When we lived in the Denver area, I absolutely loved visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park whenever I could. It was about 1.5 hours away, and had some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States. On one visit in 2015, I wanted to find some scenery from the Trail Ridge Road up high in the tundra, but I struggled to find a good spot. On a hunch, I parked at the Lava Cliffs Overlook and walked up the hill across the road where I found this amazing view of the Trail Ridge Road zigzagging down the mountain with Longs Peak in the background.
This is one of my favorite photos from recent years because it really captures the beauty of the Milky Way from a remarkable location. My cousin (the very talented Allison Otto) and I had been scoping out good weekends to take Milky Way photos from somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, but our schedules never quite aligned to make it happen. So when my wife suggested a trip to Aspen on one of those weekends, I already knew it would be a good opportunity to see the stars from nearby Independence Pass. While Aspen is certainly beautiful, Independence Pass is a marvel and one of the most spectacular passes in Colorado.
Taking astrophotos can be a challenge – you need to be in the right place (dark skies) at the right time (little moonlight) with the right weather (no clouds) at the right time of year (the Milky Way is only visible in the warmer months of the Northern Hemisphere). Fortunately, all of this worked in my favor on my backpacking trip to Quartz Lake in August, letting me take a truly dream come true photo of Mars and the Milky Way together in the night sky. There was a reason I lugged all of my heavy camera gear up and over a mountain pass, and this was it.
Thanks to a helpful coincidence in work travel, I was able to make a trip to Pagosa Springs, Colorado to see my parents for a few days. While planning my stay, I decided I also wanted to add some solo backpacking to my visit. My first plan was to hike the Lime Mesa trail to Emerald Lake in the Weminuche Wilderness, but while the stretch from the trailhead to the overlook is well documented, I had trouble finding information about the trail down to the lake itself. With the overlook portion sitting well above tree line, I realized I did not want to be caught there during one of Colorado’s infamous afternoon monsoons – especially given the lightning danger. I would be taking on a lot of risk if I couldn’t make the supposedly tricky descent down the unmaintained trail to the lake before lunchtime.
Thankfully, I had a good last-minute recommendation from my mother and one of her friends to switch my plan to Quartz Lake in the South San Juan Wilderness instead. The trail to the lake is well documented, and it had just as much scenic promise as the original plan. Even though I had never been to the lake, I had previously hiked a portion of the trail as a day hike – a plus because I knew what I was getting myself into. After some quick map reading, Google Earthing, and GPS checking, I locked in my plan and set out the following morning.