Autumn is winding down, and as cooler temperatures stream in from the north and the last of the golden aspen leaves dance back and forth to the ground, I’m left with some good memories and a computer filled with RAW files of Colorado fall colors images from the 2019 season. It is ironic – the anticipation of Autumn compared to how long the season lasts. As wildflowers faded in late August, I began counting the days until the oranges, reds, and golds of aspen, scrub oak and cottonwood appeared to brighten the landscape. The wait lasted longer than expected, and the warmer temperatures across the state delayed the onset of fall colors by up to two weeks in some places. Then, as suddenly as the colors appeared, it seems they vanished just as quickly. And the snows of winter are just around the corner.
My trek started in Winter Park, and after a quick trip to Denver, I’d planned on shooting first at the St. Catherine’s Chapel on the Rock in Allenspark at sunset on my way to Estes Park. Low clouds and fog put a damper on that; my adventure was not off to a promising start.
I’d decided to splurge on this weeklong trip. Instead of camping – in the tent or car – I’d secured hotel rooms along my path. First up, after the bust at the Chapel, I drove to Safeway in Estes Park to stock up on snacks – nuts, fruit, water, etc., and then to the Peak to Peak Lodge. On the way to this lodge, the manager called and said they’d upgraded me to the suite (as opposed to my one-bed room). I explained I’d be leaving well before sunrise the next morning, so if someone else could use it, that’s fine. Nope – it was mine. And it was overkill – two huge rooms, a kitchen, walk-in closet – the works. Wow.
Up at 5am, packed, and out the door by 5:30am – I was on my way to a well-known boulder-field-overlook lined with Aspen near Bear Lake. Dense fog in the lower areas made for a slow drive as I wound around the curvy road leading up to the parking lot that many of you know well, I’m sure. But near the top of the road, I exited the soup and suddenly every star in the sky was visible – clear and cold. With temperatures below freezing, I scrambled in the dark over brush and up boulders to reach the viewpoint, I was pleased as I was the first to arrive. Many years ago, I’d shot from this same location and thought I’d found a gem. Over the years, though, others have discovered this little secret, as well. Soon after my arrival at the top of the boulder field, another photographer arrived and set up in front of me, not realizing I was only 15 feet away. I politely asked if this person would like to move up a little and join me. All was good, and we shared a large boulder that, in my opinion, had the best view:
About five minutes into the photo-taking, my gadget that connects my camera to my tripod broke (a quick release plate). I was more than a little concerned because at first I thought the broken part was in my camera, not the plate. Thank goodness it wasn't. I’ve never had this happened, but after further inspection a week later, it seemed the spiral screw somehow became stripped. So for this portion of the trip, I had to hold and balance my camera on the tripod to keep things steady during the longer exposures. Frustration is an understatement. Fortunately, my hands were still as I pressed the camera on the tripod. To my relief, the images turned out sharp and colorful. After the sunrise, I returned to my car and pulled out my backup tripod – a lightweight Manfrotto made for hiking. This was my go-to from here on out.
After regrouping, I took some time to photograph the aspen trees that lined one of the trails leading away from Bear Lake. I’ve shot here before and wanted to update my portfolio:
And thus, my whirlwind tour began. I wanted to be in Carbondale by sunset to photograph Mount Sopris, so headed west and over Trail Ridge Road, enjoying the familiar scenery while trying not to freak out with the lack of guard rails and precipitous cliffs near the top of the pass. After a short stop in Grand Lake, I followed my GPS down Hwy 34 to Hwy 40 and through Byers Canyon and onto Kremmling.
From this little town, I took Hwy 9 just south to where my GPS told me to turn west on County Road 1. Not familiar with this road, I hesitated, but figured I’d give it a try. I didn’t realize it was basically 24 miles of dirt road, parts of which were being hosed down and redone. For a few stretches, this made for some slippy and muddy areas. I followed CR 1 (also labeled on the map as Trough Road) until it ended at Hwy 131, which eventually deposited me at Wolcott and the smooth I 70. Whew. Finally. I knew this road.
A few minutes later, I was pulling over at the Eagle Diner in Eagle, Colorado. I’d wanted some homestyle grub, but to my disappointment, they were not serving the good stuff until after 4:30pm, so I settled for a burger. The service was fine, the food pretty decent, and I was on my way to check in at the Comfort Inn in Carbondale.
For hotel rooms, I don’t need a lot – just a clean shower and clean bed. I’m pretty content just not sleeping in the back of my SUV or on an uneven ground. And this hotel delivered. They even offered breakfast starting at 5:30am, which worked out perfectly.
While planning my evening and next morning, I realized I really did not want to fight the crowds at the Maroon Bells that next morning at sunrise. Instead, I decided at around 4pm to drive by Mount Sopris for scouting, then shoot that evening at the Maroon Bells when it would be a lot less crowded. The gates open at the Maroon Bells visitor entrance at 5pm (busses only between 9am and 5pm). I arrived at the Maroon Bells Wilderness welcome center at 5:05pm, about 7 cars back in line as soon as the busses stopped running (thus allowing me to take my own car). The trails were relatively quiet compared to what they’d have been that morning (I’d read the parking lot was closed at 4:30am the previous day because it was full!), and I enjoyed a few hours of exploring and photographing one of my favorite places.
The aspen leaves were golden and wind calm on a nearly perfect evening. Even this pool along West Maroon Creek offered a stunning reflection of the iconic peaks at sunset:
That panorama consisted of over 20 images merged and blended together, and it was the last of the evening. A short walk to the car and a 50-minute drive back in the dark to Carbondale and I was warm and comfy at the Comfort Inn.
I rarely use an alarm, and this was the case for my entire trip. I awakened about 4:45am the next morning, packed, and enjoyed an actually decent hotel breakfast at 5:30am. By 6am, I found Prince Creek Road, the dirt path I was looking for that would take me to an area of color and amazing views of Mount Sopris. Somewhere in that area is a path that leads up to a small unnamed hill that offers expansive views of the surrounding area. The walk up took about 15 minutes, and in the 25-degree morning and from that vantage point, I enjoyed an amazing view of red scrub oak, gold and orange aspen, and a beautiful peak that rises just short of 13,000’. The clouds lit up for a brief moment, as well, before burning off in the morning sun.
And just as quickly, I was off to explore the Grand Mesa for the afternoon. I’d been in this area briefly just a few months prior to this trip as a good friend in Grand Junction gave me an overview of the area. This time, I headed back to the Mesa Lakes to photograph the gold, green and blue of the trees, water, and October sky. Another scramble up a hill (no trail) led to this panorama:
By now, the temperatures were warmer, and the long-johns I had on were making me pretty hot, especially after the 15-minute walk up through scrub, fallen trees, an loose rock. Continuing up the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, I took in a quick detour to Lands End, then back down the south side of the area and explored the Old Grand Mesa dirt road. This old path held some wonderful aspen groves:
From here, my route led me back down to the town of Cedaredge and onto Montrose, where I’d meet up with a friend, Mike, for a few days of exploring the Cimarron area as well as some of the county roads southwest of Ridgway. But first, I needed to eat. And that became a not-so-fun adventure.
I wanted something semi-healthy, so I looked up a Chipotle on my GPS. It gave me a Qdoba instead. I’m not a big fan of Qdoba, but figured I’d give it a try. After checking in at the Super 8 in Montrose, I made my way across town. After standing in line a bit and figuring out what to order, I noticed they did not have a drink machine – only bottles. Now, I know some may say this is high-maintenance, but for me, this is a deal-breaker. I was thirsty and knew I’d drink more than a bottle’s worth of whatever I ordered to drink. So I walked out (I had not ordered yet).
Back to the GPS. I knew it was a longshot, but I looked up barbecue (so much for healthy, I know). A place called Backstreet Bbcue was high on the list and received rave reviews. So off I went, following the GPS tracks. To my dismay, I ended up at the town center. But no barbecue. I looked up the restaurant again. Turns out, it was an ad at the top of the page and the bbcue joint was located in Houston (insert angry face here). Discouraged, I stopped by the subway not far from my hotel room and waited to meet my friend.
After an uninspired sandwich, an hour of trying to figure out the shotty hotel internet, and a little time looking at photos on my laptop from the previous few days, I headed down the road to meet Mike, my photography buddy for the next 36 hours.
Mike is a good guy. We’d planned to meet up in Colorado for months when he found out he needed to move his mother and her belongings from Washington state to San Antonio. But he still managed to time it just right so we could have a few days together exploring the San Juans. He’s also a detail person and had already scouted out several options for us. Off we went.
The drive from Montrose to Ridgway takes about 30 minutes and is pretty much a straight line. We stopped briefly by the Dallas Divide, which is always a nice view of the 14,000’ Mount Sneffels and several peaks well over 13,000’. Though I’ve seen better color in this area, the reds of the scrub oak with the rugged backdrop of mountains is impressive.
Mike saw an old friend and chatted for a few minutes. I think he knew I was ready to get going since I packed up and waited in the car. Subtle yet effective. In just a few minutes, we were pulling onto County Road 7.
The views from this dirt road are pretty amazing, made more splendid with the colorful golden aspen leaves and the red-orange of scrub oak. After exploring to the end of the road, we settled on a popular overlook. However, because we both like a good foreground, we hiked uphill about 10 minutes to gain a slightly different perspective. Watching the light and shadows as they moved across the valley while the sun faded in the west was, admittedly, pretty cool to see, and the changing colors of light created a kaleidoscope of gold and red and orange.
Eventually, we headed back down through the brush to the car thinking the sunset was finished when suddenly (literally) the atmosphere seemed to turn an orange hue and the clouds lit up one last time (along with a breeze). I had to up the ISO and change the f/stop to f/4.0, but was able to capture the colors of a beautiful and fleeting moment.
And it is moments like these that keep me coming back.
A 20-minute drive returned us to the paved roads and in 35 minutes we were back to the hotel. It was time to rest, for I had to arise again in about 8 hours. For sunrise, we’d be driving to Cimarron and 30 minutes further down a dirt road towards Silver Jack Reservoir and Owl Creek Pass.
Many year ago – after college graduation, I’d worked at a summer camp near Cimarron, New Mexico. It was an outdoor camp for mostly rich kids. It was set along the Cimarron River among beautiful pine trees. But the Cimarron Mike and I were passing through sat along Highway 50 in Colorado, and I’d never been south of this little town.
When we make these drives in the early morning hours, everything is dark, and isn’t until we backtrack after shooting that you see what everything looks like. That’s how it was on this morning. We passed through Cimarron, and just a little further turned south on CR 858. The road at this point turns to dirt, and the ride south is a slow bumpy ride. Around this time, the sky to the east began to show the first hints of color. I usually begin to feel antsy when I see the first signs of daylight, but I remind myself there’s still plenty of time before the colors of sunrise begin to show up. Sure enough, we drove for about 30 minutes to Silver Jack Reservoir, walked down and up a small trail and found ourselves atop a small rock that overlooked the water. In the distance, glorious mountains of the Cimarron Ridge and Turret Peak rose into the freezing morning air.
When we arrived at this location, the low dark and brooding clouds were blowing in from the south. It looked to be potentially a dismal, overcast morning.
To the west, snow was falling in the upper reaches of the distant summits; to the east sunlight peaked through. Several times over the course of the next half-hour the conditions changed. The turbulent weather made for some unique conditions, and Mike and I tried to make the most of it. Below is a panorama made up of more than 20 images to show the entire reservoir and backdrop:
From here, we made our way south along CR 858, stopping occasionally to photograph the colors and sunlight. A few times, we ventured into the aspen groves to shoot the incoming morning light as well as the treetops above us.
Just before entering Owl Creek Pass, we stopped to shoot Precipice Peak, a distant 13er with fields and trees of gold in the foreground:
After that, it was back to Montrose, retracing our tracks as we weaved our way back to Hwy 50, and I saw the beauty of this area for the first time in daylight. We spent lunch at the Horsefly Brewing Company. While we only ordered burgers, they were really good. I’m not sure if I just hadn’t had a good meal in several days or the burgers were generally better than average, but we did enjoy our juicy, albeit expensive, burgers.
A little downtime reviewing photos whittled away the afternoon and soon we were back in Ridgway to shoot down CR 9. Again, this winding dirt road offered us some amazing views of Mount Sneffels and the Dallas Divide. The winds were a factor, however, and forced us (me, at least) to shoot at a higher ISO (800) and larger f-stop (~ f/8-f/11), then stack images together later in order to attain sharpness throughout the landscape. Here are a few evening photographs from our time along this lonely dirt road:
After this, we made the drive back to Montrose one last time and I bid adieu to Mike. The next morning, I arose around 4:30am and drove 2 hours to McClure Pass (8,770’) in order to shoot sunrise from the top of the road. On the way to the winding pass, my GPS again led me on some sketchy roads –even a few dirt roads – before winding up on the well-traveled Hwy 133. From the top of McClure Pass, the mountain sides and curves of the peaks were beautiful. The orange glow of morning light spread across the width and depth of the valley. The temperature was well below freezing, and although I only lingered here for no more than 15 minutes, my fingers were aching by the time I finished shooting this scene:
From McClure Pass, the journey led me up Hwy 133 to 82 (Carbondale), then east through Aspen (the town), over Independence Pass and down Hwy 82 to photograph Lake Creek. This portion of the drive was pleasant and the views spectacular, filled with golden aspen and cottonwood along the way. I’d photographed this area many years ago and wanted to return to one particular location where water cascaded over smooth rocks while aspen rise above the creek in the distance:
Content with this short stop, I continued east, then west through Leadville and onto I-70, then Hwy 40, through Empire, and onto Winter Park. The cottonwoods were beautiful along Clear Creek, though I did not stop to enjoy their color. I was tired and ready to relax a little. Eventually, I made my way back to more familiar surroundings and our place in Winter Park, Colorado. Home, finally home.