Colorado Fall Colors 2021 Trip Report

By Todd W. Pierce on Jan 07, 2022

Planning a photo tour over a year in advance is a tricky business, even for the most seasoned tour operator and even for a guy who has lived in Colorado all of my life! Certain variables are best planned that far in advance, but other aspects are more nebulous, like knowing which week will yield peak autumn color in a specific corner of the Rocky Mountains. Arriving a week early may mean that most trees are still green, whereas a week late may yield too many bare trees after a single wind event blows everything down. Then there’s the persistent drought and fickle weather patterns that may result in a deviation of “normal” timing. In the end, the decision is just a gut feeling based on years of experience.
Happily, we nailed it. Just a few days prior to the start of the tour in early October, a small storm system dusted the peaks with a fresh coat of snow. Below tree line, every corner of every valley was ablaze in a kaleidoscope of color. Aspen groves were in every phase of green, gold and peach while entire hillsides of scrub oak glowed in shades of pale green, burnt orange, deep red and dusty purple. Despite the drought, it was one of the best autumn color years I can recall—and we were in the right place at the right time.
The place for this quintessential autumn color tour is Telluride, Colorado. Nestled in a box canyon in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, this charming, historic mining town serves as a perfect base to launch daily excursions into the surrounding mountains, valleys, and plateaus. The town is remote, so it feels akin to an island, isolated from the outside world while exuding a palpable sense of community and possessing all the resources you need for a week—great restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, a well-stocked grocery store, outdoor shops, and a quintessential creaky-wood-floor hardware store with everything under the sun.
Being a world class tourist destination, Telluride also has plenty on offer for non-photographing partners & spouses, including dozens of independent shops, scenic tours, a golf course, spas, and a free gondola right beside our hotel that provides quick access to panoramic views, hiking trails, and a unique way to commute to Telluride’s Mountain Village—its more contemporary sister town up on the hill.
Back to the photography…
The proliferation of peak color was almost too much of a good thing! There were so many places to be all at once, it made me feel like a puppy trying to chase several tennis balls at the same time. But after I calmed down and collected myself, certain priorities began to emerge. As usual, the overall strategy for this tour is to take the itinerary, put it in the recycling bin, then simply plan day by day in order to follow the best autumn color around the region. This fluid approach is made possible by the fact that most of the shooting locations are relatively close to town, to each other, and interchangeable. Although this constant state of impromptu planning requires an unusual amount of brain work for the leader, the task is made a bit easier with current satellite imagery and other pertinent data found conveniently on the phone in the palm of my hand.
Planning day 1 was the easiest. While scouting a couple days before, it was clear that the autumn color along Red Mountain Pass south of Ouray was already at 100%. So we began the tour there, along the frosty banks of Crystal Lake where you can throw your camera in the air with a 2-second timer and still get beautiful reflections off its glassy surface. In other words, it’s a good place to get your feet wet in the creative process, which felt good after months of the Covid-driven creative drought most of us were emerging from.
Unlike national parks or other popular photo destinations that have predetermined hot spots where you can see tripod holes worn into the ground, the San Juan Mountains is just one big hot spot. Besides Crystal Lake and the roadside circus of Dallas Divide, most of our locations on this tour are unnamed and relatively quiet.
Rather than elbowing your way into getting the same shot everyone else has, this is the type of place where we can simply stop along any forest or ranch road and obtain stunning vistas of aspen groves, open meadows, ranch lands, fence lines and jagged peaks. Yes, we have hot spots of our own that are sometimes shared with others passing by, but many are less obvious and hidden away—hence why you’re not reading a play-by-play list of where we went and when we went there. There just aren’t names for these spots, thankfully.
In addition to the prime autumn color, we were also very fortunate to have a variety of weather conditions that yielded dramatic light and shadow across the rolling landscapes. At times, the clouds were moving so quickly that every frame captured a unique combination of light and shadow. If we were shooting film, we would have run out within the first 2 days!
The close proximity of shooting locations around Telluride translates into more shooting and less driving. It also allows for a more relaxed pace where we can spend more time at any given location, adhering to my general philosophy of quality over quantity. And despite the relatively thin air of altitudes between 7000-10,000’, this is a pretty easy tour, physically. Most locations are drive-up ready, or within a short walk of the van that is regularly stocked with cool drinks and healthy snacks. In addition, the little towns of Ridgway and Ouray provide additional options for delicious meals, civilized pit stops and espresso-related needs. So, if you’re looking for an autumn color tour with dramatic landscapes, convenient, high-quality single-base accommodations, easy, drive-up locations, clean mountain air and really good food, this is it!