Astrophotography Is the Best Way to Experience Colorado's Mountains

This tour will show you the night sky like never before, and allow you to take a bit of it home.

Courtesy of Colorado Astrophotography
Welcome to Thrillist 50, your guide to fun and adventure in 2023. Think of it as your comprehensive roadmap for checking out exciting events and new attractions coming over the next 12 months, going on bucket-list trips, reconnecting with yourself and your community, expanding your mind, and of course, experiencing the flavors we're most excited about this year. There are so many reasons to live like there's no tomorrow. Start here.

As we pull up to the top of Colorado’s Loveland Pass at 9:30 pm, I'm hesitant to exit the car, barely able to see where the steep edge drops all the way down into the canyon. In one direction you can see the lights of Denver shining up through the peaks and in the other, a black abyss. Before I have a second to think, our guide Maggie Martin is up and out of the car, headlight on, setting up her equipment and gushing over the clear night we’re blessed with. “Wow, check it out, you can see Jupiter over there above the treeline,” she points out. For someone who does this six out of seven days of the week, she’s as awe-struck as the rest of the first-timers in our car.

Our group for the evening includes myself, one man whose New Year’s resolution was to start a new hobby, another whose was to “be more adventurous,” and two women celebrating their anniversary. Besides us, there isn’t another soul in sight, and while some may think we’re crazy for spending our Friday night braving the 10-degree weather and added wind, there couldn’t be a better time to accompany Martin on one of her excursions than during the first full moon of the year.

Martin has lived in Denver for 18 years and owns Colorado Astrophotography, a tour experience that takes guests into nature and teaches them to shoot the night sky and majestic mountainscapes of Colorado. The women- and LBGTQ-owned business provides transportation and equipment and guides you to both iconic and remote spots in Clear Creek County, where you’ll receive a 1:1 lesson on how to shoot the wonders of our galaxy. Marin’s extensive knowledge of the planets and constellations is intertwined in the lesson, so you know exactly what to look for and how to use the camera to capture it perfectly. If you’re lucky enough to plan your visit around a meteor shower or full moon, she’ll assist you in capturing shooting stars and beautiful crests that you can take home as a memento.

Courtesy of Colorado Astrophotography

While photography was always a passion of Martin’s, it was her unique talent for capturing images of constellations, meteor showers, and more over the Rocky Mountains that led her to create her own business. The service was initially offered as an Airbnb Experience, but a combination of quitting her job in teaching, being faced with the pandemic, and turning inward, led Martin to pursue her dream job leading workshops, group experiences, photoshoots, date nights, and more.

“When I left teaching, I did this, and it was right when I started learning how to meditate and get into mindfulness. After I did it enough it became my healing, and as I started to do it more I realized I needed to share it with people,” explains Martin. “But in the process of building the business I’ve gotten much more focused on the customer experience, the collaborative playlist and connecting guests to each other—where they’re from and why they showed up.”

No previous experience is required to take a trip with Colorado Astrophotography, only the curiosity to explore nature and the night sky in a creative way that will put those nights of staring up at the stars at camp to shame. But it’s more than a stargazing experience. “You’re out in the freezing temperatures, and forced to connect with your body. It’s about capturing all the light in the darkness, both literally and metaphorically,” explains Martin. “Everything in our days is 1,000 things a minute, and this is one very slow, long, exposure for a picture that’s beautiful and an experience that connects people.”

Once our cameras and tripods are set up, Martin hands out diagrams of exposure triangles and walks us through the three different camera settings we’ll be using. For someone whose photography skills don’t go beyond an iPhone, it’s fascinating to learn the equation for shutter speed, also known as exposure time, and how it works specifically for astrophotography, allowing your lens to stay open long enough to capture sufficient light. Once our dials are set to manual and our exposure time was aligned to capture the full moon, we’re ready to take our “shot in the dark.” “Keep your lens facing up, unless you’re shooting the full moon,” jokes Martin. “Then pull your pants up.”

Courtesy of Colorado Astrophotography

After some alone time with our cameras, the group quickly huddles together, oohing and ahhing over each other's photographs, scoping out rocks we could pose on to capture shots of one another. The two women are already coordinating a couple’s photoshoot with Maggie where they could bring their snowboards out onto Echo Lake.

Once the hand warmers wear off and we’re more than satisfied with what we’ve just captured, our motley crew is on its way. Winding down through the pass with the mountains at our back, we bop along to Colorado Astrophotography’s playlist, which you're encouraged to add to during the experience, while we bask in the magic we just witnessed. Some had never been to Loveland Pass, others had never held a camera. But now we’re all heading home with something much better than a blurry iPhone photo and far more knowledge about the planets, constellations, and full moon than we showed up with.

Whether you’re mesmerized by the night sky, want to improve your photography skills, or are looking to experience the sheer magic of being one with nature at a time when most people are not, a night of astrophotography will bring you a new perspective and some astonshing photos your friends won’t believe you took. And it’s perfect for those visiting Colorado or spending a weekend in Denver who may not have access to a car and would be remiss not to visit the mountains during their stay.

“My focus for 2023 is incorporating how astrophotography is a therapeutic and mindful practice. You’re surrounded by blackness and silence, and the cold temperatures get you out of your head and into your body. You have this anticipation for the 20 - 25 seconds it takes for the picture to develop and it really forces you to just slow down,” explains Martin. “Not everyone is into the wellness factor, and no one has to be. But that’s what it is for me. It’s how I heal and how I take time for myself.”

Regardless of if you’re planning your first trip to the Rockies or have lived here for over a decade, this will be an experience unlike any other you’ve had in the mountains and is well-deserving of a spot on your 2023 bucket list.

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Abby Maddigan is the social media manager at Thrillistwho recently relocated to Denver and is accepting all local coffee shop recommendations. Follow her on Instagram.