If you haven’t photographed the iconic Colorado location, known as The Crystal Mill, then you have missed out on one of western America’s most classic shots. To be honest, I photographed it for the first time last year (2016) as part of my Autumn Colorado Landscape Safari. While I’ve done many of these autumn safaris in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (Ouray, Telluride, Delores, Silverton, Red Mtn Mining District, Million Dollar Highway, Ralph Lauren’s Double RL Ranch, Last Dollar Road, etc) – I had never ventured farther north until 2016.
We headed north out of Ouray to Delta, Colorado, then turned northeast on Highway 92, in Hotchkiss we turned north on Highway 133 – eventually crossing scenic McClure Pass and dropping down to County Road 3, turning south to the community of Marble where the road to the Crystal Mill begins. This is a small community that has a nice little lake next to it, Beaver Lake, with Osprey and fisherman both doing the same thing. The road leads around the lake and then signs direct you to continue on County Road 3 towards the ghost town of Crystal. Before you get that far you will have traveled about 4.5 miles to a wide spot in the road, wide enough to park 8-10 vehicles, locates you on a bluff directly opposite the Crystal Mill. Here is my establishing photo for this blog article.
When we first got to the lodge where we were staying – the guy parked next to it stealing there wifi signal – told me my 4×4 Ford F-150 would never make it. We went to visit with a Quad/Jeep Rental business specializing in Crystal Mill visits and that guy told me we would make it just fine. That’s all I needed and we were off. It was a brutal road to say the least. While most of the road just requires very slow speeds and 4-wheel drive to negotiate the ledges and rocks, there were stretches where the road side bordering the Crystal River was precipitously vertical down to the river. Hmmmm. Heights and narrow roads don’t stop me so we ambled along, being tossed to and fro inside the truck, until an hour after starting we reached the parking area for the Crystal Mill.
While the nearby Crystal River is extremely scenic, arrayed with the yellows and reds of a brilliant autumn, I never for a second thought to stop and shoot anything as I was white-knuckling the drive. On the trip in and out I bottomed out the skid plate only once or twice and didn’t rock scratch the sides even once – not sure how I avoided that but I did. The road is so tight that other vehicles coming in my direction required both of us to perform amazing auto gymnastics in order to pass. At one point an old woman driving a quad – possibly drunk, stoned, or both – or just a local infuriated by visitors – came at me head-on stopping close enough to smack my bumper and yell for me to back up. Since I was coming down a steep grade and turning sharply to the right, I think it was her job to backup the quad. She cursed me, and my friend Gary Kunkel talked me out of drawing my Beretta and returning fire (just kidding here, calm down) and we motored on with a simple bird sighting.
There were about 6 vehicles parked in the small parking area, which did have a bathroom, and everyone was concentrating on their photography – the Crystal Mill was stunning. The Crystal River wraps around the old compressor station, previously known as the Sheep Mountain Power House – which supplied compressed air for machinery operations at the nearby Sheep Mountain Mine. At one time a turbine of sorts was located down the wood funnel and in the river – but it no longer reaches the river. The building has been restored somewhat, which cables and pilings keeping it on the cliff above the river, but the turbine is long gone – and probably the compressor inside as well.
Behind the Crystal Mill is a gorgeous forest of aspens, displaying amazing colors at this time of the year – and they lead back to mountains and snow-capped peaks. When we first arrived the scene was absolutely breathtaking, and we just kind of stood there in awe. The clouds crossing the sky brought full color, then shaded color to the old mine building. But the quality of light didn’t seem to matter – the quality of the scene was worth every foot of the rough drive and ferocious quad crazies. While we had heard it was run down and not visually stunning anymore (clearly another unemployed local trying to deter visitors and their money) it was anything but that. Other than standing at the Grand Canyon and witnessing rising thunderheads and a lightning storm at dusk … I have never seen any landscape as cool as this.
The photography was pretty straight forward. I used both my 18-35mm wide angle and my 24-120mm medium zoom on my Nikon D4s body (FX sensor), along with my ever present Induro Tripod. Since there is water in the image I used a polarizing filter to minimize reflections in the foreground pool – and this rendered the green in the water perfectly. As is usual for me, I used 5-shot bracketed images that were 1/2 stop apart, editing out the close-but-no-cigar images and keeping the close to perfect ones. There is no hdr imaging here, I’m just not a fan of that look. Processing the digital raw files in Photoshop was also straight forward. I selected the correct lens profile in Adobe Camera Raw (the program probably picked the lens for me), adjusted the shadows and colors a bit and then opened the file in Photoshop. After some sharpening, the only additional step I took was to create a new layer, lighten it about 1.25 stops, hide it with a black mask, then paint in (with white) the heavily shadowed areas of the building until I thought people might notice my work. BRP