Yankee Boy Basin
by Dave Rodenbaugh
Speak these three words to any seasoned Colorado photographer and they'll probably wax philosophical with you about their past visits to this popular wildflower haunt. No single place in Colorado defines the wildflower bloom and the budding anticipation of the season than this destination in the beautiful San Juan Mountains.
Nestled at an elevation between 11500 and 12000 feet, Yankee Boy Basin contains some of the most prolific stands of wildflowers in the state. Indeed, most photographers to the area plan their trips specifically so that they will be visiting this area during 'peak season'. While peak season can mean many things to many people, in Yankee Boy it commonly refers to the time when large stands of Columbine dot the fields of this glacially carved cirque.
The basin itself is surrounded by several breathtaking peaks--Potosi Peak, Teakettle Mountain, Cirque Mountain, Stony Mountain, and Gilpin Mountain. Most are 13,500 or higher, standing high above the green-carpeted valley, the surrounding fields are filled with some of the most amazing flowers--even during an "off year", this place will most likely amaze you if you've never seen it before. The basin is also home to several waterfalls of varying sizes, the most obvious of them being the famous Twin Falls, running right near the main road into the basin. There's definitely no lack of subject matter here!
If you visit during the right time, you're bound to find at least a dozen different blooming species: Monument Plant, Paintbrush (of varying colors), Columbine, Larkspur, Chiming Bluebells, Orange Sneezeweed, Cow Parsnip, and Dwarf Sunflowers just to name a few of the more common ones. Typically, the peak time for Yankee Boy traditionally falls in the middle of July, but this can vary wildly from year to year with winter snowfall amounts, summer weather, and recent rains. It's often best to contact multiple sources to find out just how things are progressing.
Getting to Yankee Boy is half the fun--drive out of Ouray on CO 550 heading south towards Silverton and follow the signs toward Camp Bird Mine (although these days, Yankee Boy Basin is also on the signs due to the large amount of visitor traffic). Continue up this road, which becomes more and more "interesting" with each passing mile--turning from a graded dirt road into a slightly bumpy shelf road, finally ending up as a moderate 4WD road with some steep, rough, rutted sections that shouldn't be attempted by any low-clearance 2WD vehicles at all. As always, know your limits and make smart choices. If you're not feeling up to the task, why not get a ride from one of the many jeeping companies in Ouray itself? You'll enjoy the drive more when you're not concentrating on the road anyhow!
You need not limit your trip to the basin itself. Drive or walk up the more difficult section of the 4WD road and park for a relatively short hike to the summit of Mt Sneffels, or make the hike over the pass to Blue Lakes Basin from the trailhead just off the same road. Still jonesing for more wildflowers and feeling up for more 4WD adventure? Try the optional side trip to Governor Basin (considered a difficult route because of the narrow sections), even higher up than Yankee Boy with the spectacularly placed Virginius Mine building at the end of the road. This area, because of greater elevation blooms somewhat later than Yankee Boy, so plan accordingly. Again, know your limits and your skills on these roads and please consult the guidebooks or contact local jeep companies for more information.
Yankee Boy is mentioned in numerous guide books and is easy to locate. If all else fails, contact the Ouray Chamber of Commerce and they can help you plan a trip to the area. Crowds (and traffic) tend to be higher on the weekends, although it's rare to be alone in the basin at any time these days. Any time you can make it to Yankee Boy, rain or shine, is a good time indeed.
For more images of Colorado by Dave Rodenbaugh, visit his Coyote Images website.
All images and text copyright © Dave Rodenbaugh