Stealey Mountain Sunset
Stealey Mountain Sunset, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Almost every year for fifteen years, I have made a pilgrimage to the San Juan Mountains in late September to photograph the fall color display. Inevitably, that pilgrimage includes several trips up and down Owl Creek Pass, just outside Ridgway. This year, for the first time, a splash of yellow-orange in the distant hills below Courthouse Mountain caught my eye as I turned off pavement onto the dusty gravel road. I stopped, dug out the map and compass and shot a bearing. The colorful aspen turned out to be a grove on the summit of Stealey Mountain. The map showed a trail leading to within a quarter-mile of the summit. It also showed that the aspen should get moment-of-sunset light. Put warm light on a warm-toned subject, and you're bound to get spectacular color. On a whim, I decided to gamble a precious sunset shoot on finding a good composition on Stealey Mountain. I knew I would need some kind of clearing or outcropping in exactly the right place to make it all work. The map showed nothing promising, but the only way to really know was to hike in and see for myself.
Three hours after leaving the trailhead I finally figured out the maze of confusing, poorly marked trails and reached the summit of Stealey Mountain. The summit itself was densely wooded and offered only mediocre shots, with no vantage points that would allow a wider view. To my delight, however, I discovered a clearing just a few hundred yards west of the summit. The composition I first settled on quickly proved unusable when I discovered that B.J. had carved his initials into the closest trees not once, but three times back in the 1980s. That vandalism still marred those trees 30 years later. I found another composition which I liked even better, then set up my Canon 5D Mark III with a 24mm tilt-shift lens to keep parallel lines parallel. All of the trees that appear to lean in this image really were leaning, just as shown. Gradually the light on the aspen trunks across the meadow warmed as the sun sank lower in the west, until at the moment of sunset the light became fiery red. In nineteen years of landscape photography, I had never been privileged to see, and photograph, lighting on an aspen grove quite like this. That sense of privilege made the two-hour hike out in the dark seem more than worthwhile.