A Passion for Colorado Mountain Photography

It is not very hard to see how someone could enjoy making photographs of the beautiful mountains of Colorado. With 53 mountains rising above 14,000 feet in elevation and 584 additional peaks rising above 13,000 feet, Colorado is an absolute mountain treasure-trove with photographic opportunities in all directions.

The Elk Mountains Panorama (2018)

Some of the most amazing 14ers in Colorado - The Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak, and Pyramid Peak all seen together in one giant panorama as seen from the summit of 13er Thunder Pyramid near the town of Aspen. In this fine art photograph featuring Colorado's most dangerous 14ers, clouds and blue sky provide a great contrast with the red rock and orange moss which are ubiquitous in the Elk Mountains.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

My addiction to Colorado mountains started at an early age, having been lucky enough to have parents who valued the outdoors. My father Ray was in pursuit of climbing the highest 100 mountains in Colorado dating back to the mid-1970s and began taking me on easier hikes as early as age 4 when I ascended my very first 13,000-foot mountain. I climbed my first 14,000-foot (or 14er as we like to call them) when I was 6-years-old and had summited over 20 of the highest 100 mountains in Colorado before I was 10-years-old.

A panorama featuring sunset and Colorado mountains with aspen trees in fall

The last magical display from here I saw featured this incredible sunset, which cast red light upon the mountains across the valley from me, including 14er Uncompahgre Peak (left), Pinnacle Ridge (center), Coxcomb Peak, Precipice Peak, Dunsinane Mountain, and Chimney Rock at far right. I've revisited this location almost every year since I first discovered it in 2017, and this might be the best display of light I've witnessed from here yet. The magic of the Cimarron Mountains is nearly unparalleled.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I don't share this information to make myself look awesome - it is simply context for what I want to share in this article: How my deep and early connection to Colorado mountains and my experiences in those mountains have shaped who I am as a photographer today in my 40's.

Grenadier Mountain Sunset (2020)

On the first day of summer in 2020 I took a backpacking trip with my 12-year-old son deep into the Weminuche Wilderness Area near Durango and Silverton, Colorado. At the top of my list was to try to photograph the Grenadier Range at sunset from a northern vantage point at 13,000 ft. This particular vantage point in the San Juan Mountains yielded some of the best views of the Grenadiers and Needle Mountains I have ever seen. From left to right, you can see Middle Trinity, West Trinity, Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, Vestal Peak, Eolus Peak, Arrow Peak, Turret Peak, and Electric Peak. Small tarns on the hillside below reflected the colorful sky above. Getting views of Colorado 14ers and 13ers like this is what I live for! Of particular note, at center, the impressive stature of Vestal Peak's Wham Ridge rises high and continues to blow my mind every time I see it. Even though this image was made on the first day of summer, lots of snow was still present, which I personally love!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After years of not doing much of anything in the mountains and after far too many hours spent in front of a computer screen playing video games, in late 2008, I made a commitment to finish climbing the highest 100 mountains in Colorado beginning the following spring. At the time, I did not see myself as a photographer at all - rather, I was just an outdoor enthusiast with a huge passion for the Colorado mountains. I did own a camera though - a relatively nice Sony DSC-828 - an 8 megapixel camera released in 2003 with a fixed 28-200 lens attached to it. I brought this camera on all of my hikes in 2009 and 2010 and documented each and every mountain climb in detail through photographs with the intent to share them on a blog site for my friends and family to check out. In that two-year span I climbed 48 peaks and gained an even deeper love for Colorado's mountains.

Epic Sunrise from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak (2015)

I don't think I've ever pushed my body so hard for a photograph before. After three straight days of climbing mountains in Colorado near Lake City with 30 pounds of photography gear, I summited Colorado's 6th highest mountain, Uncompahgre Peak, just before sunrise. There was significant haze and smoke in the air from forest fires in the Pacific Northwest which contributed to the colorful light at sunrise. During this climb I kept looking over to the east, and with each change in the light I kept pushing harder and harder to ensure I was on top before the magic began. I can't really tell you the euphoria that is created and realized when you reach the top of a high peak right before the sun crests the horizon, it is truly magnificent. Many of my favorite mountains in Colorado are seen in this panoramic photograph, including 14er Wetterhorn Peak.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Each climb and subsequent view from the summit was meticulously documented by my camera and saved to my blog for posterity. Through this process of documentation, experiencing amazing places, and learning my camera, I grew more and more fascinated by photography and it's potential to tell stories and take other people to share in the experiences I had been so lucky to be a part of. From the summits of each peak, I could make out the summits of other mountains I had climbed and was immediately taken back to those adventures from the view.

A sunrise panoramic from San Juan Mountains of Colorado with views of 14ers Eolus, Windom, and Sunlight in the Needles sub-range. Epic Mountain photography.

After a 20+ mile backpack into Colorado's Chicago Basin near the town of Durango in the Weminuche Wilderness Area, my climbing partner and I got an early start at 3 AM to ascend North Eolus Peak's 14,000 ft. summit before sunrise. We were joined by mountain goats on the summit (one is in the photo, can you spot it?) for this panoramic and enjoyed one of the most epic and memorable sunrises in my lifetime. Directly east of us below the sun were the formidable 14,000 ft. peaks Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak (which we climbed later that day and the day after). To the right (south) towered 14er Eolus Peak and to the left getting hit by intense light were Turret Peak and Pigeon Peak, two of the more rugged peaks in the area. Also visible in this photograph are my favorite peaks in Colorado - Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak (left of middle, sticking up like a sore thumb), Jagged Mountain, Jupiter Peak, and more. You can even make out Uncompahgre Peak and Wetterhorn Peak on the horizon as well as Rio Grand Pyramid. If you can't tell, I'm a total Colorado mountain geek.

This realization was a seminal moment for me in my photography. Each photograph from the summit told countless tales of other adventures, hikes, backpacks, and friendships I had made along my journey and the power of these images in representing those experiences was solidified and memorialized.

The best sunrise from the summit of Turret Peak showcasing the rising sun behind Jagged Mountain in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

In August of 2016, I set off to climb two of Colorado's most difficult mountains, Pigeon Peak and Turret Peak. The Durango-Silverton Narrow-gauge train dropped me off next to the Animas River at 9,500 feet and I set-off up the steep Ruby Lake trail. I ended up setting up camp below Pigeon Peak but opted not to sleep. Instead, I climbed to the saddle between Pigeon and Turret and photographed the Perseid Meteor Shower. 36 hours without sleep and this was my reward - witnessing one of the most magical sunrises ever from the summit of 13,835 ft. Turret Peak - marking the 88th mountain out of Colorado's highest 100 that I have climbed at the time this photo was taken (I've since climbed all 100). The sun rose so brightly behind Jagged Mountain and Rio Grand Pyramid that I thought for sure I had fallen asleep and began to dream. Discernible rays of light spread out from behind Jagged and lit the clouds a crimson and purple combination, which I can only describe as surreal and scintillating. A literal sea of mountains including 13ers Arrow Peak, Vestal Peak, Animas Mountain, Monitor Peak, and Trinity Peak adorn the horizon. This may be the best way to view the Needle and Grenadier Mountain Ranges.

It can't be understated how difficult this photograph was to get. It required me to backpack up an incredibly steep trail to a high alpine meadow with all of my camera gear and sleep gear, set-up camp, and then climb up to 13,835 ft. in the dark.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Some of my favorite landscape photographs showcase views that have 20-30 mountains in the scene that I have climbed and by looking at the photograph I am fondly taken back to those experiences, those moments, those stories, and those emotions. I also believe that this is why I've been such a staunch proponent of more "representational" or "natural" landscape photography - it is due to how I value my own landscape photography as being a gateway to my own experiences in my past. In fact, I helped create a new landscape photography competition aimed at recognizing and rewarding similar landscape photography as I often see it being drowned out by more fantasy-like images that can't and don't represent place or experience.

Mount Sneffels from Dallas Peak (2014)

14er Mount Sneffels (14,150 ft) is the 27th highest mountain in Colorado. This shot of it towering above Blue Lakes was taken from a literal cliff on the side of 13er Dallas Peak on my ascent of it. I can almost guarantee a more unique view of Mount Sneffels does not exist. The impressive 13er Teakettle Peak (which I climbed the day after this photo was taken) can be seen at upper right.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

As of July, 2021, I've climbed over 200 mountains here in Colorado and hope to keep doing so for a very long time. Each summit has the ability to transport my mind to relive those great moments I've experienced in these magnificent Colorado mountains. Thank you for coming along for that journey.