I had the good fortune to join Nasim again this year on his annual Landscape Photography Workshop in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. While I regularly communicate with Nasim and others from Photography Life via email and phone, time and distance do not afford us with many chances to meet in person. I also appreciated the chance to spend some quality time with avid Photography Life readers, who share an appreciation of photography, camera technology, and the outdoors. Their comments, suggestions, constructive criticism, and support have helped make the Photography Life site better over time. Last year’s adventure allowed me to meet some wonderful people and share some memorable moments. I expected no less from this year’s trip.
1) San Juan Mountains
The San Juan and Uncompahgre forests offer an incredible panorama of Aspen and fir tree covered woodlands against majestic mountain peaks. Telluride, Durango, Silverton, Ouray, and Ridgway are the main towns in this scenic Southwestern Corner of Colorado. These towns have their roots in mining operations dating back to the mid-to-late 1800s, when gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, and precious minerals were discovered in the region.
Legend has it that the road from Ouray to Silverton, nicknamed “The Million Dollar Highway,” either cost one million due to the challenges posed by the steep mountainous landscape, or that the required fill contained a million dollars of precious metals. Others claim that an early traveler, terribly shaken-up after his journey, once quipped, “I wouldn’t travel that road again for a million dollars!”. Mining activity in this region significantly slowed throughout the early part of the 20th century and died out completely by 1990. Some estimate that the value of all the metals and minerals extracted from the area just below Ouray alone would be worth over $250 million in today’s dollars. These towns experienced a significant loss in population when the mining industry died off. Slowly replacing the vacuum created by mining’s departure were the tourism and skiing industries. Today the town of Ouray has a population (1,000) that is less than half of what it was at the turn of the last century. Telluride and Ouray are located in what are known as “box canyons,” meaning that they are closely surrounded on three sides by extremely steep mountain ranges. The proximity of the towns to the large mountains makes for a very scenic view.
2) Day 1 – Reconnaissance
Morning arrived a bit earlier than usual for me, as my 6:04 AM flight from Pittsburgh required my waking up at 3:00 AM. As usual, however, my body somehow signaled for me to get up before the alarm bell rang. My first leg of the trip required me to fly to Houston and then onto Grand Junction. Despite the tight fit, I was able to stuff my Lowepro 400 AW Trekker into the small regional jet’s overhead bin. The thought of having to check my bag into the plane’s luggage compartment always scares me, even if it would immediately be handed back to me upon exiting the plane.
By 11:00AM Mountain Time, I was already traveling along my 93 mile drive from Grand Junction to Ridgway, which would serve as the base of our photography adventure. The drive from Grand Junction to Ridgway is very pleasant. Along the way, I was treated to some surreal mountain scenery. The Ridgway Lodge & Suites is centrally located providing easy access to Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton. The staff is very friendly and down-to-earth. I always have the sense that I am visiting some long-lost relatives’ house as opposed to checking into a hotel.
At approximately 3:00 PM, I met with Nasim. We decided to do some scouting in areas we believed would be prime locations to share with the workshop participants. Our main purpose was to determine which areas had the best fall foliage and ascertain the road conditions, since many of the roads we would travel are off the beaten path and subject to water damage. Depending on the severity, they can become impassible for anything other than a Jeep Rubicon or mountain goat.
We took Dallas Creek Road and Last Dollar Road, which were just off route 62. Nasim had warned me that the unusually warm weather might have delayed the leaves from turning. As we drove along, we were surprised to see so much green.
While we found very bright patches of golden Aspens, they were in relatively short supply as compared to the stunning display we encountered last year. We would have to figure out how to make the most of our journey, however. Later that night, we roasted some hot dogs and potatoes on a fire and discussed life in the former Soviet states, how computers and technology were affecting us as individuals and a society, and of course, the future of digital camera technology.
3) Day 2 – Where’s The Gold?
Upon awakening to a steady downpour of rain, Nasim and I decided to pass on venturing out before sunrise. The forecast called for rain throughout the morning and early afternoon. I caught up on my sleep a bit after getting only three hours of rest the night before. After some breakfast, I decided to head up to Ouray and the Million Dollar Highway, which connects Ouray and Silverton. Ouray is a fabulous little town with colorful shops and restaurants. You could keep yourself quite busy for a few hours just walking around town taking pictures of the brightly colored signs and storefronts that give the town a unique character.
3.1) Box Canyon Falls
I stopped at Box Canyon Falls since some locals told me that it was very impressive and provided some excellent photography opportunities. Box Canyon Falls are less than a 5 minute drive from highway 550 and well worth a trip and exorbitant $4 entry fee. Over a few million years, the creek has created a cavernous channel in the rocks, which can block much of the light. After navigating to the bottom of the falls, I set up my tripod for some slow motion water photos. The contrast was a bit much for my D800 to balance, so I used a mix of exposures to create a photo that properly exposed the highlights and shadows.
While at the falls, I met an elderly couple and struck up a conversation. I was surprised to learn that they lived only 25 miles from my home in Pittsburgh. The gentleman, now in his late 70s, indicated that, in his late teens, he had worked in the local mines and lived in Silverton. He regaled in telling me some stories of his time in Colorado and what life was like during those times. They had come back this way for a tour of Colorado and reacquaint himself with the beauty of the region.
3.2) Passing Through The Valley Of The Shadow
After leaving Box Canyon Falls, I headed along the Million Dollar Highway (route 550). This section of roadway is often listed in the top 5 most dangerous roads in the United States – and with good reason! This steeply ascending, winding section of the road, just outside the town of Ouray, is especially treacherous. On one side, you have solid rock that extends vertically, making it prone to frequent rock slides. On the other side, you quickly realize that there is no guard rail and only 3-4 feet of berm. There is a steep drop 600 or so feet with precious little to stop your fall. The hairpin turns make the situation all the more dangerous. This video will give you a sense of the journey.
The main issue is that in the event of a car accident, rock slide, mudslide or snow avalanche, there is simply no room and nowhere to go – except over the cliff. In the winter, it is not unusual to see avalanches completely block the road. I have read many accounts of “white-knuckled drivers” being terrified of the drive. Since I drove this road last year, I knew what to expect. If you are afraid of heights, and narrow roads without guardrails make you uneasy, I suggest having someone else drive and closing your eyes!
3.3) The Golden Highway To Silverton
After surviving the most dangerous part of the Million Dollar Highway, I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way up a much more hospitable section of the road, one with guard rails and areas allowing me to safely pull over. I immediately noticed some Aspens that had turned bright gold. I became hopeful that I might see even more as I made my way up the mountain. Sure enough when I hit the area I call the “Straightaway,” the sun lit up the mountainside and revealed a multitude of golden-colored Aspen trees.
This was a stunning drive. I started out with no intention of doing anything other than going 5 miles or so above Ouray. With each turn of the road however, I was treated to one stunning panorama after another. I decided to keep going.
Along the way, I saw the “Yankee Girl,” one of the area’s famous silver mines. It was quite a site and the late afternoon lighting was absolutely perfect. The rain we experienced in Ridgway had turned in to snow up above Ouray and coated the majestic Red Mountains, but not so much as to completely cover the richly-colored soil.
Eventually, the road ascended in elevation and I was surrounded by fir trees with not an Aspen in sight. It became very cold once I went above the Aspen line and snow began falling. I stopped for a quick picture (2?) and then proceeded along my way.
3.4) Silverton – A Walk Back In Time
As I began to make the descent toward Silverton, the sun came out and I once again came across acres of brightly colored golden Aspen. I pulled into Silverton, a sleepy little town that, like Ouray, still retained that colorful look of yesteryear.
Silverton is also an old mining town. It is now a thriving metropolis of ~650 people. By the time I reached Silverton, it took me the better part of 2 hours. While I thought I had traveled approximately 75 miles, I was surprised to learn that the journey was only 25 miles.
I slowly drove around town admiring the many historic buildings that, apart from some fresh paint and new windows, probably looked just like they did in the early 1900s. I thought it best to catch an early dinner before making my way back to Ridgway. I settled on Natalia’s Restaurant, which seemed to have a nice menu. Upon being seated, I realized that I was the only person in the restaurant. Then again, I didn’t imagine many people making a trip to Silverton just to have dinner.
I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with my waitress, Emily, who proved to be a wealth of information. I was surprised to find out that I was dining in what was once known at the “Bordello District,” the place where miners came to… uh… well… “relax” at the end of a hard day. Emily further shared that the wealthy citizens, who lived on the other side of the town, also wanted to visit the Bordello District but were concerned about appearances. So they paid workers to dig tunnels underneath the town that would enable them to cross the few hundred yards without being seen. It seems that more things change, the more they stay the same!
I was treated to a blizzard while I was leaving. Within 15 minutes, however, the sun came out and the snow was gone.
If you are in the Ouray area, I strongly encourage you to make the beautiful 25 mile drive to Silverton. You will not be disappointed. If you get hungry, make sure you stop by Natalia’s Restaurant. And tell Emily that the “camera guy” said hi.
By the time I got back to the lodge, it was 7:30 PM and time to meet Nasim and the others who were just finishing up a photography seminar in the dining area. I immediately recognized Drew, a local who had joined us last year and was very familiar with the area. I met others in the group and proceeded to get up to speed concerning the plans for the next day.
4) Day 3 – The Marathon Begins
5:00 AM came a bit too quickly for my taste, but I managed to drag myself out of bed and get ready. The temperature had plummeted to 27 degrees. The light breeze was going to make it feel that much colder. The skies looked clear and the forecast called for a sunny day. We were actually hoping for a bit more cloud cover to help diffuse the light, but we were at least thankful that we did not get the rain from the day before.
4.1) Route 62
The crowd assembled at 6:00 AM and, after working out the travel logistics, we were off. Our first destination was just off of route 62, which is an extension of the Sherman Street, Ridgway’s main street. The site is extremely popular with photographers. It enabled us to see a wide sloping swath of colorful vegetation and the Sneffel Mountain range in the background. Despite the dark and cold temperatures, 2 dozen people from different groups eagerly waited to see the sun light up the landscape of fall colors. Nasim offered the crowd hand warmers, which many quickly accepted.
A bit later in the morning, we came across an antique car club that had assembled for a road rally. We lost little time in stopping and asking if our group could take a few pictures of their impressive vintage cars.
4.2) Last Dollar Road
We then went down route 62 to Last Dollar Road. This dirt road winds up and over the mountains of Ridgway and eventually down into the town of Telluride. You need a vehicle with 4 wheel drive and some clearance to successfully navigate this road. It can become quite muddy with some nasty potholes. One section requires you to navigate a small, but shallow stream. We quickly arrived at one of our favorite haunts, a section of brightly colored Aspens that jut out of the landscape in the form of a V pattern, with the Sneffel Mountain range once again in the background.
Although the Aspens were not quite as colorful as last year, this year’s scenery was accentuated by the snowfall, which added quite a bit of character to the mountain ranges and portions of the landscape.
We continued to make our way methodically across Last Dollar Road hunting for golden Aspens, but finding far fewer than we found the prior year. Eventually we made our way down to Telluride. After discussing our options, we agreed that the Million Dollar Highway above Ouray, which I had visited the day before, represented the best option for “finding gold in them thar hills!” So off to Ouray we went.
Once again I found myself winding through that diabolical section of the Million Dollar Highway just outside of the Ouray city limits. I have to admit that it felt different as a passenger in the back seat – worse! I was relieved once we had gotten through the worst sections of the road. We stopped a few times and then quickly made our way up to the Straight-A-Way (mentioned earlier), where we paused to walk up to a huge section of brightly-colored Aspens. Finally, we had struck real “gold.” Although we were missing the interesting mix of clouds I experienced the day before, we did have some very bright sunshine at our back and some beautiful scenery. We then raced up the road to the Yankee Girl Mine. This provided some great photo opportunities for the group. Soon the sun slid over the hillside.
We navigated back down to Ouray for dinner, but found nothing but long waiting lines. We headed over to Ridgway and found the Adobe Inn, a wonderful little Mexican restaurant with the best salsa I have ever tasted. Heather, our waitress for the evening, proved to be extremely accommodating and understanding of our rowdy group of thirteen. We ended up eating on a mixture of coffee tables, make-shift folding tables brought out of storage, and normal dining tables. As expected, the group was knee-deep in discussions of camera technology, photography tricks, and post-processing techniques. Everyone had a good time and we all came away a bit wiser regarding some aspect of photography than when we first sat down. If you are in the Ridgway area, stop by the Adobe Inn for some authentic Mexican food and ask for Heather.
When we emerged from the restaurant, we were treated to an unbelievable view of the night sky. My one regret of the trip was not staying up a bit longer to photograph the night sky. For many of us that live in cities or suburbs, it was like something out of a dream. We rarely see the type of star-filled skies that can be found in such remote areas. Next year I will make sure I take a few photos of the beautiful night sky with my Samyang 14mm f/2.8.
5) Day 4 – A Little Detour On Silver Pick Road
After a 14 hour day that started at 5:00 AM, no one seemed enthused at the prospect of getting up at the crack of dawn the next day. Nasim and the group were scheduled to meet in the afternoon to conduct a post-processing working session at the lodge. After the post-processing class, each member of the group would submit a few pictures and Nasim would then review the photos for color, contrast, composition, etc. in an attempt to help everyone understand how to improve their photography techniques and post-processing skills. While my photography and post-processing skills can always use some improvement, I decided instead to head toward Telluride, with no particular agenda apart from finding something interesting to photograph.
I originally thought I might end up in the town of Telluride, but that wasn’t meant to be. A few miles from Telluride, I spotted the “Silver Pick Road” off to the right side. On a whim, I decided to take the road and see where it might lead. I was pleasantly surprised to find numerous yellow Aspens and roadway lined with deep red rock cliffs. Eventually, I came upon a sign for “Wilson Mesa Trail” and turned onto the road. I was treated to a stunning view of the Sneffel Mountains, ranches as far as I could see, and more golden Aspens than I expected. After about an hour or so of driving, I finally asked someone how to get back to my original starting point. It seems I was less than a mile from completing the loop. But instead of going back down toward Telluride, however, I chose to follow the original road I turned off of to get to Wilson Mesa Trail. This also brought me into a series of rustic ranches nestled against the Sneffel Mountains. The landscape was stunning, although the ideal time to visit this area was probably a bit later in the day, perhaps between 4:00 PM and 7:00 PM. I was also treated to some friendly, but cautious, cows that seemed free to roam the mountains and fields. I imagined this is what some restaurants meant when they indicated “Free Range Beef” in their menus.
These cows certainly had much better living conditions than the poor cows I would late find in Montrose, on my way back to Grand Junction. Roaming over a fenced-in pen, the size of two football fields, these pathetically sad-looking cows wandered around all day in a mixture of cow patties, urine, and dirt. Feeding time required them to stick their heads through slots in the fence where they could reach the food mixture dumped by a truck along the fence’s border. It was depressing sight and in stark contrast to the lives of the cows I found in mountains of Telluride.
This road turned out not to be a loop. After about 4-5 miles, I came to a dead end in the middle of a field. I turned back and then explored some side roads on the way back toward Telluride. Along the way, I was treated to quite a bit of outstanding scenery. Once again, I was reminded of the serendipitous opportunities that sometimes come about from not having a rigid plan or detailed agenda.
I also recalled how many of my favorite photos taken over the years were the result of my taking an unexplored road or deviating from my original plans in some way. In this “always on/always connected” culture we live, it was nice to break the cord and remind myself that the best journeys in life are often those that we don’t plan.
I got back down to the Ridgway Lodge just in time to say goodbye to Nasim and Zafar. Unfortunately, I could not stay for dinner and the wrap-up due to my travel plans. I started on my journey back to Grand Junction, where I dropped off my rental car, checked into a local motel, and prepared for my early morning flight.
If you appreciate fall foliage, hiking, and the outdoors, I would strongly urge you to consider a trip to the San Juan Mountains. I recognize that there are likely many competing locations that are compelling in their own right, but the beauty of the San Juan Mountains in the fall is breathtaking. The scenery is much different than you may be used to, particularly if you are from the eastern part of the country.
Despite the capabilities of my D800 and cadre of high-end lenses, I am not convinced that they can adequately capture the beauty of this region. The old mining towns have quite a bit of character and are a not-so-subtle reminder of the challenges that previous generations endured and their willingness to work in extremely difficult circumstances for a piece of the American Dream. While it is probably a bit early for Nasim to start posting information regarding next fall’s landscape workshop, given the amount of information available online, it is not too early to familiarize yourself with this intriguing corner of the world and start making plans for visiting in 2014.