Colorado is the best place in the nation to shoot golden aspen groves nestled beneath snow-capped, 14,000-foot peaks. After 23 years of shooting Colorado fall color, I’m on a first-name basis with every colorful aspen grove in the state. Here’s my guide to the best three regions for autumn photography—the Aspen area, the San Juan Mountains and Kebler Pass. You can comfortably shoot all three regions in a one-week trip.
Timing a fall-color shoot is a mix of art and science. One day of strong wind can strip all the leaves from a perfect grove. One night with a hard freeze, with temperatures in the low 20s, can turn all the golden leaves an ugly mustard brown. As a general rule, I prefer groves that are green and gold over groves that are gold and stripped. The beginning of fall color season is fairly predictable; the end can be sudden and unexpected. For the most current information, check out the Rocky Mountain Nature Photographers website (colorado.naturephotographers.net). The moderators maintain an active thread where members post updates on the progress of the fall color season.
Start in the Aspen area at the beginning of the fourth week of September. The color usually peaks a bit earlier there than farther south in the San Juans. The famous view of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake is spectacular and only 200 yards from the parking lot, but you’ll have to arrive two hours before sunrise if you want the classic reflection shot. Expect to be shooting shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of new-found friends.
To avoid the crowds and create fresher images, walk to the far end of the lake and check out the short nature trail that begins there. Note that Maroon Creek Road is closed to private vehicles from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During that period, you must take the shuttle bus ($8/person), which starts from the Aspen Highlands ski resort on the outskirts of Aspen.
After shooting the Bells, check out Ashcroft, a ghost town surrounded by aspen in the nearby Castle Creek valley, then spend the afternoon near the Capitol Creek trailhead, a much less crowded vantage point that offers stunning views of 14,130-foot Capitol Peak rising above a valley full of colorful trees. Take a stroll along the level Ditch Trail for half a mile and pick your favorite foreground grove. Stay for sunset, when the northwest face of Capitol Peak ignites with alpenglow. Note that the last mile of the Capitol Creek Road is steep and a bit rocky. Although it is two-wheel drive accessible when dry, it can be very slick when muddy and may not be suitable for all vehicles. Beyond the Capitol Creek trailhead, the road becomes true four-wheel drive territory. It leads past more great views for one mile to the Hell Roaring trailhead, another spectacular vantage point for shots of Capitol Peak.
From the Aspen area, head west on Highway 82 to Carbondale, then south on Highway 133. If you have a 4WD vehicle, take the six-mile, paved side-trip to Marble, then continue on a moderately difficult 4WD road for almost six miles to the Crystal Mill, where a ramshackle powerhouse built in 1893 teeters precariously over a waterfall along the Crystal River. Colorful cottonwoods and aspens surround this picturesque relic, which housed a large air compressor that powered tools in nearby silver mines. Crystal Mill is most photogenic in the afternoon.
San Juan Mountains
Retrace your steps to Highway 133 and continue south toward the mountain heart of Colorado, the 10,000 square miles of rugged peaks that make up the San Juan Mountains. Base yourself in Ridgway, which is within an hour’s drive of many of the state’s most photogenic fall color views. Start by exploring County Roads 5, 7 and 9 (all 2WD gravel), which offer exceptional views of the Sneffels Range.
County Road 5 starts off Amelia Street at the west edge of Ridgway. County Road 7 (the sign also says National Forest Access Dallas Creek) turns south from Highway 62 4.7 miles from the traffic light at the junction of Highway 550 and Highway 62 in Ridgway. County Road 9 (the sign also says National Forest Access West Dallas Road) turns south 1.4 miles beyond that. All lead through private property in their lower sections, so you must shoot from the road. Fortunately, that still gives you access to dozens of great views of expansive aspen groves and towering peaks, including 14,150-foot Mt. Sneffels. For the most part, you’ll be looking south at the peak’s north faces, which are frequently frosted with snow from the first storms of autumn.
County Roads 5 and 7 are best in the evening, when sunset light can stream in over the low hills to the west, slipping under the frequent late-afternoon clouds and delighting photographers with a last-minute burst of colorful light. On County Road 5 the best views begin about 7.3 miles from the Ridgway traffic light; on County Road 7, they begin about 11.5 miles from the light. Don’t miss the beaver pond along County Road 7 that’s near the Forest Service boundary. County Road 9 is most photogenic at sunrise and in early morning light. If you have a 4WD, continue past the Forest Service boundary on County Road 9 for about 1.5 miles and check out Box Factory Park for additional views.
The famed view known as Dallas Divide is not at Dallas Divide proper, which is the high point of Highway 62 between Ridgway and Placerville. The most photogenic overlook is 9.5 miles from the Ridgway traffic light, half a mile east of Dallas Divide. Get there well before sunrise, as this is another location that can get crowded. Again, the land beyond the fence is private, and the prohibition on trespassing is enforced.
Leaf-peeper paradise continues along Last Dollar Road, which turns south off Highway 62 about two miles past the Dallas Divide photo op. The road starts out as a graded gravel road leading along the west side of the Sneffels Range; shoot this area in the afternoon. About five miles from Highway 62, turn left to stay on Last Dollar Road, which becomes narrower and bumpier. Eventually the road crests a small pass to offer a stunning view down a valley full of aspen with 14,017-foot Wilson Peak in the background. From here the road descends steeply toward Telluride. Beware: After a heavy rain, this section of the road becomes extremely slick. Wilson Peak gets its best light in the morning, but the groves in the valley below and on Wilson Mesa, in the distance below Wilson Peak, get better light in the afternoon.
Starting once again from the Ridgway traffic light, head north on Highway 550 for 1.7 miles and turn right on the well-graveled Owl Creek Pass Road. If you’re starting out in the morning, continue over the pass and down to Silver Jack Reservoir, about 23 miles after the turnoff. Don’t miss Beaver Lake, a couple of miles north of Silver Jack Reservoir. If you have a 4WD or are up for a one-mile hike, check out Rowdy Lake, then do the three-quarter-mile hike to Clear Lake, a small pond with a great grove of aspen along the eastern shore.
The expansive groves on the west side of Owl Creek Pass get moment-of-sunset light. Check out True Grit Meadow, just 0.7 miles below the pass, which has a great view of Chimney Rock framed by colorful aspen. A scene from the movie “True Grit” was filmed there. The west side of the pass is also a good place to find shots inside aspen groves that will be backlit by the setting sun.
On your way back from the San Juans, take the detour up the Kebler Pass Road (County Road 12, 2WD gravel), which starts from Highway 133 about 14 miles north of Paonia. The west side of the pass is reputed to have the biggest aspen grove in the state. The valley runs east-west, and there are no high peaks to the west, so sunset light floods into the valley on clear evenings. Put warm light on yellow aspen leaves, and the result is brilliant color. Check out the pullout about 11 miles up from Highway 133 for a great view of East Beckwith. Roughly 19 miles from Highway 133, take the quarter-mile spur road to the Cliff Creek trailhead, which offers a superb view of Ruby Peak, Mt. Owen and the Dyke.
If you’re up for a hike, explore the Dark Canyon Trail, which starts from Horse Ranch Park, immediately across the Kebler Pass Road from the Cliff Creek trailhead. There’s an overlook about two miles up the trail that offers an excellent view looking west toward Marcellina Mountain and the Raggeds. You’ll also find dramatic views along the Dyke Trail (Trail 838), which also starts at Horse Ranch Park. Follow it 1.5 miles to the junction with the Lake Irwin Trail and turn left. In another quarter mile, look for a rocky knoll to your left. You’ll be rewarded with a sweeping view of East Beckwith, Marcellina Mountain and an entire valley full of colorful aspen.
This itinerary will give you a taste of the best that Colorado has to offer—a taste that’s sure to whet your appetite for many more fall-color pilgrimages.