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COLORADO

Yankee Boy: just dandy

Mind the music of nature -- the many lovely waterfalls -- as well as the breathtaking array of wildflowers. And have a camera handy!

August 19, 2007|Dan Blackburn | Special to The Times

YANKEE BOY BASIN, COLO. — The way to Yankee Boy Basin is not a drive for the weak-kneed. The gravel road quickly turns to dirt and is slick with mud after the frequent afternoon thun- derheads roll through. The closer you get to the basin, the narrower it gets, winding through sharp turns and under rock overhangs. Then too, there was the mountain lion.

But we came to this remote basin in southwestern Colorado near Ouray in search of wildflowers and waterfalls -- things in short supply this year in California -- and a few steep drop-offs, a rough ride and a big cat weren't going to turn us back.

Gloria Cortes, my companion, and I had heard from fellow writers and photographers about nature's splendid display of wildflowers in Yankee Boy Basin in the heart of Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Every summer, hundreds of visitors come here for the blooms, the happy result of a combination of the right geography and weather.

Yankee Boy is a large bowl surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks. In winter, avalanches off the surrounding peaks can bury it in 20 feet or more of snow. As summer approaches, the snow melts, and the soil in the basin gets saturated. Add to this frequent afternoon thundershowers in July and a warm sun, and the flowering conditions become ideal.

Usually, blossoms start appearing in early July and reach their peak late in the month, stretching into early August. But don't worry; they don't stop then.

Basins at higher elevations, such as Governor, Silver and Sidney, pick up where Yankee Boy leaves off. Wildflower season in the San Juans can extend to late August in fields scattered with columbine (Colorado's state flower), larkspur, Queen Anne's lace, monkshood, asters, paintbrush and many more.

Most wildflower hounds usually base themselves in and around the town of Ouray, which once thrived on hard-rock mining of gold and silver. Nowadays, the townsfolk cater to tourists like us.

Because driving would take too long, in late July we flew from Los Angeles to Denver and took a short-hop flight to Durango. There, we rented a four-wheel-drive that had room for our camping gear and other items and enough ground clearance to get us to the flowery heights.

We arrived late in the day at the Amphitheater Campground, which sits in a glacial bowl several hundred feet above Ouray in Uncompahgre National Forest. A few years ago, the U.S. Forest Service spent several million dollars upgrading the campground, and it was money well spent. It's one of the best in which we've pitched a tent in our years of camping and backpacking.

Our tent, fire ring and table were surrounded by head-high bushes that provided privacy. Drinking water and a clean bathroom were only steps away. Hummingbirds buzzed near our tent, and chipmunks did a Chip-and-Dale routine in and around the bushes.

The next morning, we took a two-minute walk for a striking view of Ouray and the surrounding mountains. Then, back on the trail, we almost literally stumbled across a pair of young male deer, their antlers still shrouded in velvet. This was the first of several wildlife encounters.

Back in our car, we were on our way to Yankee Boy Basin. At the turnoff to the basin, a large sign suggested a side trip to Box Canyon Falls, and we took it.

A suspension bridge took us into a darkened canyon carved by a thundering 285-foot waterfall whose roar echoed off the rock walls. Our ears still ringing, we returned to the car and began the trek over gravel and dirt to Yankee Boy Basin.

JUST LIKE OFF-ROADING

A four-wheel-drive with good ground clearance is crucial. You'll do a fair amount of driving, and although the distances are not great, the condition of the roads makes for slow going. Some of the other wildflower basins in the area have even more challenging roads, and we had to turn back trying to reach one.

Some people take the easier option into the basin, and sign up with one of the jeep tour companies in town. One of the oldest is San Juan Jeep Tours. Owner Gregg Pieper has a boundless enthusiasm for the high country of the San Juans and Yankee Boy.

"People are genuinely surprised that all of these varieties of flowers grow naturally in this one area," he said. Pieper repeated what a master gardener who took a tour of Yankee Boy told him: "This is like the Garden of Eden!"

As the dirt track lifted us above 11,000 feet, clumps of flowers -- asters, red paintbrush, cow parsnips and others -- began to appear. Around every bend, we saw more and more wildflowers in an increasing variety of hues, shapes and sizes. Soon, the basin itself spread out before us like a master's canvas splattered with dots of color. The scene took our breath away.

"Magical." That's what Branson Reynolds, a zoologist turned photographer who has been leading photo tours here for 17 years, says about Yankee Boy. Visitors "go home with a feeling for what the land is about, that they have a sense of connection with the beauty that they see," he said.

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