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Behind the Lens: Crested Butte Backcountry

Published November 17th, 2011

Ah, the backcountry around Crested Butte, Colorado. I have many, many fond experiences in the West Elk mountains that surround the idyllic town of "CB". Some of the more impressive photos I've taken have been in these mountains, and many of those locations are more easily accessible than most people may think.

If you look at a map of the mountains of central Colorado, you'll probably notice Crested Butte is literally where the pavement ends. Colorado state highway 135 heads north out of Gunnison and winds its way up to Almont and then continues on to Crested Butte. This highway is somewhat odd because aren't any mountains passes to go over to get to CB, which is unusual because literally every other highway outside of Gunnison goes over at least one mountain pass. The Upper Gunnison River Valley is a very isolated valley, known for its brutal winter weather where temperatures can regularly plummet to -30F. Crested Butte is a four season (if there are in fact four seasons in Colorado) destination with Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) the biggest draw for skiers, snowboarders, and especially telemarkers.

I lived in the valley for eight years, I attended Western State College of Colorado for a brief period and stuck around the valley doing all sorts of different jobs while trying to advance my photography as much as possible. Living in Gunnison can be difficult with the weather and the isolation, but at the same time it can be paradise for the same two reasons. I worked as a lift operator for three years at CBMR, I'm grateful for all the skiing I got to do during this time and the friends that I got to meet. Surprisingly, I never did a lot of photography during the winter during these years. Between work and skiing, I didn't have a lot of daylight left!

Which brings me to my blog out the Crested Butte backcountry. There are two photos in particular that people as me about very often. Both were taken within a 20 minute drive from Crested Butte, where really if you stick around long enough you'll be bound to get great photos of something (really, it is THAT beautiful sometimes).

The first was taken on a warm summer morning at Lake Irwin, which is a lake about 10 miles to the west of Crested Butte. I had originally planned on heading to Lost Lake off of Kebler Pass, but unfortunately the road to the campground was closed. With the sunrise about to break, I had limited time to capitalize on the dramatic clouds filling the sky. I decided to drive back to Lake Irwin as quickly (and safely) as I could. When I turned of Kebler Pass to head up to Lake Irwin, there is a fork in the road there and almost everyone takes the main road to left. That road takes you to the lake and offers great fishing and hiking trails, but if you want to do photography you have to take the road to the right with will take you through the townsite of Irwin. Pulling up to the lake, I always marvel at the crystal clear reflection of the Ruby Range mountains flanking the other side of the high alpine lake. The Ruby's are a mini-range within in the West Elk mountains made up of three mountains (L-R Mt. Owen, Mt. Ruby, and Purple Mountain). All the mountains top out well above 12,000ft, with Ruby being the highest at over 13,000ft. The extremely heavy snow we had during the winter (thank you La Nina) wasn't going anywhere and was still very much clinging to all sides of the mountains, even though it was almost July! The sun was rising quickly and the light was just getting better and better, I pulled out my Singh-Ray Grad. ND filters and started taking 15 sec. long exposures of the calm lake with pink and purple sky above. It was a great morning, all by myself with a gorgeous sunrise greeting the new day. I was very thankful for that morning, God definitely blessed me with a great view!

The second photo is from a place called Upper East Falls, or as the locals call it "Stupid Falls". You might think that it is an odd name for a waterfall, but many kayakers attempt to "run" this waterfall at peak runoff. It's around an 80ft. multi-tiered waterfall, that when the snowmelt runoff is at its highest turns into single drop. Getting to the area is pretty easy if you know where you're going, I had a kayaker friend of mine show me where it was the first time. The forest service road isn't very well marked and you'll never know there is an 80ft. waterfall across the meadow from you as you drive on the forest service road. As where to stop, I can't even give you a location because there are not discernable landmarks as to where you should pull of the road and start walking. If you reach Kettle Pond, you've gone too far.

After crossing the meadow, you arrive at the East River where you'll be on top of Upper East Falls. The "hike" down to the water is VERY sketchy and I honestly would not recommend it for all the loose rock and scree that fills every slope. There is a stand of aspen trees to the south where I hiked down through to reach the water, but even still it is not an easy hike. I also went on September 5th because the water level had finally dropped enough to safely reach the water. During the summer, the water moves VERY quickly and should not be accessed. The multiple tiers of this waterfall at the lower flow create an amazing stairstep effect and are just breathtaking. I had my 17mm lens with a 6 stop ND filter screwed on to allow me to take an exposure of 20 seconds, and this is what creates the misty water effect.

In conclusion, go to Crested Butte sometime! It's an amazing place in almost every "season". I'll be going back there a few times during the summer and fall of next year, so if you'd like a "tour guide" please contact me. Thank you for reading, have a great weekend out there!

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Lake Irwin, Colorado.

  • June 30th, 2011
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 17mm / f/22 / 2.5 sec


Upper East Falls, Crested Butte, Colorado.

  • September 5th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 25mm / f/18 / 20 sec

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