by Doug Bennett
Living in Colorado is a dream for a landscape photographer… and so it is for me. My favorite part of Colorado has to be the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern part of the state. More specifically, what is called the San Juan Triangle is loosely bounded by Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride. The 540 square miles in this triangle contains 14,000 ft peaks, steep cliffs, hot springs, river canyons, tundra, high pastures, a narrow-gauge railroad, and the famed “Million Dollar Highway.” In short, it is a never-ending playground for a landscape photographer.
The San Juan Mountains are among the newest to be formed in the Rocky Mountains and are the most mineralized mountains in Colorado. The valuable mineral riches first discovered in 1875 created challenges when it came to getting heavy mining equipment into the region and the heavy ores out. This led to blazing of many high mountain pass trails that are still in use today as 4-wheel drive roads provide ready access to fabulous shooting locations for the landscape photographer.
One of the two biggest “seasons” for drawing photographers to the San Juan Mountains is high mountain wildflower season which occurs roughly between mid-July and the first week of August. The other major season is fall color running from mid-Septenber in the Red Mountain Pass area between Silverton and Ouray through the first week of October along Dallas Divide (CO Hwy 62) west of Ridgway.
Dallas Divide is one of the most spectacular fall spots in all of Colorado and lies along CO Hwy 62 approximately 12 miles west of Ridgway. Here, at the large parking area on the south side of the highway, you have Ralph Lauren’s “Double RL Ranch” before you with the Sneffels Range in the background. The Sneffels Range is unique within the Rocky Mountains as this range runs east-west versus the north-south orientation normally encountered in the Rocky Mountains. When the conditions are right with early snow and peak color combined with great sunset clouds, Dallas Divide is truly magical.
For design and composition of the title image, I used a focal length of appox 90mm and stitched together six overlapping images. Rather than using a wide-angle lens shooting a single frame, I choose the longer focal length to compress the scene bringing the mountains closer in. Once I stitched the exposures, I cropped to have the triangle of bright yellow aspens in the lower left power point and the Dallas peak (which is also a triangle) in the upper right power point. In taking the photo, I positioned myself to ensure these two strong visual points would be on an angle to each other and not stacked one atop the other.
A few miles east of the parking area for Dallas Divide is County Rd 9 otherwise known as West Dallas Creek Road. This road takes you south through the heart of the Double RL Ranch with fabulous views of Sneffels Range to include this fabulous corral. If you are of the same generation as I, you can’t help but start humming John Denver’s famous song “Rocky Mountain High!” West Dallas Creek Road eventually enters National Forrest land where the road gets challenging requiring a high clearance vehicle. But at the end of the road in roughly a couple of miles, you are rewarded with this flat meadow right up to the edge of the Sneffels Range.
Getting back to CO Hwy 62 and heading west, one comes to the turnoff to Telluride on CO Hwy 145. Taking this highway, you will soon drive through the very small “wide spot” town of Sawpit. The store here has great BBQ but please be aware it will fall short of benchmark Texas BBQ. Continuing south on Hwy 145, take the next right onto Silver Pick Road. Taking a left when the road comes to a “y” leads you to the foot of Wilson Peak with one of Colorado’s Centennial Ranches, the Schmid Ranch, in the foreground. The various views you can shoot of Wilson Peak are best shot at sunrise both in fall and spring (early June is my springtime favorite).
Wilson Peak has its own fame. First, the outline of Wilson Peak features in the Coors beer advertising. Secondly, Wilson Peak was the wintery backdrop in Quinton Tarantino’s movie “The Hateful Eight.”
After shooting sunrise at Wilson Peak, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend breakfast in Telluride at La Cocina de Luz; the best Mexican food north of New Mexico! Sorry, Texans, I have to say this place mops its floors with Tex-Mex.
Let’s now engage lo-range 4-wheel drive and turn off onto Black Bear Pass Rd just 200 yards south of Red Mountain Pass summit (US Hwy 550) between Ouray and Silverton. As you climb this trail, you will be seeing ever more impactful views of Red Mountain No. 3 to the east. Whatever you do, DO NOT drive down the west side of Black Bear Pass Road into Telluride as it is very steep, very challenging with tight switchbacks, and thus extremely dangerous. Be advised it is one-way down the west side so once you commit, you are committed to going all the way down. It is no surprise there have been numerous fatalities on this portion of the pass road.
There are numerous videos on YouTube of vehicles tipping onto their side as they traverse “the steps” before ever reaching the very narrow, steep and tight switchbacks. Then there is the story of the fellow who right after buying a new Range Rover Discovery decided to tackle Black Bear as his first off-road driving experience with his new very capable vehicle. When he and his wife reached “the steps,” his wife became so terrified she had jumped out of the vehicle screaming in terror and anger at her husband for taking this “Difficult Rated” road. The story ended there but they were already committed to going all the way down.
Further south on US Hwy 550 is the turnoff to the right for Ophir Pass Road. This road to the top of Ophir Pass is a relatively easy road. The views from the top of the pass to the west in late afternoon light can be fabulous. While the drive down the west side of Ophir Pass is nowhere as dangerous as Black Bear, you still should have high clearance 4-wheel drive with good off-road tires. It is very rocky, steep and narrow in places.
If you have taken my advice and driven back down the east side of Ophir Pass after getting fabulous late afternoon/evening shots, I highly recommend having your evening dinner at the Handlebars Food & Saloon in Silverton. Great ambiance and great food!
As I am sure you can tell, I love this area. What I have described in this article here is just scratching the surface of the shooting opportunities available plus I didn’t even get to describe wildflower shooting. Perhaps that will be a future article!
Doug and Laura Bennett will be teaching a class titled “Landscape Photography: Achieving Technical Excellence & Crafting Artistically Expressive Images” at the 2021 Texas School of Professional Photography. Although the class can’t be held in the fabulous San Juan Mountains, there will be plenty of shooting opportunities with instructions on putting those techniques into practice to produce expressive images of high technical quality.