Elephant Heads & San Juan Secrets—Southern Colorado's Limnologic Dreamscape

There are certain colors in this world that can make you speechless.  The deep penetrating turquoise of Ice Lakes is one of those. The purpley fuchsia of the elephant heads growing along the banks is another. Add in an unbeatable mountain ridgeline seen from 12,000+ ft and a myriad of other showy wildflowers, and the result is a prismatic mountain landscape scene unique to an August day in the Colorado high country. 

The fact that the terminus of this hike is a scene that looks like it jumped right off a calendar page is one reason why is has not remained a novelty among tourists and locals alike. The trail was like an alpine highway with people streaming from nearby Mineral Creek campground migrating uphill to reach the fantastically serene mountain oasis that awaited weary hikers.  Alpine highway or not, the destination is well worth the Colorado Sunday crowds.

I was down on my hands and knees lakeside in the mud like the crazed botanist that I can sometimes be once I spotted the elephants head. For some reason the violaceous color of this particular figwort is mesmerizing to me, or maybe it’s the delicate semblance of the tiny flowers to an actual elephant’s head. Whatever the case, I always count myself lucky when I see one on the trail. By the time I finally reached our chosen spot by the lake, my companions were already down to their underwear and about to jump in the water. Our puppies were chasing marmots—dashing in and out of the water and inconveniently shaking their wet bodies on the piles of clothes ditched by the waters edge. I reached my companions in time to snap a few photos of them diving in the lake before I promptly stripped and joined them in the numbingly cold water. After a few paralyzing breaststrokes back to shore and some facial expressions that I don’t think I could ever make again, we pulled our frigid bodies onto shore from the aquamarine icebox and wrapped up in down coats to eat hummus and cheese and enjoy the view.

The San Juan Mountains is a Pandora’s box of any and every outdoor experience you would wish to have, and while some hikes are crowded in the summer, summit a fourteener and drop into the opposite basin, and you will experience a diametrically opposite world to the one you entered—mountain goats and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep frolic on cliff edges, occasionally locking horns in an astounding CRACK!, persistent flowers poke their colorful offerings out from beneath rock crops, and mineral rich lakes lap the mountain slopes in a silent protest to time. This limnologic dreamland has remained pristine and perfectly intact, undisturbed for centuries.  In a landscape populated by the densest compilation of fourteen thousand foot peaks in the world, it is truly a place of so many secrets—secrets that are not easily kept in our populated world.