Colorado Fall Colors 2019 Trip Report

By Todd Pierce on Dec 02, 2019

Nestled within the dramatic peaks of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, Telluride is a gem of a town and a perfect location from which to base a weeklong photography tour. Its vibe is laid back, yet also energetic. The community is worldly, yet tight-knit and self-sufficient, similar to what you might feel on an island, but surrounded by mountains. The valley is an amalgam of relaxed yet active mountain culture, tourism, ranching, western and mining heritage and a sprinkle of Hollywood types looking for an excuse to wear cowboy boots. It’s rustic and sophisticated at the same time—the kind of place where everyone is ok with it if you have a Michelin star meal with mud on your boots.
Photographing Colorado's fall colorsLogistically, Telluride is located in a sweet spot of classic Colorado landscapes, featuring quintessential cattle ranches, sweeping vistas, canyons, lakes and forests against a backdrop of dramatic peaks. The geography of the San Juan Mountains is also very favorable for beautiful sunsets since there is nothing to the west besides low lying desert lands along the border of Utah. So, if you’re going to go to Colorado for autumn photography, this is the place to go.
One of my favorite aspects of this tour is settling into one hotel for the entire week. Our hotel has everything we need for a top-notch base camp: clean, spacious rooms, helpful and resourceful staff, coffee service starting at 5:00am and walking distance to everything the town. The nearby gondola is free-of-charge and provides quick access to some wonderful views of the town and the Mountain Village—the more modern base area of Telluride ski resort. From here, the entire tour consists of morning, afternoon and full day trips to photogenic locations, all within a reasonable drive.
Brilliant fall colors in Colorado mountainsAlmost every morning began with a pre-dawn, two-block walk to “Baked in Telluride”, a local landmark that emanates the scent of freshly baked goods across this mountain hamlet seven mornings a week. I have to mention the carrot muffins, which, alone, are a divine meal that sustained many of us until lunchtime. Combined with a creamy latte on a chilly autumn morning, they put you in a good mood all day. And then off we went each morning to chase the best color and light around the region.
As is often the case, the weather dictates our daily schedule, so I decided to juggle things around due to a persistent wind that stayed with us for the first few days. We postponed the glassy lake reflection opportunities until mid-week—when they would be more likely—in favor of grabbing the best pockets of autumn color along the Dallas Divide, Red Mountain Pass and Owl Creek Pass east of Ridgway.
Fall colors reflected in a calm lakeIn almost every case, I timed our locations and specific views to correspond with either sidelight or backlight, when the translucence of every leaf makes everything glow as if from within. Although this requires a lot of “reaching out to shade your lens” techniques, it often results in the most brilliant color. And this year didn’t disappoint either. It was one of the best autumn color years we’ve had in a while, with the aspens, willows and scrub oaks displaying a kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, oranges, and deep, merlot reds. And, as usual, it happened fast. Each day there was a marked difference in the color, with day five of the trip looking a lot different than day one. In regards to timing of the tour, we nailed it.
As the week went on, we ensconced ourselves into the tranquil beauty of the mountains, exploring each location with a relaxed pace that allowed time for meditative creativity and overall relaxation. Although the days were long, nothing was rushed. We also had room for some spontaneity in the pursuit of the Milky Way. Milky Way over Wilson Peak ColoradoAt an elevation of 8,000 feet or more, and with crystal clear mountain air and a favorable moon phase, we were able to shoot amazing images of the Milky Way over Wilson Peak right after dinner one night, and still get to bed by 10:30pm.
Sometimes the best is saved for last, as it was this year. After a nearly cloudless week, we awoke on the last day under a blanket of swiftly moving clouds. The weather pattern had finally changed and we took full advantage of the drama that unfolded. Our first location of the morning was a simple bend in a dirt road along a gentle ridge where we could compose layered landscapes in multiple directions. As the morning sun broke through gaps in the quickly passing clouds, spot lights and shadows rolled swiftly across the terrain, rendering nearly every frame unique. It was magical. I think it’s safe to say we all shot a third of all our images on that last day. Storm clouds create dramatic lighting over fall colors ColoradoAkin to the finale of a fireworks display, the camera shutters firing in rapid succession to capture every fleeting moment. 
As a tour leader, quality over quantity is my M.O., and that goes for our meals as well. One of the hallmarks of this tour, along with stunning landscapes, high contrast and dusty roads, is the food. Each day we enjoyed some of the best food the area has to offer, much of it sourced from regional farms, creeks, forests and pastures. Delicious, healthy meals (except for the baked goods—which aren’t healthy but do create positive endorphins) are a foundation for a happy and fulfilling day.
The dirt and dust that covered everything in our possession by the end of the week was more of a status symbol than an annoyance. Like the owners of pickup trucks and jeeps who intentionally don’t wash their vehicles for days after getting them muddy so they can parade them to the shopping mall, our dirty, dusty van, clothing, camera bags and tripods were proof positive that we had fun, that we explored, and that we all went home with hundreds of beautiful images of the Colorado autumn.

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