Western San Juans Adventure 2013

After the Telluride and Aspen Plein Air Invitationals, I went on to the Durango, CO area to meet up with my Sister, Mom, and past assistant, Frank. We all met up at my sister’s place there in bustling Durango in order to do a backpacking trip in to the Chicago Basin of the Western San Juan Mountains. It’s been a wet Summer here in Colorado, and the monsoons have been very busy. 20130718_162608The state may be the greenest I’ve ever seen it before. It’s bitter sweet because while the state needs the moisture, I prefer the drought conditions for painting. Long story short, there was a stationary front that was sitting on top of the Chicago Basin when we boarded the Durango to Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad. We rode the train to a small ghost town along the Animas River in the San Juan Wilderness called Needleton. That’s where our ride ended and our 8 mile hike in accompanied by 2500 feet of elevation gain began. We loaded our packs on our backs and started up the Needle Creek watershed to the basin in a light drizzle. It was a foggy way up the trail and the rain was intermittent. One place about two miles up the creek, the trail got close to a beautiful cascade and I stopped and painted while the others continued trekking on. One more short painting session on the way in and I arrived a few hours later to the camping spot. It was a gloomy evening with low lying clouds hovering above the basin. They started to clear off about the time I was ready to turn in and we saw a very nice half moon in the night sky promising us a clear morning. Well, it lied. 20130717_08451520130717_084549The next morning Frank was up about 4:30 am in order to bag Eolus and North Eolus, two of the four 14ers(14 thousand foot peaks)  in the basin. I woke up again at about 7:00 am to a completely socked in valley..20130717_125327Fog so thick in spots you could only see 30 ft or so. It wasn’t raining though, so I grabbed my painting bag and a quick lunch. I hiked up and out of the treeline and across some magnificent cascading tributary streams. The high population of mountain goats in the area made their presence known all over the area on this day.


 I painted a cascade on the way to Twin Lakes at the base of the namesake of the creek, the Needle Mountains. At the Lake it was so fogged in that the far banks were indiscernible, but as I started painting the fog lifted over the course of the next 4 hours or so and I filled a camera card with amazing highly dramatic shots. Be on the lookout for some of these paintings in the near future. I ended up painting


4 paintings of the lake during this time and felt very fortunate for there not being rain involved in the scenario. We had a wet and rainy dinner back at camp, but the sky actually cleared after that and we had an amazing sunset in the basin.20130718_101558 The next morning was actually clear and beautiful. Frank again got up earlier than anyone and hiked up the hill again to get one of the toughest 14ers in CO’s lineup, Sunlight Peak with the all feared “leap of faith” to summit. Rumor has it that Frank got a bit scared up there and was not able to complete the summit, but I don’t believe it!! I painted another three paintings of this gorgeous morning and then as the rain came back, we cleaned up camp and headed for the train stop at Needleton once again. It rained the whole way down, but never downpoured on us luckily. With a couple of cold beers on the train, it was a fantastic end to an amazing trip!! Thank you Universe!
20130721_122122The next week I met up with an old Army buddy, Edmund Rudell. Him and I have a hobby, or maybe an obsession with seeing the bowels of the planet Earth. We very much enjoy doing slot canyons. Most of the ones that we have done are in the Zion National Park area. We’ll hike down a creek a bit and then come to a cliffed out off-camber drop of sometimes up to 200 feet… and then that’s into a deep carved out pool of freezing cold water. Sound AWESOME!?? We put on our rockclimbing harnesses and set up a rappel station from the top. We then rappel down the rope and continue on our adventure.  Well, I was surprised to find out that there are some subalpine and higher elevation slot canyons right here in CO. 20130721_162647There are many in the San Juan Mountains especially concentrated around Ouray, CO. He had done the research on them, and met me in Durango the night I returned out of Chicago Basin. We headed for Ouray and slots early the next morning.
Thing is with Ouray, they call it the Switzerland of the United States, it’s got a lot of vertical elevation to it. Every slot we wanted to do requires an over 1000 foot climb in order to then descend a slot canyon watershed. 20130721_111632We did Oak Creek the first day which I absolutely loved, and Cascade Creek the second day. Cascade had more angular breaks to the erosion of the rock which I found more attractive from a painter’s view. On the third and final day of the slot canyon fun trip we did Bear Creek just outside of town off of the Million Dollar Highway. That was a geologic wonder. From Crestacious period megaripples in the rock from being at the bottom of a shallow inland sea for eons, to tilted layers of metamorphic schist, and water carving through it all. Extremely beautiful!! Be on the lookout for paintings from this slot canyon adventure in the near future.

Enjoy the body of work from the Chicago Basin trip below:


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  1. Page Holland August 27, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    Josh, loved the narrative and the paintings and pics. I rode the dsng this July and spent a few days in Silverton. Reading a lot about the history of the area. great to hear your experience. Will we see you in Moab this Oct? Can arrange housing or in-town campsite if you like. We really hope to see you.

  2. gary mason (LTUA) October 3, 2013 at 12:13 pm #


    Loved your Chicago Basin art portrayals! I spent a lot of time there in my formative years climbing the Needles. Later on, I was a brakeman and conductor on the RR you rode.

    Happy trails,

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