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Crystal Mill 4WD Road

White River National Forest,Colorado

The photogenic Crystal Mill, an old water powerhouse perched precariously over a 15-foot waterfall in western Colorado’s backcountry, is located 6 miles east of Marble just before the ghost town of Crystal—reachable only in the summer and fall months via the grueling, narrow, County Road 3 (aka Crystal River Jeep Trail #314), the site can be accessed by personal high clearance 4WD vehicles (no thanks), guided jeep tours (maybe), on horseback (poor horse), mountain bike (not fun), or on foot (our choice).

To reach the 4WD Road, go through Marble, Colorado along County Road 3 until you reach Beaver Lake—from the lake, unless you want to drive the rocky road, park your car at any available pull-off and set off for the mill on foot.

Beaver Lake, a large pond surrounded by jagged mountains, was the starting point for our hike—set amidst beautiful alpine scenery, the lake can be seen off to the right as you climb the road on the steep slope of Daniels Hill.

The road levels out after the elevation gain around Beaver Lake and the hike becomes more enjoyable—continue trekking along the bumpy dirt road, taking in the dramatic mountain landscape punctuated by the intense turquoise color of the Crystal River.

After hiking for close to 1.2 miles, you will come to the intersection with the Lost Trail Road, veering off to the left—stay right to make your way to Crystal Mill. In just another 0.3-mile, you will reach the west shore of Lizard Lake—an emerald green beauty, tucked between the forested base of Sheep Mountain and Hat Mountain, which was misnamed for the lizard-like salamanders that can often be seen floating among the lake’s vegetation.

Thrilling ascents and descents await the hiker approaching the narrow exposure along the section known as the Twin Bridges Shelf Road—despite its treacherous history (inclement weather has led to many fatal accidents), the scenery along this portion of the hike is breathtaking. From the lofty ledge of the Shelf Road, one can see the glorious twists and cascades of the Crystal River far below—the appropriately named river is so clear that it seems like you can pick out the shape and color of every bedrock.

After passing view after stunning view, we finally reached our destination of Crystal Mill—the mill, constructed in 1892, is a spectacular symbol of the state’s mining heritage.

Truly an awe-inspiring sight, the historical structure stands vigil over a 15-foot cascade of the Crystal River with a backdrop of golden aspen and the towering peak of Mt Crested Butte—mountains, river, and forest come together to create the perfect setting for such an interesting piece of history.

After hiking for an hour and a half, we arrived late in the afternoon, the best time to photograph the mill, we set off to explore every angle from which to shoot—interesting compositions can be found from the road, the cliff above the waterfall, and by descending to water’s edge. Several other photographers were pointing their camera at the iconic building, but one stood out from the crowd—professional photographer Jeff Mitchum. Jeff, a great guy and world-renowned landscape photographer, was a pleasure to talk to and a welcome companion for a few hours—he even provided us weary hikers with a treat of Hot Tamales candy, thanks Jeff!

Post exploration, nearly 2 hours after arriving at the mill, we prepared ourselves for the long hike back to the car—leaving at around 6:00pm, we knew the 5 mile hike back would have us breaking out our headlamps, so we set a brisk pace and clipped off about a mile when a jeep came bouncing down the road. We stepped off the side of the road to let them pass when they stopped to chat—much to our surprise and great pleasure, the Burkes, a friendly retired couple making their back to Marble offered to give us a ride. We gratefully accepted their kind offer and were back to Lizard Lake before the sun dipped below the horizon—we opted to hike the rest of the way back to our car in order to photograph the reflections of glowing aspen on the lake’s surface.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, the gregarious Burkes who we now call friends, we arrived at our car well before dark—with shoe leather to spare and daylight to burn, we made a beeline for Leadville and our next adventure, the highpoint of Colorado, Mount Elbert.

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