"In June 2016 I quit my full-time IT job to become a nomadic photographer"
This is a story of self realization and the journey life can take you on as you buck the 9-5 trend. Peter Zelinka is a nature photographer currently based in Northeast Ohio. He bought his first DSLR in 2014 after spending years hiking in the forests of Pennsylvania and Ohio with just a point-and-shoot camera. His journey across Colorado will be told in three parts with the full version being available at peterzelinka.com.
Pt. 2 of 3
By mid-September I arrived in Steamboat Springs, a beautiful mountain town in northern Colorado. I had heard wonderful things about this spot from many people so I was excited to finally explore the nearby aspen forests! As usual, I stopped at the library to download my maps, scout out the surrounding area, and fill up my water. As the sun began to set, an afternoon storm erupted over downtown Steamboat Springs. This could get interesting! I glanced out the window and saw a stunning rainbow arching overhead! I quickly packed up and ran to the car.
After the excitement died down and the rainbow disappeared, I remembered I needed to find a place to spend the night. It looked like the National Forest was just north of town. It was a stunning drive as the open fields quickly transitioned to aspen forests and steep hillsides. Within five minutes of leaving town the paved road ended, transforming into a winding, narrow, and bumpy dirt road. Driving into the mountains was slow-going and I was losing light quickly. As twilight arrived, I found a nice westward vantage point.
Five minutes later I reached a campsite, nothing more than a large dirt area to park the Honda. This would become my home-base for the next few days. With a long day behind me, I was ready for a good night's rest! I had actually started this day off near Salt Lake City, up in the Wasatch Mountains. After enjoying a beautiful sunrise, I spent the rest of the day driving through rural Utah and Colorado. It felt good to finally relax in the back of the car. Within 20 minutes I was fast asleep.
At 3am I awoke to the sounds of something scratching, just below my head!! I should clarify that I have enough space in the Honda to setup a mattress in the back, where I spend most of my nights sleeping. Whatever I was hearing must have been underneath the car. I was worried it might break something, so that meant I needed to get out and confront it. Great...
I opened the door and jumped out from the vehicle, hoping to land far enough away so that the unidentified critter couldn't immediately attack me. I turned around and shined my light under the car. Nothing. Then, I spotted something moving in front of the Honda. It was a porcupine scratching at a nearby log. He didn't seem to mind me at all, he was far too busy trying to reach his midnight snack inside the log. I let him be and went back in the car, hoping to get a few more hours of sleep without any further interruptions.
The morning arrived quickly and I was excited to see this place in the daylight! I was surrounded by stunning aspen forests! My view to the west provided a great vantage point and I could see for miles! A quick breakfast, one plain bagel and some water, and I was ready to hike. I spent the next few hours hiking down the mountain through the aspen forests. Most of the trees were still green but a few had started to change.
Crested Butte is renowned for its spring wildflower season, when the nearby mountains are covered in columbine, indian paintbrush, fireweed, elephant's head, and more! I first visited Crested Butte in July 2016, on my first roadtrip. I was amazed by just how many wildflowers there were on my hike over the mountains to Maroon Bells! Believe it or not, Crested Butte is even more magical in the fall! I was lucky to arrive just in time for the first major snowfall in the mountains.
Upon arriving in Crested Butte, I quickly got lunch then headed up into the mountains north of town. If you're looking for a scenic fall drive, this is the spot! The dirt road twists through stands of aspens before entering a large river valley. After passing through the tiny "town" of Gothic, the road starts to get more treacherous. I was glad to have all-wheel drive this time around! At one point, the road becomes very narrow with a sheer cliff on one side. I always hate this part! Thankfully no one was coming, so I was able to make it through quickly. My destination was ultimately Crystal Mill, one of the most iconic landmarks in Colorado. However, this dirt road would become even more dangerous in a few miles and the sun was about to set. At dusk, I came to a large yellow sign which said, in effect, "If you don't have a Jeep and off-roading skills, stop here or die". Thankfully there was a little dirt parking lot here, so I parked the car for the night. Tomorrow I would hike the rest of the way down to Crystal Mill.
If you ever plan to go to Maroon Bells, be warned, it's almost always overrun with tourists! The road leading up to Maroon Bells is normally closed from 8am to 5pm, meaning you'll need to park at a ski resort just outside Aspen and ride a free bus up to the park. That wasn't going to work for me, so I kept driving to Maroon Bells in the dark. To my surprise, I found a number of other photographers out there in the middle of the night!
We were all interested in capturing some nightscapes. Thankfully we had clear skies! Unfortunately, the other photographers were quite rude. I needed to take a 4 minute long photo, to capture enough light for the foreground. Each time, someone would turn on their headlamp and ruin the shot. However, the following night I was able to finally capture an image. I accidentally left the ISO at 12,800 though, causing the image to become way too bright.
By 4am the next morning, people were already starting to fill the parking lot! Some had come from as far away as Denver. Since the sun wouldn't be up for a few more hours, I went back to bed. I woke up about 30 minutes before sunrise and found myself surrounded by cars! The entire parking lot was full! I trudged out to the lake shore and was shocked. There had to be at least 100 people completely filling every square foot along the shore of the lake, all hoping to capture the typical Maroon Bells photo. After searching for 10 minutes I managed to squeeze into a spot with a nice view. I hate this part of photography, I get too frustrated dealing with moronic tourists and can't concentrate on taking a great photo. At one point, some lady cut in front of our small group to take her coveted cell phone shot.
I had taken so many pictures in one day that I actually filled up both memory cards. I needed to transfer them to my laptop and get set for the next day. The forecast was calling for a beautiful sunny day, so I decided to stay one more morning at Maroon Bells. This time I wasn't even going to bother fighting for a spot along the lake. I get so frustrated when a beautiful sunrise is ruined by tons of people. So I hiked further into the forest, hoping to find a good composition that didn't include the iconic lake. While the composition might not have been as good, it was wonderful to finally be alone here at sunrise.
To get the full story, as well as a ton of photos, head over to my website!
You can also visit my blog and read about the 2016 roadtrip through Colorado.