Being a landscape photographer living in Colorado, there are few times of year that I look forward to as much as the fall season. From the streets of Denver to remote mountain passes, the state blossoms into a spectacle of beauty that keeps my camera busy for weeks. I anticipate the peak of fall color as if it were Christmas Day. As soon as the leaves begin to change, I begin making familiar drives across the state, watching to see which place will peak first and anticipating what each season will bring. There is no exact date for when this may happen, how colorful it will be, or even how long it will last. But it’s safe to say that the months of September and October keep me very busy in Colorado and you will probably find me at any number of these spots when the fall colors begin to peak.
There are several spots in Colorado that are on every photographer’s list so we’ll start with the most popular. Often called the “most photographed mountain scene in North America”, the Maroon-Bells are probably familiar to anyone who’s looked at a photograph in the past couple of decades. The popularity of this spot borders on absurdity at times and much like Delicate Arch at sunset, I know some photographers who just won’t go near it. Indeed, if you’re looking to create something truly unique and original, this is not the location for you. But in the quest for natural beauty and a postcard-perfect photograph, it’s easy to see why so many thousands of people stand on the shores of Maroon Lake each year and photograph this mountain scene.
Located about 12 miles southwest of Aspen, the Maroon-Bells Scenic Wilderness Area is nearly 300 square miles of rugged mountains, glacial valleys, meadows, forest, lakes, creeks and waterfalls. With over 100 miles of trail, 9 passes above 12,000 feet, and six 14ers, this area draws thousands of hikers and climbers every year. Luckily, it’s those explorers who take a snapshot at Maroon Lake and venture off into the wilderness, leaving you standing upon the shores of the lake, just another of the hundred photographers searching for a spot for your tripod. I’d like to say I’m exaggerating, but especially during the fall season, there is no solitude to be found at Maroon Lake. That being said, there’s plenty of beauty.
From Aspen or Snowmass, there is bus service to the Maroon-Bells and during certain times of the year (check on weekends), this bus may be the only option available. Even during the week, the few campsites are usually full and just finding a place to sleep can be a bothersome chore. Often I’ve found myself sleeping in my car outside of the park and then following a train of cars into the parking lot at 5am. No matter how early I arrive it seems there’s always twenty people who beat me there. If I knew better I would sleep in another hour, knowing you’ll probably be sharing the shore with 80+ tripods no matter how early you arrive. In all fairness too, though the peaks of the Maroon-Bells will get hit with first light at sunrise, it takes a couple of hours before sunlight begins to fall upon the valley floor and that’s when the real magic usually begins. Many photographers get impatient and leave after sunrise, but stick around and explore the surrounding area and you may walk away with something no one else captured.
As you travel back towards Aspen from the Maroon-Bells, you will come to a roundabout and another great spot for photographing fall colors in the Aspen area. Castle Creek Road is a paved road that travels 13 miles up an aspen-filled valley to the historic mining town of Ashcroft. It provides access to a number of hiking, mountain biking, cross country skiing and snowmobiling trails, but it’s the bounty of fall colors which bring photographers here in the fall. Most of the land along the road is private and I encourage you to use the pull-outs and avoid parking in this winding road. It’s dangerous and an annoyance to the many private homeowners that live along this road, as well as myself. Though there are plenty of reasons to abandon your car along this road and fill your memory cards with photographs. The valley is filled with tight groves of aspen that defy the senses with their dazzling colors.
There are several other options for photographing fall colors in the Aspen area. Heading east out of town is the second-highest paved mountain pass in Colorado, Hwy 82 to Independence Pass. There are some nice aspen groves along this road which leads you over dizzying heights and on towards Leadville. It’s a beautiful road for those heading east and the views are stunning from the pass which is well above treeline. Yet, if it’s more fall colors you’re seeking to photograph, most likely you’ll be heading the other direction towards Carbondale and one of my favorite spots to photograph fall colors in Colorado- McClure Pass.
From the town of Redstone and nearly all the way to Paonia lies some of the most beautiful fall colors that you will find in Colorado. Nearly all the land bordering the highway is private, but even from the road, the views are stunning. McClure Pass is low by Colorado standards (8,763 ft) and most have never even heard of it, but some of my best photographs of fall colors in Colorado have come from along this highway.
Continuing south from McClure Pass, the views are breathtaking nearly all the way to one of Colorado’s best fall color locations. The Kebler Pass Road goes between Paonia Reservoir and Crested Butte through one of the largest aspen forests in the world. This may well be the premier spot for viewing fall colors in Colorado. A long, winding and unpaved road carries you through twists and turns with panoramic views in almost every direction. There are a handful of pull-outs along the road, but no one spot for the masses to crowd. There’s a scattering of private land and homes, but plenty of public land where you can camp for free and without hassle. There’s the opportunities for grand vistas along the road or you can explore off the beaten path and capture some intimate forest scenes.
Sunset is the prime time for photographing Kebler Pass, but finding the right location from which to photograph can be difficult if you wait until the last minute. The views from the road are stunning and there’s mile after mile of photo opportunities, but there are few pullouts which aren’t obstructed by the high brush along the roadside. Often, you can find something by climbing up the hill on the north side of the road, but even parking can be difficult on this narrow, winding and unpaved road.
The San Juan Mountains make up some of Colorado’s most dramatic scenery and this is especially true in the fall. From the town of Ridgway, there are several drives popular among fall color photographers. County Road 7 heads south about four miles west of Ridgway towards one of Colorado’s most beautiful vistas. The road twists and turns for about eight miles until you reach a fantastic view of Mt Sneffels and a valley filled with bright beautiful aspens. This locations is ideal mid-morning and early evening, but don’t be surprised to find other photographers there. County Road 5 and County Road 9 are less popular but equally beautiful drives that highlight the beauty of the San Juan Mountains and the area surrounding Ridgway.
Further south along the Million Dollar Highway (Hwy 55), the bounty of fall colors mixes with the deep reds and maroons of Ironton Park and Red Mountain Pass. Here you will find a bumpy dirt path called Lime Creek Road which bypasses Coal Bank Pass on a meandering route through aspen-filled valleys and yellow-covered hillsides. There are many photo opportunities along this road for fall color photography, be it grand vistas or serene aspen groves.
These are just a handful of locations popular among fall color photographers in Colorado, but throughout the state during the months of September and October, the potential for beautiful and colorful landscape photographs are limitless. It seems each year I discover new and wonderful locations that I wonder how I ever missed before, but I will leave those for you to discover yourself.