Owl Creek Pass in Uncompahgre National Forest is a remote, rugged mountain pass above 10,000 feet in the shadow of 13,000-foot peaks in the Cimarron Range region of southwestern Colorado. The area incorporates not only turrets and hoodoos of wonderfully shaped massifs, but also reservoirs, rivers, creeks, and large aspen, fir and spruce forests. From Cimarron off Highway 50, head south on Cimarron Road (Route 858) passing Silver Jack Reservoir and then continue on to Owl Creek Pass, which makes a steep, circuitous descent down to U.S. 550 just north of Ridgway. It’s a well-maintained gravel and dirt road that a conventional vehicle can traverse in fair weather, but in wet conditions, a high-clearance four-wheel-drive is strongly advised. There are plenty of campgrounds, but no services along this route.
Be prepared for all sorts of weather anytime of year. Owl Creek Pass is closed in winter. In spring, summer and fall, the weather in this zone can be highly volatile, with severe thunderstorms and even snow possible. In summer, the average temperature can range from as high as the 90s during the day and drop into the 50s at night. By the time of peak foliage color in mid-autumn, the temperature averages in the 60s during the day and the 30s at night. In spring, the temperatures can range from a high in the 70s to a low in the 30s.
With scenic foregrounds such as alpine lakes and springtime flower-filled meadows, you should be prepared with a 16-35mm that provides plenty of depth of field and sharpness when stopped down to ƒ/16 through ƒ/22. During my visit, a 70-200mm zoom came in handy to capture close-ups of distant peaks while compressing the distance between them and the aspen forests at their base. I also carried a 24-105mm to cover the middle range, which came in handy when I didn’t have a particularly dominant or striking foreground subject. Although many stunning, dramatic compositions are to be had right off the dirt road, many hiking trails take you deeper into the Uncompahgre Wilderness and give you the opportunity to spot elk, deer and bear. Unlike nearby Dallas Divide, you won’t encounter hordes of photographers jockeying for position here.
Owl Creek Pass Road is usually open by June. In summer, wildflowers are on display. But early October, depending on weather conditions, is when this area really becomes a “must-do” location. That’s when the expansive aspen forests turn gold, orange and even that rarest of all colors, bright red. Those remarkable color contrasts captured up against the coffee-colored sandstone pinnacles, hoodoos and turrets of the Cimarron Range make for stunning compositions.