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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Fall Foliage In The American West

James Kay has a passion for the grand vistas of autumn in the wide-open spaces of North America

Kay's favorite part of the western fall is a single tree, the aspen. The bright yellow glow of an aspen grove high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado provides for his favorite fall landscape. The consistently vivid groves offer huge swaths of color that Kay weaves into his photographs to provide a dramatic counterpoint to deep blue skies and towering mountain peaks. Every year he works quickly to capture their fleeting beauty.

"The aspen trees are just so brilliant and monochromatic," Kay explains. "They're almost like an electric yellow. Aspen groves are clones; basically, it's like one big organism. So when they go, a whole mountainside will peak at once—and with 14,000-foot peaks rising out of the background and new snow dusting them, it's like the hallelujah chorus.

"Up high in the mountains," Kay says, "you've pretty much got aspen and that's it. But of all the trees that change, the yellow of the aspen are as bright as any. In the high mountains, 8,000 feet and above, the aspen usually go from the twentieth or twenty-fifth of September until around the fifth of October. That's usually the peak. You're pretty high up, so they go pretty early. It's kind of like crunch time, because it goes pretty quick. If it's windy, the leaves can blow off within a couple of days. But even if you've got a calm fall without a lot of storms and wind, at the most they'll stay on the trees for maybe a week, and then they're gone. You've got to really time it. I have friends in different places; sometimes I'll just call them and ask how the leaves are looking."

There are many prime western locations where aspen thrive, but after years of shooting in many of them, Kay has found a few favorites. The trick is picking just a single location to concentrate on each year.

"Out west you've got pockets," he says. "The Tetons are really good. They don't have a lot of aspen trees, but they're brilliant when they go and they have a dramatic backdrop. Mt. Timpanogos is probably the best place to shoot fall colors in northern Utah. Just big groves of aspen and huge glaciated mountains that look like the Canadian Rockies. The San Juan Mountains in Colorado is another glorious place. Places around Telluride, the San Juan Skyway between Ouray and Durango. If you had to pick one place to go, that would probably be it. You could spend the whole two weeks right there shooting with incredible variations and spectacular mountain backdrops—and they're 14,000-foot peaks, so there's a good chance you're going to get snow on them. If I had to choose one place, my favorite, that would probably have to be it—that whole loop within about a 20-mile radius from Telluride. It's just glorious."

As much as the majesty of autumn aspen gets Kay's heart pounding, it's the possibility of an early snow that makes the mountains his favorite fall destination.

"The thing that really sets me out the door more than anything else," he says, "is a fresh storm and six inches of snow on the peaks. That time of year, you'll start to get the first snow on the peaks. If you get snow in addition to the peak of color, then that's what you dream of. But it's always kind of a crapshoot, probably 50-50. Fresh snow on the high peaks and fall colors—that's really the magic combination. The bright white against that deep blue sky with the yellow leaves below—it just makes it pop."


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