Autumn Colors in the San Juan Mountains 2021

San Juan Mountains

Autumn colors in the San Juan Mountains were amazing in the fall of 2021, especially at the end of September through the first week in October. I was fortunate enough to spend a week photographing the green, gold, orange and red colors from McClure Pass to Cimarron, Owl Creek Pass to the Dallas Divide, and over to Ophir and Telluride. I met up with a friend for a few days, took some hikes in the rain, enjoyed some gorgeous sunsets, and finally found the Dancing Aspen after years of searching. Here are a few of that week’s highlights.

On my drive down from Winter Park, I decided to take the route leading over McClure Pass. The winding Hwy 133 curved its way south past Carbondale, along the Crystal River, through Redstone, and finally up and over the majestic McClure Pass. The colors seem to explode in reds and golds as the road climbs, finally peaking at a worthy overlook.

McClure Pass in Autumn 101-1

From high up on McClure Pass (8,755’), the aspen in Autumn show their brilliant gold and orange colors. Highway 133 runs up and over this pass that divides Gunnison and Pitken Counties, and in early October, the views are breathtaking.

After a quick stop there, I made my way back down the pass and over to Montrose. I picked up a friend from the airport there, then we headed down to the Cimarron Valley to photograph some familiar sights as well as some newfound gems. That first late afternoon storms rolled through the valley, drenching the land in rain. However, often after these storms the sky can produce nice sunsets. With this in mind, we headed over to Rowdy Lake and Clear Lake. Clear Lake had been one of my goals this trip. It has a beautiful row of Aspen along the bank and when the water is calm, the reflections can’t get much better. While we drove to the trailhead that begins at Rowdy Lake, the rains poured on us. After a bumpy ride up the 4WD road, we reached the parking area. With a light sprinkle still falling, we slogged our way along an easy, soaked path for about ¾ of a mile to reach Clear Lake. The water was calm, the clouds were breaking, and our efforts were rewarded over the next hour as the sky continuously changed – and all the time there wasn’t a hint of wind. Here are a few images from that spectacular evening.

Clear Lake after an Autumn Storm 101-1

Early Autumn really shines in this image from Clear Lake, a short hike from Rowdy Lake, near Owl Creek Pass. A storm has blown through, leaving a calm lake and beautiful skies in its wake. Across the lake, golden aspen vary in color between green and gold and orange, making for a perfect reflection in the still water.

Aspen Reflection 101-1

A grove of gold and orange aspen and its pristine reflection in the still waters of Clear Lake near Cimarron make for a beautiful Autumn scene.

Clear Lake Autumn Reflection 103-1

The walk to Clear Lake is short - maybe a half mile - and begins at the end of a short, bumpy dirt road. The views anytime of year are beautiful, and especially grand in Autumn. Here, the green, gold, and orange aspen leaves are reflected in the pristine and still waters shortly after a storm full of bluster and rain had passed through.

The next morning, after a night in a fly-infested cabin, we returned to Silver Jack Reservoir, a place I’d visited a few years prior. Low clouds gave the landscape a misty, spooky feel, but the views were still colorful and pristine.

Silver Jack Autumn Morning 102-1

Golden aspen highlight this fall image taken from a ridge above Silver Jack Reservoir. The dirt road makes it easy to access this location, and the walk isn’t far before you take in some views of this amazing lanscape.

After a quick drive to Montrose for some lunch at the Horsefly Brewery (always one of my stops when I’m in the area), we headed back to the Ridgway area and drove up Owl Creek Pass. Again, rains rolled through the area, but this time we were rewarded with a rainbow followed by a nice sunset over a mixed palette of scrub brush and aspen surrounding the base of a towering, rocky ridge.

The Promise - Owl Creek Pass 1002-1

Near the top of Owl Creek Pzss just after a storm had passed through, a beautiful and vibrant rainbow appeared in the lingering mist. In the distance, the Cimarron Ridge can be seen, and below, the orange aspen leaves of Autumn add more color to a wonderful scene.

Owl Creek Pass in Autumn 111-1

From a little turnout on Owl Creek Pass near Ridgway, the fall colors of the San Juan range really show their brilliance on a cool October evening. From the reds and oranges of the scrub brush to the golden aspen to the evergreen of the pine, amazing colors were on display in all directions.

From here, we spent the next few days shooting in the Telluride and Ophir area, both of which were ablaze with colorful aspen. One of the highlights of our time there was the Dancing Aspen. This group of trees is a well-kept secret by folks who’ve been there. I knew the general location, but with the trees located well off the dirt road, they’d proven elusive. After several stops and short walks into the forest – and several hours of driving up and down rocky roads – we found the trees (or so we thought). They were the same shape as the images I’d seen, curved, free of graffiti, and healthy. After about 20 minutes photographing these trees, we moved on. About five minutes later – and a little further down the road – we saw another spot to investigate. This time the real Dancing Aspen awaited.

Dancing Aspen on an Autumn Morning 103-1

Aspen trees dance in the morning sunlight on a cold October morning. The Autumn colors are on full display in the warm rays. These unique aspen are shaped this way, so the theory goes, because when they were younger, heavy snows never quite melted in the summer. The weight of the snow bent the young trunks and kept them bent through an entire year. When the snows finally melted a year later, the trees returned to their upward climb towards the sun.

They were beautiful and pristine. It is ashamed that we have to keep places like this secret from the general public lest folks carve graffiti into and deface the tree trunks.

Last Dollar Road was bumpy and colorful, as well. The dirt road winds up and over the pass and back down to Highway 62 and onto Ridgway.

Autumn Colors along Last Dollar Road 103-2

From high above a beautiful valley, the orange and gold colors of Autumn seem to glow in this late afternoon view of Hayden Peak along Last Dollar Road. The quickly. moving clouds made for a good sky the vibrance and texture of the scrub brush and aspen created quite a striking San Juan landscape.

And that led us back to the well-known Dallas Divide. While I normally don’t seek out popular locations like this, there is a reason why it is so visited. The views at sunset of the regal San Juan Peaks with red and orange scrub brush and golden aspen in the foreground make it a favorite of both locals and tourists.

San Juan Autumn Evening 104-1

The mountain vista of the Dallas Divide shows off Autumn colors in early October. Green, gold, orange, and red of scrub brush and aspen paint a palette across the slopes of this iconic and popular view.

The mountains were stunning.

I'm already looking forward to next fall and more exploring!

Happy Travels, everyone.

~ Rob

Images from Colorado

A circle of aspen leaves in Autumn show the colors of the season.
Colors of Autumn 2

A circle of aspen leaves in Autumn show the colors of the season.