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Courthouse Mountain from Cimarron Ridge

Courthouse Mountain from Cimarron Ridge, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Courthouse Mountain from Cimarron Ridge, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

One afternoon during the 2012 fall-color season, I decided to check out the photographic possibilities on the summit of Stealey Mountain, a two-hour hike from the Owl Creek Pass road near Ridgway. As I was hiking in, I came across a clearing that offered an unobstructed view back across a valley to Cimarron Ridge. Scanning the ridge with an 8x monocular, I noticed an aspen grove perched on the ridge crest. A glance at the map revealed that the aspen grove would get moment-of-sunset light, as would Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Rock. Even better, a steep rock outcropping just above the grove provided a perfect spot to plant a tripod. I recorded a GPS position fix to pinpoint my current location, shot a bearing to the grove with a mirror-sight compass, then marked the grove on the Courthouse Mountain 7.5 minute USGS quad so I could locate it someday. No trail or road led to the grove, and I’d never seen a photo taken from that location. After two decades of shooting fall color in the San Juans, I was very excited to find what seemed like an undiscovered vantage point. I didn’t have time that September to shoot the Cimarron Ridge grove. A month later, to my chagrin, I came across two published photos that had obviously been taken from my “secret” location. I should have known better: in the internet age, there are no secret photo spots.

I finally made my first long trek through the woods to the Cimarron Ridge grove in fall 2014. I had the location all to myself that night, but heavy storm clouds obscured many of the most dramatic peaks. I returned twice in fall 2015. On my second try I arrived to find four or five other photographers setting up. An hour before sunset, the sun sank into a thick cloud bank that extended all the way down to the horizon. It looked like sunset was going to be a bust. Photographers began glancing at their watches, eager to make the trackless hike out in daylight if there wasn’t going to be any sunset light. One by one they departed, until only a French photographer on his last night in the United States and I were left. We waited impatiently, watching the unmoving clouds, hoping we'd get lucky.

Then, to our surprise and delight, the sun found a narrow gap between the clouds and the horizon just five minutes before sunset. A flood of golden light painted the spectacular scene before us. I shot until the last warm light faded from the clouds, then noticed the Frenchman packing up frantically. He had no headlamp, which meant he had to find his way back through the woods to his truck, about three-quarters of a mile away, before it became completely dark. I offered to hike out with him, since my Black Diamond Icon, the world’s most obnoxiously bright headlamp, could easily have lit up the ground for two. He refused, however, and dashed off. I hiked out at a less frantic pace, and was relieved to find that his car was gone by the time I arrived at my truck.

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