San Juan Mountains Trip Log – Part 1

Now that I have just a little bit more time on my hands, I am able to go back and review some of the images that Lola and I snapped when we went for a road trip to San Juan Mountains of Colorado a couple of weeks ago. One thing for sure, it is hard to guess the exact time when the colors will be at their peak and when the leaves are going to fall, since it changes year after year. If the cold hits the mountains early, the leaves change colors early. Although Denver has been pretty warm this fall, I had no idea how warm or cold it would be in the mountains. So without much thinking and guessing, Lola and I quickly packed our gear and took off to see the San Juan County. Our objective was to see Ouray, Telluride and the surrounding areas, test the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR and Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G DX VR lenses and come back with good pictures. I think we managed to snap a couple of good images, although the weather yet again did not cooperate much with us.

I hate to admit it, but this was my first time travelling to that part of Colorado – I have been living here for over 13 years! Everybody kept telling me to visit the “Switzerland of America”, but various circumstances and other travel plans have been putting off my trip year after year. This year has been super busy for Lola and I, for which we are certainly grateful, but at the same time, it left very little time for personal and family travel. But there is a big difference between a photography trip and a family trip. We knew that our kids would not enjoy it, so with promises to take them to Micky later this year, we took off.

I decided to start off with this picture, because it kind of characterizes our trip – a little extreme, colorful and plenty of sun with no clouds most of the time…and yes, that’s me in my truck on the top left side of the image. Lola certainly did not like the idea, but I decided to check it out, since there were already some Jeep tracks that went all the way to the top. As I got out of the car and looked down, my head spun a little, since it was an almost straight down fall for at least 150-200 feet.

Mid-day photography is never fun, so we drove for a while, looking for good spots. On our way to Telluride, we found plenty of aspens, with some in their fall plumage. Armed with the D700 and the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR, I took the following shot:

One thing you have to be careful about when shooting nature with close objects is depth of field. Depending on focal length of the lens, if your aperture is large, the object you focus on will be sharp, while objects that are not on the same plane will be out of focus. Why depending on focal length? Because the shorter the focal length, the larger the depth of field is. That’s why when you shoot with an ultra-wide angle lens everything seems to be perfectly in focus, while getting everything in focus with a telephoto lens on a close subject can often be difficult. I will be explaining all of this in detail, along with “hyperfocal distance” in my upcoming “Landscape photography howto” article.

Anyway, I had to use f/10 @ 1/125th of a second for the above image to get everything in focus and acceptably sharp. It is great that the 28-300mm has VR on it, since I shot handheld 90% of the time at slow shutter speeds, often due to small apertures and my polarizing filter which ate up 1-2 stops of light.

On the Last Dollar Road (yes, that’s the name of the unpaved road that leads to Telluride from Ridgway), we encountered a herd of sheep with some Mexican cowboys:

I kindly asked this guy to pose for me and he agreed, along with his dog:

The afternoon sun was blazing hot, with ugly direct sunlight, so after taking another picture of the sheep, we continued our scouting drive.

As we approached Telluride, I stopped at a spot with a bunch of aspens and took a few images with one of my favorite landscape lenses – the Nikon 24-70mm:

I took the same shot with the 28-300mm, which is posted on the Nikon 28-300 Review. I also used f/10 for this shot @ 1/400th of a second.

After dining at a local restaurant in Telluride, we took off to Ouray. The drive to Ouray was one of the most beautiful and scenic drives I have ever done in my life. Aspens were everywhere, with beautiful, golden fall colors:

As you can see, I did rely on my B+W 77mm polarizing filter a lot to get the sky bluer, reduce reflections and get rid of haze:

We were still about one week early to get the red aspen colors, but the gold was everywhere:

As I was moving around to find spots, I found this large device in the middle of the field:

Not sure what it is for, but it served me well for my composition! :)

There were plenty of mines along the way and this one was abandoned a while ago (captured with Nikon D3s and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G):

The red mountain pass certainly has a lot of red:

Along the way, we were not too far away from the Mesa Verde National Park, so we decided to stay there for the night. After finding our camping spot at night, I took my tripod with the D3s + 24-70 out and decided to take a couple of pictures before we went to bed. The sky was clear and the moon light was very bright, so here is what my camera was able to capture:

I have never seen moonlight illuminate an area in such a way, that the colors all showed up in the image. I did not do anything special, just set the camera to manual mode, set shutter speed to 1/20th of a second and dialed f/5.0 on my lens. Why f/5.0? Because anything more would have required a lot more light and even slower shutter speeds, which would result in star trails. Yes, star trails are fun, but only when you shoot for a very long time – that’s when you see the longer lines. Anything longer than 20-25 seconds results in short and ugly star trails when shooting wide and I surely did not want to stay up all night either.

But I did point my camera up to capture a part of the Milky Way:

For which I had to go even faster at f/4.0 and 15 seconds.

We woke up very early next morning and started scouting the park for potential spots to photograph. The morning was surely a waste, since most of the good spots were closed till 9 AM. But we did take a few images of wild horses:

As soon as the Cliff Palace was opened, we headed down to take some pictures before tourists poured in:

I have a very nice picture of a famous kiva that I will post later this week, which is located at the Cliff Palace. In terms of light, the best time to be at the Cliff Palace is at around noon, when the sun rays reach the kiva and illuminate the walls of the palace.

Lola found this bench with leaves on our way back:

We were very impressed by the kiva at the Cliff Palance, so we decided to check out the big one, the Great Kiva in Aztec, Arizona:

Apparently, the town was named “Aztec”, because people who found the kiva thought that it was made by Aztecs! The kiva was restored to look similar to what it would have looked like before the top collapsed. It is certainly a cool place to visit!

I really wanted to take some pictures of the Cliff Palace in the evening, so we took a few more pictures and then drove back to Mesa Verde. We did not quite make it on time for the nice evening light, but I still captured a few pictures of the Cliff Palace after sunset, including this panorama:

We stayed at Mesa Verde for one more night. Next morning, we took off back to Ouray to capture some more pictures of the fall colors.

On our route back, despite all warning signs (which I did not even care to read), I was stupid enough to try one of the 4×4-only roads on the 4Runner. I can’t remember its name, but it is the most dangerous 4×4 route that leads to Telluride. Well, after about half a mile or so of going uphill at 30-45% angles, I realized that maybe it was not such a good idea. All this time, Lola was just silent. I don’t know what was running through her head, but I’m glad that she was sitting on the passenger side, which was the mountain side. Every once in a while, I would look down and realize that if something went wrong, we would be going straight downhill more than 500 feet. The road was so narrow, that I could barely fit.

As we drove further up, I found one spot where the road was a little wider. I asked Lola to get out and guide me, while I tried to turn around:

I wish I captured this shot from higher up to show you the perspective, but looking down was pretty scary! I was just not ready for this kind of off-road experience. Slowly and carefully, I managed to turn back and we drove back, very slowly. On our way back to highway, we met one crazy guy on a 4×4 Jeep that wanted to do it twice on that day. He was a photographer…

After this experience, we found another 4×4 drive, but it was much shorter, wider and easier to drive on. The reward at the end of the road was this waterfall:

I captured the waterfall using techniques that I share in my “how to photograph waterfalls” article. Basically, I used a 6 stop Neutral Density filter to decrease the amount of light that comes through the lens. By doing that, I was able to get the running water look silky and smooth.

After photographing the waterfalls, we continued our drive back to Ridgway, stopping on the way and taking more pictures of aspens:

Captured this shot in Ridgway:

We then headed back to Telluride through Dallas Divide. After a good late lunch meal at the same Chinese restaurant called “Shanghai Palace” we ate at before (great food by the way), we decided to snap a few pictures of this beautiful town:

The colors were amazing!

I could not get enough of Dallas Divide, so when I saw some cloud formations, I filled up my gas tank and took the Last Dollar Road from Telluride back again:

The sunset was absolutely beautiful!

Too bad we only got the clouds on the day when we were supposed to leave, but I knew that it was a sign – we needed to come back :)

Stay tuned for the part 2 of our trip log!


Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. Просто сказка какая то. Красиво. Спасибо:)

    • Спасибо Алексей! Видео о том, как чистить сенсор поставлю сегодня (на англ. языке).

  2. 2
    ) Mirsanjar

    What an amazing job you guys did. LOVE IT.

  3. 3
    ) Guzal Fakhriyeva

    Цвета на самом деле, изумительные.

  4. 4
    ) Sadie

    OMG! Such a fantastic job you have done. I have copied few pictures for my wallpaper. fabulous! Wonderful!

  5. 5
    ) George Gutierrez

    That’s why I love Nothern New Mexico and Colorado. Amazing vistas! Great photos by the way.

    • George, I agree! I need to explore Colorado a little more…so many beautiful places to see.

  6. 6
    ) nigget

    фантастика!

  7. 7
    ) Noreen

    These are really amazing shots!!! thanks for sharing! now, I am inspired to do a lot more when i’ll hit the road with family in the next coming weeks.

    • Thank you for your feedback Noreen! I hope you like Part 2 as well.
      Good luck with your family trip!

  8. 14
    ) David

    Fantastic pictures. Love each and every one.

    D

  9. 15
    ) Jay Larson

    Colorado is amazingly beautiful, then you go around the San Juans and it gets even louder! Thanks, can’t wait to get back. Did you ever use the alpine loop? Kinda looks like Animas pass area around the red mountains…

    • Jay, I believe the Alpine loop is only for 4×4 Jeeps…it was too scary to take it all the way. I took a short route through the mines (can’t remember the name) and did other regular roads, but not 4×4. I don’t think I would be able to make it on my 4Runner :)

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