I recently spent about 3 weeks in the Colorado Rockies during its fall color season. I arrived in the Aspen area, where the aspens were already turning gold in some places. As I arrived at my hotel at the Snowmass Ski Area, I noticed a herd of elk hanging out in a meadow. I am not much of a wildlife photographer, but I will take advantage of the opportunity when I happen to across it. I recently purchased a 150-600mm zoom lens and it proved useful to get a photo like this.
The elk were already bugling with the change of the seasons underway and the colors were approaching peak in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Probably the most iconic and photographed place in Colorado is an area called the Maroon Bells, south of Aspen. I had been here a couple of years ago close to peak with good light and clouds over Maroon Peak with reflections in Maroon Lake. Being satisfied with my images from two years ago and recalling the 100-200 other photographers that are often there on late September mornings, I sought an alternative view of the Maroon Bells. So I decided to arrive a couple of hours before sunrise at Maroon Lake and hiked up the trail nearly 2 miles to the lake above it called Crater Lake. The fall color is not quite as widespread as the large groves of aspen trees found around Maroon Lake, but the crowds were much less. When I arrived at Crater Lake, there were only a couple of tents and a few campers already there before me. Otherwise, I was the first to arrive at the lake for the morning. The views of the Maroon Bells are almost as good here, and is a nice alternative to the bustle at Maroon Lake. About the only problem with the view that morning, was the top of Maroon Peak shrouded in clouds.
After spending a few days in the Aspen & Snowmass area, it was then southward to spend a little time in the Crested Butte area. A great place to see aspens in their fall glory is a road called the Kebler Pass Road, just west of Crested Butte. I have heard some say that it is the largest aspen grove in the world and I can believe it. Not only do the aspens seem to be go on for miles here, but there trunks and the understory beneath the foliage just seems more scenic here than just about any other aspen forest that I have seen.
One could spend a lot of time exploring the forests around Kebler Pass, but I had already made reservations to head to Ouray and the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado. It was a rainy day as I left Crested Butte as a strong storm system entered western Colorado. The temperatures were getting colder and accumulating snow made it as far down as about 8500 feet. Most aspens in Colorado grow around 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, so it made for a great combination of color and snowfall. I was lucky to be here at such a great time! Some years, the snow comes just after the best color. Given the right conditions, I had to pay a visit to Dallas Divide near Ridgway. It could be argued that Dallas Divide might be the 2nd most photographed location behind Maroon Bells. I have been visiting this region of Colorado regularly for 20 years and this was probably the best combination of fall color and snow on the Sneffels Range that I have seen. This image is a Colorado classic that I have wanted for a long time!
After spending the night in Ouray, I had to take advantage of the snow on the ground by going up toward Red Mountain Pass south of Ouray. It didn't disappoint! Such a great combination of widespread color and snow. These roadside images could be found along US 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway.
The snow would soon begin to melt but the color would remain strong for about another week. The San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado typically are best during the last week of September and the first week of October. I would spend a lot of this time in the Telluride area, with some occasional trips to the Ridgway area. One of my favorite fall color hikes in the Telluride area is the Wilson Mesa Trail. It is rare when I see another hiker here and the trail goes through one of the prettiest meadows in Colorado for aspens and mountain views. The image below is looking at Wilson Peak (a 14er featured in the Coors Beer logo) in alpenglow light before sunrise.
One of my favorite Colorado photographers is Glenn Randall. When looking at his blog, he talked about looking for unique views. One place he discussed was at a place above Owl Creek Pass, east of Ridgway. After studying his image, a topo map and Google Earth, I had a good idea of where he took this image of Chimney Rock and looking beyond toward the Uncompahgre Wilderness. I had already made plans to try to find this place. Ironically, later that week, I saw his image featured on the October issue of Backpacker Magazine. I was now even more motivated to find it! On the peak weekend of fall color, I drove to a pullover near Owl Creek Pass and headed up. Some of this was on a sometimes faint, unmarked trail. Other times, I was just bushwhacking my way up to this magnificent viewpoint. With no maintained trail to get here, I was expecting to be the only one to be photographing this not so much publicized location. To my surprise, there were a couple of other photographers there before me, and a couple more arrived after I did. I guess I wasn't the only one inspired by Glenn Randall and his cover of Backpacker magazine! Getting here was definitely worth the effort. Not only were the aspens at peak color, but the sky was great as the sun set.
Another great photographer that represents the beauty of Colorado is John Fielder. I wrapped up my trip by taking one of his weekend workshops based out of Telluride. I had a couple of more "abstract" images that I really liked and I thought was kinda unique.