dirt road that eventually turns high clearance for the last 3 miles. You then start your hike up and over Music Pass, which rewards you with amazing views in less than two miles. I think this view was one of the best I've ever seen by a wilderness entrance sign.
Then you start to work your way down into the valley below, where you eventually have a choice of three different lakes to visit. I made camp mid-afternoon between the lower and upper lakes and head to the lower lake to scout out a sunrise. From the lower lake you have an impressive view of the towering Tijeras Peak, and I was able to get this image the next morning.
After sunrise I had to get some rest so I crawled back into the tent and awoke just in time for lunch and the typical noon crack of thunder in the high mountains. I still wanted to explore more of the valley that afternoon but I knew storms would be a concern, so I waited this round of storms out and head out to hike around 4pm. I wanted to get a view from really high up, 13,000 feet at least so I head north til I found a sign that says "Cottonwood Pass - Trail Not Maintained." My map made no mention of Cottonwood Pass, but I could tell right away that it would be the ridge just shy of 13,000 feet that separates the Sand Creek drainage from the South Colony Lakes drainage. I thought this would make a nice adventure since I backpacked into the South Colony Lakes last year and wanted to see them from a higher view on the flanks of Milwaukee Peak. With the break in the weather and partly cloudy skies I had high hopes for a good sunset so I walked briskly following the trail for a mile or so until eventually a sign said "Trail Follows Cairns." The trail continued to disappear as I worked my way along a waterfall and into a high cirque above treeline dotted with ponds. Eventually I came upon a rather large rock cairn and couldn't see anymore from where I stood. Oh well, from here I could see my destination at the top of the ridge so it was time to bushwhack up the mountain. As I neared the top of the ridge the skies started to darken with another round of thunderstorms and I knew my chance of reaching the top of a peak today would be slim, the pass would have to suffice for today's adventure.
As soon as I reached the pass the winds picked up and it started to rain. Not much of a photo opportunity for this trip but I was amazed by the view of the South Colony Lakes. I could see the massive Crestone Needle in the distance and countless high peaks from this spot. I knew that if I could climb the peak to the west of me I would have been able to see the Great Sand Dunes themselves, which was a goal of this trip but the rumble of thunder put a hold on that for this time. Good thing there's always more trips in the future. To get an idea of the beauty that the South Colony Lakes offer, here's a photo that I took there last July.
I quickly made my way a few hundred feet down from the pass before a flash and a loud boom rattled the entire cirque, then sleet and hail started pelting me at full force. Time to retreat to the campsite, so I made my way down in the dark briskly and made plans for sunrise. After a brief night's sleep I decided the best view for the cloudy conditions was to hope the sun would break through to the east over the Wet Mountains, so I broke down camp before dawn and headed back to the top of Music Pass. I was right, a beautiful sunrise of deep magenta hues lit up the sky for just a few minutes before the sun became hidden in the clouds.
Well it was now the morning of the 29th, the day Jen had asked me to get both a sunrise and sunset image. While they were getting ready for their quiet wedding I had been out enjoying the mountain wilderness. Sunrise for the 29th was already a great success so it was time to get back to the car and drive 300 miles to the Pawnee Buttes, one of my favorite quiet spots in Colorado. For this part of the journey my girlfriend Amy would be joining me so she could also see what I hoped would be the best flower bloom in years.
It turns out I was right and much of the area around the Buttes was covered in purple flowers! Conditions were perfect for shooting them, with calm winds and good light. We were able to leisurely spend an afternoon in a field of flowers, waiting for the golden hour to take photos. I couldn't have asked for a better evening as the sun set and I exposed all the rest of my film.
Jen asked for two images, but because Marc and Jen are so awesome I decided to deliver three for them. These images are now theirs to keep forever as a memory of their marriage day, and only they will get prints of them from here on out. Congrats to Marc and Jen!
But don't worry, with Marc and Jen's permission I was able to save one of the Buttes images for myself, so prints are most certainly available to all of this most special wildflower bloom at the Pawnee Buttes. If you ever want to commission me for a special project like this and have your own unique everlasting images, please send me an email at email@example.com or give me a call (970)412-0679
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