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Colorado Seen 08/2011

ASPEN GOLD in the san juans


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From the Editor Last August 22, Colorado had an earthquake. Not a big one by global standards, but it was a reminder that geology is happening here every day. Nowhere is Colorado geology — as an event, not just a science — more visible than in the settings for two of this month’s stories, coincidentally on the far side of the state from the earthquake. It’s a statewide phenomenon. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison formed when an upheaval pushed hard rock into the path of a rushing river, leaving a crevasse which time and erosion have not softened. The high country of the San Juan Mountains is the result of more volcanic uplift, and provides a perfect setting to show off Colorado’s autumn aspens at their most glorious. Enjoy this last issue of 2011 —and come on back in 2012. Some more geology is sure to happen.

Colorado Seen An internet image magazine Editor & Publisher Andrew Piper We welcome comments and letters. Submit them to: To submit work or story ideas for consideration, send an e-mail to: If you would like to advertise in ColoradoSeen, send an e-mail to for information on rates and interactive links. Copyright © 2011 ColoradoSeen

On the cover: Snow falling on aspens — an autumn storm dusts Molas Pass in the San Juan Mountains as aspens gleam among a sea of evergreens.

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CANYON of the gunnison RIVER

Deep shadows cast by 1,500-foot cliffs give the Black Canyon its name. The metamorphic rock walls are actually brown, pink and gray.

STORY & Photos by Andy Piper


hree million years ago, the Gunnison River in southwestern Colorado flowed across a valley of soft volcanic ash. Then geology happened. The valley floor began to uplift into a dome of rock, and the river started carving a canyon through the soft ash surface. By the time the river reached the harder metamorphic rock layer underneath, it was trapped in its course and could not divert around this much tougher material. Like a bandsaw pressed against a board, the river cut vertically downwards, with relatively little erosion to the sides, leaving a 48-mile-long, hardwalled, narrow gash through the schist, 6






Area enlarged



The green waters of the Gunnison River cut through The Narrows, where the canyon floor squeezes down to widths as small as 40 feet. The river drops 90 feet per mile through the National Park, giving it its cutting power. 7

An artist’s hand records the many shades of the Black Canyon from a North Rim overlook above the Narrows.

Temporary signage documented the change of the Black Canyon from a National Monument to a National Park in 1999.

The valley floor over which the Gunnison River once flowed is still visible as low hills on the horizon.

gneiss and pegmatite that now reaches depths of over 2,200 feet. Today, 12 miles of the canyon’s deepest part form the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (a National Monument from 1933 to 1999). 10


he name comes not from the coloring, which is grays, browns and dark pinks, but from the perpetual shade in the depths, cast by the sheer walls.

At points, the walls are separated by only 1,500 feet at the rim (and as little as 40 feet at the river). But it takes two hours and 50 miles of driving to travel that 1,500 feet — out of the park, around the uplift, and in from the

other side. Access to the canyon floor is via strenuous hikes or technical descents of the steep walls, or by kayak along the river from the eastern end of the park., where a road with a 16% grade descends to river level. n

Kayakers’ tents on a sand bar shrink to the size of sesame seeds as seen from the canyon rim.

At its western end, the Black Canyon widens to form the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, a mecca for kayakers.

At dawn, the moon sets over the Painted Wall, the highest sheer cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet from rim to river. Pale intrusions of pegmatite form the brush strokes. n




IN THEM THERE HILLS Aspen season comes to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and the Million-Dollar Highway

Like a spill of bee pollen, aspens dust the slopes along the Million-Dollar Highway (lower left) below Red Mountain Pass, south of Ouray.

STORY & Photos by Andy Piper


s the crow flies, it is only a bit over 50 miles from Ouray, Colorado to Durango. But that 50 miles climbs over

the top of the San Juan Mountains, a sprawling mass of volcanic upthrust rich in minerals, notably silver and gold. The road is

known as the eastern half of the San Juan Skyway, or U.S. 550, or “The MillionDollar Highway.� Opinions vary as to whether the

latter refers to the value of the precious metals beneath, or the cost of its rugged construction, or the incredible views from its 11,000-ft

passes. But never is its value more obvious to the eye than in autumn, when it overlooks mile after mile of sweeping

golden panoramas — and becomes the “Million-Aspen Highway.” South the road climbs: from Ouray to Red Mountain

Pass, through the Chattanooga Valley, past the historic mining town of Silverton, above the tree line at Molas Pass (10,910 feet)

Aspens gleam in morning sunlight as an autumn snowstorm clears over the West Needle Mountains south of Silverton.

The San Juan County Courthouse in Silverton is backed by a wall of aspens, left, as fallen leaves pave the city’s streets with gold, at right.

and Coal Bank Pass, and then a long descent through the valley of the Animas River to Durango.


he view changes with each turn of the highway: from broad mountainsides on which 50-foot aspens become but tiny specks of pollen; to high ridges where passing clouds obscure the mountains and leave the trees silhouetted against nothingness. From pictureperfect scenes of the San Juans surrounded by golden frames — to the heart of Silverton, where golden hillsides backdrop the San Juan County courthouse spire, and fallen leaves literally pave the streets with gold. n

Ouray Denver







Area enlarged



Even the low clouds of a clearing snowstorm can’t dim the sea of yellow along the highway.

A leaf on asphalt, gold sign against gold, a lovers’ pledge, a golden bough:


Details found along the Million-Dollar Highway in aspen season.


Aspens frame the view as storm clouds clear to reveal Twilight Peak south of Silverton.

A solo aspen stands its ground against the coming snows of winter on Molas Pass (10,910 feet) south of Silverton. n

A Columbine High School trumpeter shines by his own light as he tunes up, above. At left, a youngster portrays a soldier of the Nutcracker Prince in front of a float from the Colorado Ballet.

parade of lights Denver’s brilliant kick-off for the holidays TEXT & Photos by Andy Piper

and floats sponsored by civic groups and businesses, gather at the Civic Center and march What Macy’s Thanks- through downtown to giving Day parade is to the sounds of Christmas carols. New York, the Parade The electric lights of Lights is to Denver. are a part of Denver’s The sure sign that the history, since the city winter holiday season was one of the first to has begun. adopt electric street and Bedecked in decorative lights in the Christmas-tree lights, 1880s, earning Denver bands from the city’s the nickname “City of high schools and the state’s major universities, Lights.” n 33

A tubist from Columbine High School warms up her technique — and her fingers — in subfreezing temperatures before the parade.

A glowing carousel coach leads a street full of illuminated bands and floats 36

lined up to take part in the parade. 37

Clockwise from top right: Low-rider cars bedecked in tree lights add a latin flavor to the parade; A tubist from Lakewood High School glows amid the lights; a tiger balloon looms over Denver’s downtown; and Katrina Arzhayev dresses as a Christmas gift to accompany Santa Claus on his float — err, sleigh. 38


Trimmed with lights, Kat Reynolds and Judy Schenkein portray minions of the Nutcracker Prince to march with a float sponsored by the Colorado Ballet,

Streetlights shine through the gossamer wings of illuminated angel Chris Crumrine before Denver’s annual Parade of Lights. n

ColoradoSeen 08-2011  

A photojournalism magazine about Colorado. Issue 8 of 2011

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