Star Mountain Media
Life Above 5,000ft: Colorado + Utah 2015

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July, 2015 written by Daniel Lowe

In the year 2014, I was fortunate enough to make trips to both Spain and Iceland.

After these long international flights, I decided, for a while, to travel on airplanes as little as possible, and explore North America.

When I was 15 years old, my father took us in the car on a three week driving trip to the western United States. We traveled from St. Louis, to Yellowstone National Park, to Bryce Canyon in Utah, then to Las Vegas, to Zion National Park and on to California, going finally to Los Angeles, before driving all the way home to eastern Virginia.

It was an amazing journey, we saw most of the continental United States, but there was one state, we didn't quite get to visit: Colorado.

My father died in 2009, since then, sometimes I go with my mother on vacation, she has a resort timeshare that can be used at other locations. She asked me where I wanted to go this year, and we picked out two available resorts, one near Grand Mesa, Colorado, and the other in Pagosa Springs.
Driving to Colorado
It took four days to drive from my residence in Asheville, North Carolina to Grand Mesa, Colorado. We decided to drive and not fly, this way I could take all my gear, and also I'd have the freedom of movement and convenience of having my own vehicle.

We drove from Asheville, NC to St. Louis, MO, to Kansas City, MO and finally through Denver and into the Rocky Mountains. Much of the terrain from Nashville, TN to Denver is farmland, prarie, relatively flat. The prairie ends dramatically: running north-south on the western side of Denver, along Interstate 25, is a great fault in the surface of the earth, as if the mountains have pushed themselves through the Earth's crust. As we drove up into the Rocky Mountains, we became light-headed as Interstate 70 climbed to an elevation of 11,000 feet.

On our drive, we passed through Glenwood Canyon, an amazing canyon that contains the Colorado River as well as Interstate 70. Finally, after crossing most of the mountains, we arrived at our lodging, an off-season ski resort near Mesa, Colorado, with a fabulous view of the Grand Mesa National Forest.
Colorado, Photographer's Paradise
The scenery in the mountains of Colorado immediately awed us with their sheer scale and beauty. This was my first trip to elevations over 8,000 feet; our lodging for the first week was 8,800ft (2.68km) above sea level! In late May, we were surprised to see lots of snow, still on the ground, above 10,000ft (3.04km).

As an experienced photographer, my brain was a bit overloaded, confronted with the raw potential for photography in this setting. I went just a little bit haywire, thinking that I had to capture everything I possibly could.

We took a scouting trip to Arches National Park, in Utah, passing through Debeque Canyon and Grand Junction. Going from the western Colorado to eastern Utah, the land transforms from green, alpine, snow capped mountains, into an orange, desolate landscape of red rocks, hoodoos and slot canyons. This transformation is dramatic, and made me wonder about the geology of western Colorado and eastern Utah.

During this first week, I flew the DJI S900 UAV (drone) in Debeque Canyon, and was lucky enough to meet a few kayakers, who agreed to be filmed while paddling.
Ouray to Durango
For our second week, we had to drive from Grand Mesa to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Again, we were stunned and awed by the rugged beauty of the mountains from Ouray to Durango, traveling along route 550, including Red Hill Mountain, Silverton, and the area around Molas Pass.

I resolved to come back and explore this area more, if possible.
Overnight at Goosenecks
At Pagosa Springs, I scouted another location in Utah to visit: a huge canyon carved by the Green River, part of Goosenecks State Park.

After waiting for the weather to clear, we drove back to Utah and camped overnight at Goosenecks State Park. The Moon was full, and there were no clouds, so I captured a timelapse of the disappearing shadows inside the canyon; this is the opening shot of the film.

My 74-year old mother got a taste of what's required to do night sky timelapse, as she slept in the car while I worked almost all night. In the morning, I flew the S900 drone again here over our campsite and the canyon.
the Beginning of A Larger Project
About this time, I realized, I was not ready to go home. I wanted to stay in Colorado until the next new moon cycle and capture dark sky, Milky Way timelapse with the mountains as foreground. I also wanted to go back to Arches National Park in Utah, which is a world-famous night sky photography site, for night sky timelapse.

We made arrangements accordingly, my mother would fly out of Denver, and then I would stay in Colorado until June 24th. As we had arrived on May 24th, this would mean I'd spend an entire month, filming in the High Country, as it's called by local residents.
Pagosa Springs, to Denver, to Cimarron
After our week in Pagosa Springs, I drove my mother to Denver airport, and stayed two nights. Previously, I had ordered a DJI Phantom 3 Professional; this drone was now shipped to a UPS Store in Denver for pickup. Then I turned and headed for a cabin in Cimarron, Colorado, near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National park; this would be my base of operations for the next 15 days.

The drive from Denver, along highway CO-285 and then past Fairplay, Colorado, was again, very scenic, with mountain passes and a high, elevated plain, over 10,000ft above sea level. I'd like to explore this area more again sometime, but it didn't happen on this trip.
Driving during "Deer O'Clock"
Along the driving routes in Colorado, there are huge swaths of wilderness, and U.S. National Forest, which provide habitat for wildlife. For around 90 minutes around Sunset and Sunrise, Deer, and even Elk, can be seen on and around the roads in Colorado. I came to avoid driving during this time, which I dubbed "Deer O'Clock".

On the drive from Denver to Cimarron, this one drive, I saw, perhaps 50 deer, and other strange creatures I didn't recognize: Elk.

On the high plain past Fairplay, I saw my first Bull Elk, towering and majestic, 12 feet tall with massive antlers.. in the middle of the road in front of me. I came to a complete stop, flashed my lights at him several times (I forgot about the horn, as I was in shock) and finally he yielded the road to me.

Another day, near Ridgway State Park, I passed, sadly, in this order: a dead deer with one wildlife officer taking photos, then a Jeep with a smashed front end, the driver, passenger, another wildlife officer and a Colorado state trooper.

If you drive in Colorado, be aware, slow down, and be ready for wildlife around every corner, especially during the peak hours.
Night Sky Timelapse at Arches
After my mother flew out, I got more determined and put the pressure on myself to capture as much of western Colordo and eastern Utah as possible, during my short time there.

I drove back to Arches National Park on June 16th, which was the night of the new moon. I took the middle route into Utah, along route 62, meaning that by this time, I'd driven all three roads that connect Colorado to Utah. Along the way, there was a fabulous sunset, so I stopped alongside the road and filmed a short sequence with the Phantom 3 Professional.

Arriving at Arches after dark, I hiked out to the "Windows" section of Arches, with access to North Window and Turret Arch. I was both amused and bewildered to find many other night sky photographers passing through. I spoke to 3 other photographers, and counted 8 total, passing through. This would frequently disrupt my work, as they'd shine lights on the surface of the rocks. In some cases, I would barter with another photographer, for time alone with the immediate area.. and then another photographer would arrive. This continued most of the night, and it's why there aren't more sequences in this film from Arches. I also decided not to return to Arches on this trip; as this was my 3rd visit to Utah, from there on out, I'd do my Milky Way timelapses in the Colorado mountains.

If you visit Arches as a night sky photographer, or to capture timelapse, be ready for the challenge of working around other photographers. If I return to Arches, I'll try to pick a different time of year, one with less people visiting.
Drone Days, Timelapse Nights
At this time, I began to focus my efforts on two specific sites: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, near my cabin, and the mountains near Durango, specifically a lovely alpine setting called Molas Lake.

Molas Lake has a campground, run by the City of Silverton. I befriended the campground administrators, who said, "Oh yes, night sky photographers use our campground all the time", and with good reason. The main shot of the film, and the ending shot, are the timelapses from Molas Lake. I camped there two nights, a Friday and a Monday night. The opportunity to fly drones during the day, then timelapse all night, meant I was often very tired and always on the go.

On that Friday, I flew the DJI S900 UAV six times, including at Red Hill Mountain overlook, and captured the waterfall shots nearby. About those waterfall shots: I took off, flying inverted (controls all backwards), with a crowd of about a dozen people watching.. flew over a giant chasm 1,000+ feet deep, captured those waterfall shots, and then executed a tight, precise landing near the edge of a cliff. When I landed, the crowd applauded. That's a new one, I thought: People just don't applaud when you do timelapses, do they?

On this entire trip, my confidence using drones, and doing aerial video, increased by leaps and bounds. It helps to have the DJI Phantom 3, which sets up more quickly than the S900, allowing me to practice more often, gaining experience.

Both nights at Molas Lake, I stayed up almost all night and captured Milky Way timelapses. The Sony A7s performed well, being used at ISO 4000, in an area with almost no light pollution. Looking at the images, the stars reflecting in the lake, I'm very happy with how this came out.

That last morning at Molas Lake, I befriended two fishermen from Texas, and got their verbal consent to be filmed with the DJI S900 drone. Again, I'm very happy with this footage, and happy that I went back to Molas Lake multiple times; I think it was worth it.

In this area, between Ouray and Durango, is a potential lifetime of photography, it's really a wonderful place, with many smaller sites that are hidden away in mountain valleys. It's definitely a place I plan to return.
Film within a Film
While staying in Colorado, I decided to capture enough footage to make a short documentary film. I'd like to thank Andres Aslan, from Colorado Mesa University, for sitting for an interview in the hot sun, at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and explaining Colorado and Utah Geology to me for 90 minutes (I also paid Andres for his time).

I'll disclose more about this project later, but here's a hint; almost every shot in "Life Above 5,000ft" has a common thread: Water.

When it was time to leave Colorado, I went north to Grand Junction and east along Interstate 70, staying a night in Glenwood Springs, filming a driving sequence with the GH4 inside Glenwood Canyon, and getting multiple shots of the Colorado River.

Footage from Panasonic GH4 (including S900 aerials) and DJI Phantom 3 Professional
was graded with LUTs from

Here's a set of photos on Flickr for "Life Above 5,000ft: Colorado + Utah".

Equipment used on "Life Above 5,000ft: Colorado + Utah":
Canon 6D
Sony A7s
Panasonic GH4
DJI S900 UAV / aerial imaging platform (flies the GH4)
DJI Phantom 3 Professional (drone)
Samyang 24mm f/1.4 (for Canon)
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 (for Sony)
Olympus 12mm (for GH4)
Dynamic Perception Stage Zero motion-control dolly, with 56 inch rail
Two remote timers (intervalometers)
StickyPod vehicle camera mount

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related content:
One Year in Colorado
An exploration of Colorado's landscapes and seasons, filmed over the first year after moving to the Denver area.

(read more)

Copyright 2011-2017 by Daniel Lowe