October 2018: Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys - Wilderness Exclusives

The problem with Aspen, Colorado certainly isn’t any lack of pretty things to point a camera at. The surrounding valleys are some of the most scenic places on Earth! The problem: finding something pretty to point a camera at, without getting a Gulfstream in the shot, and without trespassing. Many of the back roads in this area are…spoken for.

Considering the Woody Creek area is home to Owl Farm, home of the late Good Doctor himself, Hunter S. Thompson, who was famous for having gun battles with his neighbors—over seemingly petty things like property lines.   

There certainly is a multitude of places to explore nearby. In the end, I never technically set foot in the town of Aspen on this trip to the nearby Roaring Fork, Woody Creek, Maroon Creek and Crystal River valleys. All of these locations offer something unique, and often breathtakingly so, to visitors. This trip lasted for four days, but a photographer could literally spend a lifetime just in this valley, and have more than enough to work with.

I was also trying out a new piece of gear on this trip. I purchased a Sony FE/4 12-24mm lens on my way out of Denver and I couldn’t make it past Georgetown (about 30 minutes outside of Denver) before I felt compelled to take it out and play with it. I captured a few shots of Lake Georgetown, and the mountainside behind it gathering more and more snow higher up.

Finally rest assured that my new lens functions properly and works with my camera, I quickly got back in my car and continued booking it to Redstone, my destination for the next couple of days. I was excited about the “dramatic” skies overhead; there’s no easier way to screw up an otherwise jaw-dropping landscape than with a bright blue sky: the overabundance of light can easily give the photograph the feel of an FBI interrogation, in an airport restroom, as opposed to the majesty the situation commands.

Continuing more or less per plan, I make the turn in Carbondale to head south on CO 133 toward Redstone. Mt. Sopris (12, 966’) dominates the Valley at this point, a beautiful and very prominent mountain. The Crystal River cascades adjacent, and the crimson rock formations on both sides of the road make it quite obvious how my destination got its name. Evidence of mining is apparent to the astute observer, with mining tailings and coke ovens, from coal mining operations which were, at one time, scattered throughout the valley, dot the landscape.

I found a good spot to snag a couple of views of Mount Sopris, with its huge presence but tranquil mountainsides. I also notice a lot of the low-traffic bridges in the area, many built around the 1960’s, do a nice job of complimenting the natural landscape.

Just past the bridge is the next vantage point, “Approaching Sopris.”

Approaching Sopris

Continuing down the Crystal Valley I feel a calm tranquility juxtaposed with the impressive might of this river’s flow, considering it’s October. A lot of Colorado’s rivers slow to a mere trickle this late in the season, but early Fall rain, as well as snowfall both in the high alpine and valleys as well, contributed to an impressive Crystal River, which I took the time to enjoy on my way to the Redstone Inn.

The River meanders at its own pace, highlighted by the gilded deciduous trees’ impressive Autumnal performance in “Crystal Path.”

Crystal Path

As I approach Redstone, the large amount of Iron in the rock outcroppings gives this valley its signature crimson appearance and unique character. It is no wonder this area is a not-so-well-kept secret among both Colorado’s adventure-seekers and out-of-state visitors. The beauty of this area really gives one the sense that, no matter what their ordinary lives are comprised of, they're far, far away from it here. 

Crystal Flow

After exploring the valley for a while, and getting to know my new wide-angle a little bit, I headed back to the hotel bar for a night cap. It seemed like this was the social hub of the area, and a few of the locals clued me into good hikes and photog spots in the area. 

The next morning’s goal was the famous Crystal Mill. My trip research stated this as a mild 8-mile hike. The locals swore that it was closer to 10, and I found that the preferred method of approaching the Mill is by Jeep, which frankly did not sound like a bad idea once I looked outside.

It had snowed about 6” the night before, which dissuaded me from wanting to hike up there in such wet, soggy conditions. A local outfit, Crystal Valley Jeep Tours, was my second hope in getting up to photograph the Mill, and they, I found out, shut their doors for the season the previous day!

Left to my own devices, I drove down to the town of Marble, also in the Crystal River valley. I was blown away by the ability of this area to be displaying two different seasons at the same time. It was definitely already winter in the high alpine part of this section of the Rockies.

Life Keeps Perpetuating Itself

“Life Keeps Perpetuating itself” is a reflection on these seasonal changes, which are great representations of so many things in life. 

A little bit of nosing around the area soon revealed a small, sort of hidden, lake! The majestic landscape behind it was absolutely stunning! “Hidden Gem” again is a look at changes in the seasons, and how beautiful the landscape is during this very special time of year. It is moments like the one documented in this photograph that make me feel damn lucky to be alive, and in Colorado.

What could be better?

Hidden Gem

The following day the weather in the Roaring Fork Valley was even weirder than the previous day in Marble, and I couldn't wait to venture out and start shooting!  The worse the weather, the better the photographs!

With clouds, fog, snow, rain, and even bits of sun just constantly mixing themselves amongst the landscape, it created a visual wonder.

Exploring the Woody Creek area, I came across a ranch that was home to some Hinnies, the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse. This photo shoot had me giggling and having the time of my life; the animals would follow me around and pose in front of the surrounding landscape, and beg to be petted. Making them better, and arguably lower maintenance, than most  human models! This was definitely a highlight of the trip.

The fog at high altitudes was super thick, but things were moving around. So I decided to drive up to the Maroon Bells viewing area to check out the scene. The peaks, Maroon and North Maroon were not visible due to a thick cloud cover.

I decided to don my hiking gear, and some crampons for a 2-mile snow hike to Crater Lake at the base of the peaks, in order to maybe get a closer view! The reward was stunning! Here is Maroon Peak coming out to greet me for just a moment, before returning to the cloak of cloud cover.

Looking towards the north, the clouds gave way to make this view of Crater Lake truly something special!

After shooting the snowy scene around the mostly empty and frozen lake, I made my way back down the valley and started looking around Aspen Highlands. There was beautiful color clearly visible among some really flat, foggy light. “Autumnal Inaguration” evokes a definite somber emotion with me and was an opportunity for me to experiement with Abstract Photography, which I would like to explore more. 

Autumnal Inaguration

That night, I feel content and calm, having spend a great day filled with solitude, magical displays by Mother Nature, and a little bit of luck with good light.

The following day, I decided to drive back to the Maroon Bells viewing area while the sky is blue, and do a day  hike the bartender in Redstone, Bruce, had recommended later in the afternoon. The trees, which can dominate this extensively visited photography and tourism location, have been definitely affected by recent snowfalls and, for all intents and purposes, are far past peak. No doubt, this area is a beautiful place to visit any day of the year.

Returning to the Crystal River Valley once more, my hike starts directly across from the aforementioned Mt Sopris (12,966.) The trailhead is very easy to miss, and I did not see one single person while on the ensuing mini-trek.

The Perham Creek trail steeply follows this creek for several miles, until the hiker is met by a secluded aspen grove. This was an experience I will never forget, and a setting as beautiful as I’ve encountered. Everything tastes sweeter when it’s earned the old-fashioned way, right?

After returning to the trailhead, I drive down the road and take one final view of Mt. Sopris as I say goodbye to this stunning Colorado valley.

While in the area, I got a unique idea for a shot. The sky had become incredibly clear, and I love a clear night sky. This was also a day where the moon set was rather early, making it possible to photograph the night sky including the Milky Way, free of light pollution.

The Maroon Bells is such an iconic viewpoint, but most pictures, including those from Pros and another famous photographers, look more or less the same to me. It seems that the orientation of the landscape would allow Sagittarius, and with it the lion’s share of the Milky Way’s Splendor to appear very close to the two remarkable Maroon Bells summits.

Some locations are worth visiting multiple times in order to get the shot. This in mind, it was a relatively easy decision to drive back to the Maroon Bells viewing are, just as my lighting app gave the OK for a pitch black sky, although still influenced by the sub-horizontal moon out of view, and capture “Maroon Majesty”. This is a fresh look, for me, on a truly memorizing landscape and I couldn’t have had a bigger smile on my face as I drove back home to Denver.

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