Fall Color: Where To Go

With the season of vibrant hues upon us, pro nature photographers from around the country share some of their favorite places to get the best of autumn
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Tim Ernst
Big Piney Creek, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas1 The Big Piney River drains the southern flanks of the Ozarks north of Russellville, and is perhaps the second most scenic drainage in all of Arkansas (second to the Buffalo River). The main river holds many large calm pools in the fall, with cascades in between, and it twists its way through the Ozark National Forest. There are dozens of side creeks with many hidden waterfalls, blufflines and interesting rock formations. The Ozark Highlands National Recreation Hiking Trail crosses the river and runs through the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area. The Big Piney River is popular with whitewater floaters in the spring, but otherwise the vast scenic area is mostly unknown and un-photographed.
Pentax 645D, Pentax SMCP FA 645 45-85mm ƒ/4.5, Ries J100 tripod

To capture the best of autumn color, you have to be in the right place at the right time. We reached out to a group of nature photographers for their insights on where to go to get photos of the vibrant colors of the annual leaf turn. Despite the regularity of the Earth’s course around the sun, it’s actually difficult, if not impossible, to predict a good fall color year. Microclimates, rainfall, temperature variations and other factors that aren’t fully understood all come into play. As you read this article, please share your own favorite places for fall color with the OP community. We’ve created a Fall Color Assignment that will remain open until the end of October. Go to outdoorphotographer.com to submit your photos, along with a description of where the shot was taken.

John Fielder
Silverjack Reservoir Below Owl Creek Pass, Colorado


2 In southwestern Colorado, the country around the old mining town of Silverton opens up myriad autumn photography routes. Drive south on Highway 550 over Molas and Coal Bank passes on the way to Durango. Head north to Ouray over Red Mountain Pass. Highway 550 can’t be beat—it’s the most scenic mountain highway in the West. North of Ouray, turn left at Ridgway and drive the second most scenic highway, the Dallas Divide on State Highway 62. To the south is Ralph Lauren’s famous Double RL Ranch with the Sneffels Range in the background. County roads 5, 7 and 9 allow you to get into the Uncompahgre National Forest below the range. On the west side of Dallas Divide, take the Last Dollar Road shortcut to Telluride (four-wheel-drive only). These four roads boast the most beautiful aspen viewing in the state this side of Kebler Pass. Drive east from Ridgway over Owl Creek Pass. This will drop you into the headwaters of the forks of the Cimarron River and incredible aspen tree scenery.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L USM, Manfrotto tripod

Ian Plant
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming


3 In late September, Grand Teton’s high-altitude trees are among the first to change in the lower U.S. Look for aspens and cottonwoods to blaze with golden glory. The best autumn views are off of the main park road, Route 191, but there’s plenty more to explore for those willing to get off the beaten path. Sunrise is a great time to get light on the mountains with fall color below, whereas late afternoon can be best for backlighting.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron SP 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD, 2-stop graduated neutral-density filter, Gitzo tripod

Dave Allen
Highlands, North Carolina


4 This area of Macon County, North Carolina should be high on anyone’s list of places to see during the fall foliage. A small town nestled high in the Southern Appalachians just outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Highlands is rich with natural beauty, including memorable scenic vistas and some of the largest waterfalls in the Southeast. Made up largely of deciduous hardwood forest, the area boasts an amazing display of vibrant fall color, making it a favorite location for landscape and nature photographers. Notable attractions in the area include Dry Falls, pictured here, Cullasaja Falls and stunning views from the high cliffs on Whitesides Mountain. As an added bonus, the rare shadow of the bear appears in the valley below Whitesides Mountain on only a few days each year in late October.
Nikon D700, AF-S Zoom Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D IF-ED, circular polarizer, Really Right Stuff tripod

Michael Frye
Lee Vining Canyon, Eastern Sierra, California


5 Every fall, I make a pilgrimage to photograph aspens turning color in the canyons on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Late September or early October is usually peak season for the aspens west of Bishop, while the extensive stands further north around Mammoth, Lee Vining and Bridgeport are usually better around mid- to late October. This photograph was made in Lee Vining Canyon on an October afternoon, just before the sun dipped behind a ridge. I positioned the camera precisely to catch the edge of the sun peeking out from around the tree trunk; more sun would have created lens flare, while with less I would have lost the starburst effect.
Canon EOS-1DS Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM, handheld

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Kurt Budliger
Seyon Pond, Groton State Forest, Vermont


6 Vermont is known worldwide for its iconic display of fall color. Sugar, red and stripe maple combine with beech, birch, hickory and aspen to provide a rich and vibrant tapestry of color in October. Within Vermont, Groton State Forest is one of the best hot spots for photographers looking to capture the rugged beauty of New England ablaze in autumn color. It offers photographers a wide variety of scenes, including rocky mountain summits, bogs, quiet ponds, rushing streams and intimate forest compositions galore. Forest access along Route 232 is an easy 30-minute drive from the state capitol in Montpelier or St. Johnsbury to the northeast. The nearest major airport is in Burlington about 1.5 hours away. Peak autumn color can vary by as much as a week from one year to the next, but it’s usually safe to plan a trip to Vermont in late September or early October. Color in the northern part of the state and higher elevations peaks first and then progresses south. Don’t worry if you miss the “peak,” as the forest understory and lower elevations offer tons of color well after peak, and you’ll have more color on the ground and along stream banks. My favorite locations within Groton State Forest include Seyon Pond, Kettle Pond and Owl’s Head Mountain. Mornings are best near ponds and lakes, as the water is usually calm and there’s mist or fog to provide additional atmosphere. Wait for overcast, wet drizzly days to shoot streams and waterfalls or intimate forest scenes. Don’t forget your polarizer to maximize bright, saturated fall color.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM, polarizer, Singh-Ray 2-stop graduated neutral-density filter

Kurt Budliger
Silver Cascade, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire


7 North-central New Hampshire is home to one of the largest and most rugged national forests east of the Rocky Mountains. Some of my favorite locations in the “Whites” include Dixville Notch to the north, Mt. Washington, Crawford Notch, Franconia Notch and the entire length of the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) along the famed Swift River. In Crawford Notch State Park, Silver Cascade tumbles approximately 250 feet down the southwestern slopes of Mt. Jackson and is easily accessed along Route 302. This waterfall is one of the most popular falls in New England, and for good reason. If you get off the road and hike a little way up the slope, you’re apt to find yourself alone with plenty of unique compositions. Like most of northern New England, the foliage conditions are highly variable from one year to another, with peak color usually arriving in early October.
Canon EOS-1D Mark II N, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L USM, polarizer

Nate Parker
Duck Brook, Acadia National Park, Maine


8 Acadia has been my home base for the last 15 years, and living here with the beauty of the park was what initially compelled me to pursue photography. Acadia is about an hour from the Bangor International Airport and five hours north of Boston. The park is 47,000 acres of rugged, cliff-lined coastline, many short, but beautiful mountains, and dotted with small ponds and larger lakes. There are 45 miles of gravel “carriage trails” built by John D. Rockefeller, which are great for biking with a backpack and tripod to get off the beaten path and find more quiet opportunities. Almost the entire area is accessible by a drive and a short hike, but there are backcountry experiences to be had, as well. Foliage peak is usually around the beginning of October, and by the third week of the month, wind storms and heavy rains will have taken down most of the leaves. This photo is Duck Brook, which is fed by Eagle Lake. After a casual walk up the stream, I found this flaming maple tree in front of some whitewater. The photo became one of my favorites of 2011.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L, Manfrotto tripod, B+W neutral-density filter, Canon tc-80n3 shutter release

Jason Savage
Seeley-Swan Valley, Montana


9 Located about an hour from Missoula, the Seeley-Swan Valley offers some of the most spectacular fall photography in Montana. Brilliant golden larch, or “tamaracks,” as the locals call them, line the valley floor, while the snowcapped peaks of the Swan Mountain Range loom in the distance. The area’s most notable chain of lakes that it’s famous for stretches from one end of the valley to the other, making this valley a must stop for photographers come fall. The best time to visit is mid-October when the larch are at their peak.
Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, B+W circular polarizer, Gitzo tripod

Richard Bernabe
Middle Prong Of The Little River, Tennessee


10 Often referred to as Tremont by the locals, the Middle Prong of the Little River is one of the most photogenic rivers or streams in the Smokies. My favorite area is near the end of Tremont Road at the trailhead where tremendous stands of colorful maples adorn the riverbanks. Even during years of only so-so fall color, this area of Tremont is always ablaze with yellow and orange hues.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM

Guy Tal
Wasatch Mountains, Utah


11 Utah’s Wasatch Mountains offer up a unique autumn wonderland. Easily accessible from some of the state’s largest population centers, these mountains provide peaceful respite and spectacular alpine scenery, replete with high peaks, lakes and forests. What separates these mountains from the better-known ranges of the West is a thriving population of bigtooth maple, sometimes mixed with other deciduous trees to form spectacular autumn displays. Beyond the uniform yellows of aspens in other places, the Wasatch offers a tapestry of autumn colors ranging from candy-red to brilliant gold, and every hue in between. Beautiful displays can be found along the Mt. Nebo Scenic Loop, by the town of Nephi, and the Alpine Loop connecting the town of American Fork and the Sundance Resort, as well as Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.
Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 24-104mm ƒ/4L USM, Gitzo tripod