The Prairie Ecologist Goes To The Mountains

As I mentioned in my last post, Kim and I snuck away for a short vacation in the mountains last week. It was a great trip, but now I’m catching up on all the work that was waiting for me when I got home. Since I’m a little pressed for time, I figured I’d just share a bunch more vacation photos instead of writing a long pithy post on prairie ecology.

Quaking aspen at Moonshine Park, a big open clearing in the Uncompahgre National Forest near Ouray, Colorado.

When I go to the mountains, I usually try to get up above tree line as much as possible. Hiking trails that just pass through dense stands of evergreens doesn’t do much for me. I want to feel the big open space that I like so much about prairies.

However, I found this year that my objection to hiking wooded trails doesn’t apply to autumn hikes through stands of quaking aspen. WOW, that’s a great experience. Of course, I still enjoyed getting up and out of the trees too, but since we were too late for most wildflowers, the aspen provided a lot of the color in the landscape. Kim and I are already planning our return visit next fall.

I hope you enjoy these photos. I’ll try to get back to prairie photos and topics for my next post.

Autumn in the Rocky Mountains is pretty spectacular.
This was my first-ever sighting of a dusky grouse. It stepped out onto the trail in front of Kim and then let me follow it for a few minutes with my camera as it wandered through the dark understory of a dense grove of aspens and other trees.
One of the great things about hiking with Kim is that we share the same kind of curiosity about everything we see. This is a poor cell phone photo of a fly(?) larva feeding inside a gall on a Gambel oak leaf. We admired this little bugger and its two friends in the same leaf, for several minutes. It was a great excuse to stop and catch our breath while heading up a steep slope.
Speaking of curiosity, Kim and I spent a lot of time wishing we knew more about the geology of the area. The Rocky Mountains are a great place to see numerous bands of sedimentary rock uplifted through time. Along this trail, we enjoyed speculating about how these layers were laid down. The top layer shown here had lots of rounded stones (river rocks?) embedded win a rocky matrix. Directly underneath was a layer of shale or some similar flaky substance. Really interesting.
I carried a lot of camera gear up and down the mountains last week but didn’t use my macro lens much. I took this photo partly to justify the extra weight of that macro lens… I don’t know what flower it is.
The carpets of gold leaves beneath some of the bigger aspen groves on the Corbett Creek Trail were really hard to capture with photography. It was also really hard to avoid humming Wizard of Oz songs.
My favorite hiking companion hiking the Corbett Creek Trail.
This mountain top near Ouray provided fall color independent of the changing leaves on lower slopes.
On Saturday, we made our way up the steep Ice Lake trail near Silverton, CO, and finally reached the lake for which the trail was named. The blue color was shocking. This photo actually UNDERSTATES how brilliantly blue the water was.
Here is ice lake from a distance, showing again how striking the color is. Apparently, the blue is accentuated by suspended particles in the water called glacial flour. The “flour” is just fine particles of rock ground up by glaciers. As glaciers melt, the water carries that dust into lakes, which (through physics I only partially understand) helps reflect light in a way that really intensifies the blue color.
The stream flowing out of Ice Lake had residue of the glacial flour on its rocks. It gave the stream a strong white color that we could see even from high above it. (I don’t know these flowers, but they were among only a few species still blooming when we were there.)
Island Lake was just a short side trip away from Ice Lake, but well worth the trouble. It wasn’t as shockingly blue as Ice Lake, but equally beautiful in its own way.
This is the view as we hiked back down from Ice Lake. The tiny lake near the center of the photo was Lower Ice Lake, which was about half way up the long hike to Ice Lake.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “The Prairie Ecologist Goes To The Mountains

  1. Thanks for sharing! Adding to my list of places to visit. Always look forward to your posts, you have yet to disappoint.

      • I’ve seen ruffed grouse in the Black Hills. I also thought what you photographed was a ruffed grouse. As I told you before, the reason I like your blog is I’m always learning new things.

  2. The sedimentary rock layers you showed (heavy cobbles overlying fine shale) are typical of flood event deposits. That’s flood with a small “f”. We’ve got similar formations here in the East along the Delaware River on the PA side. There are alternating bands of pebbles grading from large to small to mud deposits and then repeating. These are interpreted as being remains of heavy flooding where high energy/high volume water swept through an area, depositing the larger stones as the water lost momentum, followed by smaller stones and so forth until just mud was dropped. I realize the deposits in your photo appear to be reversed from this order, but it may be that the sediments have been flipped here or there are pebbly layers underneath that shale layer that are as yet unexposed.

  3. Many thanks for sharing your experience! Your photos are beautiful and inspiring! Reading your post made me feel like I took a vacation. Also made me want to plan a trip for next fall. Interesting to read that you snapped a smart phone photo but you carried a big camera gear. Those little phones are so handy. Looking forward to reading your next blog!

  4. Chris:

    Glad you got to visit the western Colorado mountains during fall color season. Bill and I were actually in the same vicinity (we concentrated on Kebler Pass and Owl Creek Pass — near Ridgway) over the past weekend. We never miss it (or crane migration in Nebraska) because it is nature at its most glorious. Of course the fabulous weather with the cerulean skies certainly helped. And Ice Lake — where does that blue come from?

    Katie Stevens Moab, Utah ________________________________

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