One of the most photographed places in all of Colorado, the Crystal Mill does not disappoint. But getting there is half the shot.
Whether you’re a professional photographer or budding Instagram superstar, it’s well worth the trip to visit this faraway, amazing, abandoned site.
The town of Crystal, near tiny Marble, Colo., was founded on the precious metal ores that littered tributary confluences in the valley. Its remote location, combined with the great difficulty of moving silver ore through a rocky, unforgiving valley road, eventually led to Crystal’s demise around the turn of the 20th century.
But the beauty of this rugged valley remains. Those who make the journey are treated to sweeping vistas, precipitous overlooks, and haunting remnants of a once-prosperous mining town. But the only way to get to the ghostly Crystal Mill is via the same rudimentary route the miners took a century ago.
So capturing the picturesque scenes also requires a flair for adventure, because getting there is half the fun. Here’s what you need to know.
Crystal Mill, CO: Get There However You Can
You can hike, mountain bike, UTV, or four-wheel-drive from the town of Marble to the Crystal Mill site — about a 5-mile trek. It’s a challenging drive, so a high-clearance 4×4 is virtually a must.
Intrepid adventurers still attempt to visit the Crystal Mill in a standard vehicle all the time. But locals strongly discourage this silliness, knowing all too well the dangers and hazards that can occur.
Pop in one of the galleries, eateries, or cabin rentals nearby if you need confirmation. Locals usually reply to tourist questions with something along these lines: “If you’re planning on driving your sedan out there, be prepared to hike the 5 miles back.”
In fact, I stopped into the Marble Hub coffee shop to power up and get the scoop.
“It’s gotten so bad that I started offering a free cup of coffee to people who are stuck and stop by my place to call in a tow truck,” operations manager Rebecca Branson told me.
Note: With few services nearby, a tow could average $250 per hour and easily take three to four hours in total. That’s a big chunk of change for a few extra Instagram likes.
What You’ll See on the Approach
What I did, and recommend for anyone opposed to tempting fate with an insufficiently cleared vehicle, is mountain bike out to the Crystal Mill. Rising over 1,200 feet along the 5-mile road, the scenery isn’t the only thing that will take your breath away. There are fantastic views of Whitehouse Mountain and the Sawatch Range flanking the river all the way.
Even on a random Monday, I’m amazed by the amount of congestion on this cobbled Jeep trail known as Crystal City Road 314. Along with hikers, there are Jeeps, off-road vehicles, and dirt bikes creeping up and down a road barely wide enough for a single vehicle.
Given all the traffic, my bike was a great choice. I cruised along easily, enjoying the scenery instead of gripping a steering wheel hoping not to fall off the shelf road. (In 2016, two Jeeps full of friends tried to pass and plunged over 130 feet into the river below.)
How to Photograph Crystal Mill in Colorado
The Crystal Mill sits on privately owned land, so respect the signs and barriers. The owner of the land has recently begun collecting $10 donations and a signed waiver to shoot photos in the prime locations beyond the barriers.
To get the shot everyone is looking for, head over the barriers to the right of the mill. The cliffside spot can only fit three to four people, so remember that thing your mom taught you: Take turns.
If you’re not feeling especially adventurous, an overlook at the parking area offers a great view of the site too. Saplings and bushes do clutter the view of the water, but you might like the context.
A moderate-to-ultrawide lens will give you the best perspective of the area. I prefer a Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 (a workhorse lens for photojournalists) in order to zoom in or out to get the framing of the scene just right.
Many photographers at this location will also use a fisheye lens in order to get in more of the peripheral scenes. Although not in most photographers’ kit, a fisheye lens will allow you to crop proper framing when editing in post.
If you’re a fan of HDR, I suggest shooting seven to nine frames in a bracket of +-.07EV in the late afternoon or morning to help bring out the detail in the shadows cast on the mill itself. If you’re not a fan of HDR photography, you’ll find that most modern cameras have a wide dynamic range.
This range lets you pick up even minute details in the shadows and pull out definition from the highlights, especially when shot in RAW. Editing these RAW photos in Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop will also give you greater control over the final details.
More Photo Tips to Get the Shot at Crystal Mill, CO
1. Build photos from the background.
Every angle at Crystal Mill is more beautiful than the last. With such a stunning centerpiece — the mill — it’s easy to get breathtaking photos. But don’t forget the frame.
Like an artist creating a painting, build your photo up starting from the background to the foreground. The background provides context and gives the viewer the immersive feeling of being there. That’s where the story is.
It’s also the thing that most photographers overlook while scrutinizing foreground subjects. Keeping an eye on stray items that fall into the frame will keep your photos concise and uncluttered — and help your image stand out.
2. Do your homework.
Prepare by checking out the Crystal Mill or the area you want to shoot on Google Earth. This can provide vital info about the terrain and how to get to the area you want to photograph.
Also, try an augmented reality app to help you predict with great accuracy where the sun will be in the sky and when — and therefore the best time to capture the Crystal Mill.
3. Wait for the light.
Sunrise and late afternoon are best because the sun is lower on the horizon, providing that rich, angular light. Colors are more vibrant, and the shadows will have a longer cast.
Be aware: The sun rises and sets behind mountain peaks earlier, so time it so you don’t miss out on the shot you want at Colorado’s most photographed spot.
4. Befriend weird weather.
You can capture some of the most dramatic light on days with clouds and rain. This can add some drama to the otherwise pristine blue we think of when shooting in Colorado. Semi-cloudy days will provide evenly diffused light and soften the harsh shadow cast by your subject.
That said, the weather is weird in Colorado; it changes very quickly. So bring a rain jacket, extra water, food, and extra camera equipment. A spare SD card and battery can make the difference between a getting the shot and going home empty-handed.
One More Cup of Coffee
After another successful shoot (in my book), I biked back to Marble. On the way out, I passed a tow truck headed up to save another stranded motorist. It made me laugh about what I’d heard in town earlier that day:
“If you’re looking for a free cup of coffee after driving your Honda Civic out there, just make sure to hoof it back before we close at 3:00.”
This season alone, Marble Hub has given out nine cups of coffee to stranded day trippers to Colorado’s most photographed spot. Well, 10 if the tow truck I saw was any indication.
If you make the trek to see and shoot the Crystal Mill, it’ll be well worth your while. Just remember these tips and don’t be number 11.
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